5 Surprising Ways Iran is better than Israel

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

I think I’m one of the few Americans who has been to both Iran and Israel. I like both countries and have a lot in common with thinkers in both. I love What I know of Tel Aviv’s cafe culture and the searing honesty and high ethics of the Israeli thinkers I have talked to (so different from the strident and almost cult-like cheerleaderism of right wing Jewish Americans on Israel). It is said that Israelis’ favorite philosopher is Spinoza. I approve. Iranian intellectuals are less able to speak their minds in Iran’s unfree media than their Israeli counterparts (though there is a price to too much frankness in Israel, as well), but one on one they are also level-headed and clear-eyed. I suspect Iranians’ favorite philosopher is Rumi. If so, again, I approve. In fact, I think Rumi and Spinoza would have gotten along famously. Unfortunately contemporary Iran and contemporary Israel don’t get along at all politically, which sets the stage for the Washington melodrama planned for March 3, when Israel’s belligerent prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will address Congress in a bid to undermine President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran on their civilian nuclear enrichment program.

Iran and European Jewry were both treated horribly in the 19th and 20th centuries by the major European imperial countries. Obviously, proportionally Jews suffered much more than Iranians did; about a third of Jews were murdered in the Nazi genocide. But Iran also suffered significant loss of human life and property. Tsarist Russia fought two wars with it in the early nineteenth century, and annexed from it substantial territory. Britain and Russia forbade Iran from constructing a railroad in the late 19th century, robbing it of a key tool of economic advance; that probably killed a lot of Iranians if you think about its implications. The British and the Russians opposed the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and helped make sure Iranians did not get liberty and a rule of law. Britain backed the rise of the Pahlevi dictatorship in the 1920s, if it did not in fact simply impose it. The US overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 because it had nationalized the oil industry and imposed the megalomaniacal Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on that country. Ultimately Iranians, outraged at constant interference in their domestic affairs, overthrew the shah and instituted a revolutionary regime based on indigenous Iranian culture, especially religious culture. Although the Jewish response to the European genocide against Jews was not immediately religious (most Zionists were secular), over time religion has come to play a bigger and bigger part in Israeli life. In a sense, Israel and Iran are both reactions against European nationalism and imperialism, though Israel has now allied with the West, whereas Iran continues to oppose many Western policies.

The conflict between Israel and Iran is in part driven by their history with European repression. Israelis, mauled by European “Aryan” nationalism and its mass murder of Jews, do not want an enemy state like Iran to be in a position even to think about constructing a nuclear weapon. Iranians, oppressed by imperialism to the point where they couldn’t have a railroad until the 1920s, are damned if they are going nowadays to let someone else dictate to them how they make electricity.

It is natural that Westerners should find Israel more simpatico than Iran, given the Israeli government’s alliance with the West and Iran’s antipathy. But here are some differences between the two that are in Iran’s favor, which I point out just to balance out the unfair way the two are covered.

1. Iran does not have a nuclear bomb and is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite what is constantly alleged in the Western press and by Western politicians, there is no evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program; and, the theocratic Supreme Leader has forbidden making, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons. In contrast, Israel refused to sign the NPT and has several hundred nuclear warheads, which it constructed stealthily, including through acts of espionage and smuggling in the United States, and against the wishes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. And, its leaders have more than once implied they are ready to use it; then prime minister Ariel Sharon alarmed George W. Bush when he intimated that he’d nuke Baghdad if Saddam tried to send SCUDs tipped with gas on Israel.

2. Iran has not launched an aggressive war since 1775, when Karim Khan Zand sent an army against Omar Pasha in Basra in neighboring Iraq. Though, whether that was a response to Ottoman provocations or actually an aggressive act could be argued. Who started a war is always a matter of interpretation to some extent, but if we define it as firing the first shot, then Israel started wars in 1956, 1967 and 1982. If the principle of proportionality of response is entered into the equation, then you’d have to say 2006, 2009, and 2014 were also predominantly an Israeli decision.

3. Modern Iran has not occupied the territory of its neighbors. Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 in a bloodthirsty act of aggression. Iran fought off Iraq 1980-1988. But after the hostilities ended, Tehran did not try to take and hold Iraqi territory in revenge. The UN Charter of 1945 forbids countries to annex the land of their neighbors through warfare. In contrast, Israel occupies 4 million stateless Palestinians, who are treated as any subjected, colonized population would be. Nor is there any prospect in my lifetime of those Palestinians gaining citizenship in their own state; they are going to live and die humiliated and colonized and often expropriated.

