MESOP TODAYS COMMENTARY BY : Matthias Kuentzel on Germany, Iran & the Bomb

April 26, 2015, – In the last post, I mentioned Matthias Kuentzel’s Germany and Iran: From the Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold. It should be of interest to anyone interested Germany’s role in the Iran nuclear issue. The book was published in Germany in 2009 and in the United States in 2014. The American edition, published in 2014, includes an epilogue that deals with the nuclear negotiations up to 2013. Kuentzel is also the author of Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Nazism, Islamism and the Roots of 9/11, which was published in Germany in 2002 and in the United States in 2007. That work remains an important contribution to tracing the ideological lineages from Nazism, through Islamism to the Islamist terror of recent years.

In 2007, I was invited to speak at the 35th Annual Römerberg Conversations in Frankfurt/Main. The annual event brings scholars and intellectuals together to address events of the day. The title of my remarks was “What does coming to terms with the past in the Berlin Republic mean in 2007?” I evoked Theodor Adorno, the renowned theorist of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He who wrote that the most important answer to that famous question and to the meaning of what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung was to prevent another mass murder of the Jews. My guess is that if Adorno were alive today, he might very well have found Kuentzel’s writings of recent years about Islamism and now about the Islamic Republic of Iran to be very much in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewälktigung, that is, politically consequential coming to terms with the crimes of the Nazi past which has clear political and moral implications for our own time.

In Germany and Iran Kuentzel is one of those German intellectuals who do what they can to see that the worst does not happen. He argues that for the last century there has been a special relationship between Germany and Iran from the Kaiser Reich during World War I through the “Aryan Axis” under the Nazis in World War II and then to the economic and political ties under the Shah during the Cold War. These connections continued in attenuated form after 1979 when Ruhollah Khomenei seized the 1979 revolution and installed an Islamic Republic in Tehran. Kuentzel is one of those German intellectuals of the post-Hitler era, from Karl Bracher in the 1960s and 1970s to Richard Herzinger in recent years, who take the ideas of extremists very seriously. They look into the heart of darkness that was the Nazi regime and conclude that murderous threats to the Jews can happen again elsewhere in different cultural contexts. Today, Herzinger and others, write against the current of our era of euphemism regarding Islamism and Islamist Iran that finds advocates in Washington but also in Berlin.

Kuentzel reminds us that the young Ruhollah Khomenei found inspiration from Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and from the Brotherhood’s leading ideologue Sayyid Qutb. One of al-Banna’s contributions to world culture was the statement “You love life and we [in the Muslim Brotherhood] love death!” Kuentzel recalls a Khomenei speech of 1963. “Why,” Khomenei asked, “does SAVAK [the Shah’s political police] say that we shall not speak of the Shah and Israel? Does SAVAK mean that the Shah is an Israeli? Does SAVAK consider the Shah to be a Jew? Shall I declare you, Mr. Shah, to be a heathen so that you are chased out of this country?”

His discussion of The Islamic State, a collection of lectures Khomenei delivered in 1970, documents the Supreme Leader’s vicious hatred of the Jews and of Israel, hatreds that were part of his opposition to the Shah. As was the case with Islamists such as Haj Amin al-Husseini and Sayyid Qutb before him, Khomenei believed that hatred of the Jews was well founded in the Koran. The Islamic State, a widely read text after 1979 in Iran, was “full of anti-semitic invective.” He wrote that “it is the Jews who were the first to begin with anti-Islamic propaganda and ideological conspiracies. And that continues, as you see, to the present day…the Jews and their foreign accomplices are fundamentally hostile to Islam.”

Kuentzel reminds us of the wishful thinking and neglect of ideological motivation in the US government in the early days of the Iranian revolution. It is recalled by Michael Ledeen and William Lewis in Debacle, their account of American policy towards Iran. Because the era of euphemism is very much with us, it is worth quoting Ledeen and Lewis:

   There was considerable consternation and disgruntlement in the State Department and the CIA when three American newspapers published extensive accounts of Khomeini’s writings. The articles showed that Khomeini’s books revealed him as a violently anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic individual, who offered an unattractive alternative to the Shah. Yet as late as the first week in February 1979, when Khomeini was returning in triumph to Tehran, Henry Precht [the head of the State Department’s Iran desk] told an audience of some two hundred persons at the State Department ‘open forum’ meeting that the newspaper accounts were severely misleading, and he went so far as to accuse Washington Post editorial columnist Stephen Rosenfeld of wittingly disseminating excerpts from a book that Precht considered at best a collection of notes taken by students, and at worst a forgery. Precht was hardly an isolated case, for the conviction was widespread that Khomeini’s books were either false, exaggerated, or misunderstood.” Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle (New York., 1980), pp. 129-30.

Kuentzel writes: “Thus the State Department and the CIA defended their false picture of Khomeini against all intrusion of reality. Remarkably, somewhat later, the CIA asked Rosenfeld if he could lend the agency the edition of the book he had cited, since it did not have its own copy.”

Yet Kuentzel’s focus is far more on German than American misunderstanding of the nature of the Islamic Republic. After thirty years of the Islamic Republic, there is no excuse for repeating the blunders of our State Department and CIA in 1979. Yet, Kuentzel quotes prominent German national security analysts seeking to allay fears about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. In April 2007, Udo Steinbach, former director of the German Oriental Institute said “If Iran in the foreseeable future were to have nuclear weapons, it is not ipso facto therefore a threat.” In 2008, Volker Pertes, the director of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, an influential national security think tank, wrote that “an Iranian nuclear bomb…would not be an ‘Islamic bomb,’ but an instrument for the defense of the Islamic Republic’s national interests.” Kuentzel’s view of the equanimity of these German analysts recalls aspects of Michael Doron’s previously discussed analysis of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement. In the German discussion, respected figures in the foreign policy establishment have made the case publicly for a policy of containment and deterrence of Iran once it has the bomb.

Kuentzel concludes that a policy that “seeks to integrate Iran into a strategic partnership is flawed for several reasons.” He finds it “naïve, because it ignores the hostile foreign policy interests of Shiite Islamism. It is unrealistic, because religious totalitarianism cannot be harnessed for secular ends. It is arrogant” because it “assumes that Iranians are neither ready nor capable of living in freedom and democracy. It is morally untenable, because it shamefully betrays the Western world’s most threatened country—Israel.” [Emphasis added.]Germany and Iran is a book that deserves a wide readership among all of those engaged in the discussion about Iran and the bomb.