4. All the people ruled over by Iran can vote in national elections and even Iranian Jews have a representative in parliament. In contrast, of the 12 million people ruled by Israel, 4 million of them have no vote in Israeli politics, which is the politics that actually rules them.

5. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is not trying to undermine the Obama administration’s negotiations with his country, aimed at making sure Iran can have nuclear electricity plants but that it cannot develop a weapon.

Iran’s government is not one I agree with on almost anything, and it is dictatorial and puritanical. I wish Iranians would get past it and join the world’s democracies. Israel is better than Iran in most regards– for Israeli citizens it has more of a rule of law and more personal liberties. But just to be fair, there are some ways Iran’s policies are better than Israel’s.

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44 Responses

  1. In today’s intellectual atmosphere, so polluted with mis- and dis-information, informed comment can seem simply brilliant.

  2. Juan—I learn a lot from your blog. Could you explain what you meant by your statement “Obviously, proportionally Jews suffered much more than Iranians did; about a third of Jews were murdered in the Nazi genocide.”? Is the 1/3 mean out of the total number of Jews worldwide? Or does it suggest that 2/3 of European Jews survived. You turn out a lot of material, so this is not exactly a criticism, but your meaning is not clear. Thanks for considering this.

  3. I understand what you mean, when you describe Israel as a reaction “against European nationalism and imperialism,” but I would say, instead, that is is an expression OF 19th century European ideas regarding nationalism, race, and colonialism.

    • Zionism did indeed reflect 19th century nationalism in a lot of respects, but it was also a response to one aspect of it, namely the pseudo-scientific racial theorizing which rejected any notion of Jewish assimilation. Too bad that Revisionist Zionism–of which Bibi’s Likud is the latest incarnation–has virtually mirror-imaged that very same racism which emerged in Central and Eastern Europe a century and a half ago.

    • Israel was founded by religious extremists, Zionists. Judaism is a religion and Zionism is an offshoot of Judaism. Religions do not make a race, people or nation. If you drop a religion, convert to another you do not change race or nationality. Zionism has re-interpreted religious metaphor to create the concept of a Jewish race in order to ‘justify’ the colonisation of Palestine because they knew, as everyone does, that religions do not get homelands but ‘races’ or ‘peoples’ can. However, Judaism is no more a race or a people than any other religion and like most, comprises all races and hundreds of nationalities. In other words, the entire Zionist concept for creating a homeland was based on a lie. A lie for which the Palestinians are still paying in blood.

  4. Well written. A huge disparity between the way we treat Israel and Iran is that Boehner would never ask an Iranian leader to address the US congress. There is little question that Netanyahu and his supporters only pretend to be our allys.

    Hopefully there will be organized and unorganized demonstrations in the streets of D.C. against the speech. If so, I think Obama will be smiling from the oval office.

  5. >Tehran did not try to take and hold Iraqi territory in revenge.

    Didnt iran counter attack and seize parts of southern iraq.

    • During the course of the war both countries conducted offensives against the opposing armies and seized territory beyond their original borders, but when the war was settled the original border was ultimately restored. This is obviously what Prof. Cole meant.

    • Iran did occupy small parts of southern Iraq at the final stages of the war but relinquished all occupied territories immediately after cessation of hostilities. How about Israel ? Do I need to answer this question?

    • “>Tehran did not try to take and hold Iraqi territory in revenge.

      Didn’t iran counter attack and seize parts of southern iraq”

      Was that a deliberate or mistaken statement on your part? You omit the first part of the quote. Mr. Cole says “But after the hostilities ended, Tehran did not try to take and hold Iraqi territory in revenge”. That is inarguable. But by omitting the first part of the quote you make it look like Mr. Cole was saying something incorrect.

      Yes, Iran counter-attacked and seized some small parts of Iraq, but no, they did not try to hold on to those areas, post-conflict.

      Not that Iran has been a model of adherence to international norms, of course. The last 35 years are a consequence of their seizure of the American embassy and their personnel.

    • Not after the peace treaty. Not even a square inch.
      And before that, that was the only way we could bargain to free our invaded lands.

  6. When are the alleged liberals like Rachel Maddow, Ed, Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes etc going to have you on their programs? Did the fact that the Bush administration came after you for your stance against the invasion (before the invasion) intimidate these talking heads? Why not have you on? At least Melissa Harris Perry has made a breakthrough by having Hillary Mann Leverett on I think at least four times since this summer to discuss the situation with Iran and other middle east issues.

  7. I would love to visit Iran, except the Israeli stamps in my passport prevent me from getting inside. I have a second American passport, but even then it’s not simple for Americans to enter the country. I hope that reality changes soon.

    • To get Iran Visa is not difficult, just the process is very lengthy.

      You have to have a ground tour operator in Iran & here in the US also. They have to make an itinerary of the places that you will be visiting in Iran. He will initiate visa process in Tehran at the ministry of foreign affairs. Ministry takes about six to eight weeks. The ministry issues visa number for you with your American passport number, the one you will be using for travel.

      Once the Visa number is issued, I got the Visa for my clients same day the Iranian interest section received passports, (with urgent fee) at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC.

      (In Tehran Swiss Embassy has US interest section for Iranians to get visa)

      Once you are in Iran, you cannot deviate from your itinerary. Your guide has to be with you all the time.

      Iranians love Americans to show their hospitality. They welcome Americans with open arms, smiles & heart. (Do not listen to the negative propaganda) Once you have visited Iran many falls myths disappear.

  8. Your paragraph about the start of the many wars is entirely accurate; I question your definition and intent when you write, “if you define it as who fired the first shot”. Israel did fire such and was the “aggressor”. It is disingenuous because attack on multiple fronts by superior forces was imminent; Israel fragmented enemy plans and, in most cases, did neutralize/delay some countries, particularly Syria.
    The freedom of discourse in Israel is unmatched; that alone cancels many other points. There is extremism, as silly and offensive as extremism anywhere. A Key, very important, impossible to ignore point is that many Arab countries deny the right of Israel to exist. Moreover, it does exist; follow this to “it must be wiped out”.
    Iran is not full of howling maniacs, many Iranians are extremely civilized, many civilized Iranians are exiles; they have their own problems as to race (Persian/Arab) and of course, in terms of extremism elsewhere, Caucasian is Iranian. We (USA) have a lot of responsibility for the Shah; the “revolution” and whatever extremism resulted. Go apologize and fix.

    • No country has a “right to exist.”

      It is generally agreed that individual humans have a “right to exist,” but that does NOT extend to whatever groupings they choose to form at any particular point in time.

      Political boundaries (AKA countries) simply exist until they do not. Over the last 10000 years thousands of political entities have come and gone. The current 200 or so “countries” are just convenient lines drawn on maps, often by distant empires and are subject to change all the time.

      Israel has no more “right to exist” than any other country on earth. Does the USA have a “right to exist?” NO. Israel and the USA will simply exist until some day they are replaced by different lines drawn on the land.

      Note also that the rhetoric about “wipe them out” is NOT about killing all Jews on earth nor even just the Jews in Palestine but actually applies to removing invaders from their land.

      Many Arabs view Israel as just another European crusader invasion , but with Jews this time instead of Christians. This situation started with an invasion, not as a religious war.

      BTW – human behavior over the last 10000 years shows that you either learn to get along with your neighbors or they eventually remove the irritant. If Israel does not learn to get along with their neighbors, they will be removed. Nothing to do with religion, just basic bad neighbor removal.

      • No disagreement. Does another country or coalition of countries has the right to “deny” that right of existence (temporary as it may be). Back pedal to 1948 and what/who. Look, it is Israel that ascertained their right and fought… If others deny it, they will, Israel, I hope, will keep ascertaining it. Will it be “eternal”, even long? Silly. Will they fight, defend? I hope so. I admire them.

        • Regarding the point that you bring out about Arab countries not recognizing the right of Israel to exist, I would like to remind you that there is an Arab Initiative on the table ( at least from the Arab side, since Israel has so far rejected it). This initiative includes a recognition of Israel by all Arab countries upon the establishment of the Palwstinian state on the 1967 borders. But Israel simply does not want peace ( at least not at this time). They believe that as long as they have the unconditional backing of the US ( it is more like Israeli control of US middle eastern policy rather than US backing), then they are untouchable. Eventually, sooner or later, the balance of power will change and it might be too late then for the Israelis to sue for peace at the 1967 terms. You might very well be an admirer of the Israelis, but the question is: are you also an admirer of their treatment of the Palestinians?

        • Look, it is Israel that ascertained their right and fought

          ISIS ascertained their right and fought. Do you agree they too have ascertained their right to whatever they conquer?

  9. What about Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, undermining the rule of law in Lebanon, getting in the way of electing a Lebanese president, and sending combatants to the Lebanese border with Syria and into Syria under the pretext of fighting off Daesh attempts at invading Lebanese territory? Isn’t all this aided, financed, and abetted by the Iranian regime? that said, I appreciate very much your well reasoned attempt at even-handedness.

    • If you actually look at the political “law” in Lebanon, you will discover that the French empire, like the British empire, heavily skewed the rules to allow the Christian minority more power than the Muslim majority. In a fair distribution of power, the Muslims would control Lebanon. Even under the current skewed power structure, Hezbollah is actually a significant part of the government.

      If the USA had not been extremely biased against majority Muslim rule, it would have supported Hezbollah instead of Iran providing the support.

      Although the USA talks a great deal about “majority rule,” it has consistently supported “minority rule,” often by brutal means, by the governments put in place by the previous empires. That is, the USA has just the old empires of the British, French, Spanish, etc. with a newer USA empire.

      The USA should not be picking “winners” but should let the locals sort out their power structures and then work with whoever ends up being the leader. The USA does not like the power structure of China, but due to the size and power of China the USA is forced to deal with the Chinese government. The USA should do the same for every other country on earth.

      The bottom line is Iran is meddling in Lebanon a whole lot less than the USA has meddled in both Lebanon and the rest of the world.

    • To add to spyguy’s comments, the neocon-backed Hariri regime was accused of being a front for Saudi Arabia, which poured money to the Hariris & the Sunni business elite they represented (a small % of the country) to turn Lebanon into a corporate whorehouse at the expense of the mostly-Shia poor. Yes, Hariri was a neocon and a neoliberal at the same time, the worst of all worlds combo of Saudi bigotry and Wall Street dogma.

      After Hezbollah forcefully reminded everyone that the Shia have the numbers, Saudi Arabia began fomenting radical anti-Shia hatred and backing jihadis who were co-opting pro-democracy uprisings thruout the Arab world.

      Saudi Arabia is at war with Shiites and the poor. You can’t fight this awesome oligarchic tyranny by Marquis of Queensbury rules. And Hezbollah is a far saner and less corrupt regime than what is now being imposed on the Arab world by rich oil sheikhs. I only wish Hezbollah had ruled Syria instead of Assad Jr. and his idiot army; they would have bargained with the disaffected Sunnis instead of attempting extermination and we wouldn’t face a potential pan-regional war.

  10. I meant to add that the USA aided ad abetted the Hussein side of the Iraq/Iran war. Please add this to the apologize and fix.

  11. Well put…pretty good assessment ..however Israel is far and wide freeer as far as gay rights ..freedom of speech ..and political action…also you are deluding yourself on irans desire for nuclear bombs…

    • The Israeli trend line doesn’t look good. If you build any state on a religious test, the religious will demand more and more – meaning the secular will be able to vote and speak less and less.

      • The State of Israel is one of the few democracies in the world with NO constitution.

        There is a reason for this.

        At the time of its creation, religious parties within Israel wanted the new country to have an expressly religious foundation, however secular Israelis opposed this – so no constitution has ever been adopted – and essential governmental institutions, such as the Israeli Supreme Court, exist at the pleasure of the Knesset.

        The “Basic Law” passed by the Knesset early in Israel’s history established the organization and operation of the Israeli governmental structure and exists to this day.

        • Israel may have no written constitution but neither does England and it has gone along happily without one for well over a thousand years.

        • The main reason Israel did not implement a constitution is because of its expansionist aspirations and its aims of religious exclusivity/purity. A constitution would have necessitated delineation of borders, which Israel was not prepared to do because they planned all along to capture more territory from the indigenous population. A constitution enshrining democracy would have also required language comparable to contemporary democracies, which legally committed to equality under the law. This philosophy is fundamentally antithetical to Israel’s foundation, which is based on privileging Jews, legally, socially, economically and existentially. Granting equal rights to the non-Jewish natives of the land would have severely limited their ability to ethnically cleanse the land of non-Jews, which has been an ongoing campaign since the establishment of Israel, which immediately expelled approximately 80% of the indigenous inhabitants.

          Israel is an apartheid state. Apartheid South Africa always claimed to be the only real democracy in their part of the world, too.

        • Jane: England plundered the resources of their colonies, now Israeli empire is on the same path to loot everything from its colony & prison, west bank & Gaza strip. No constitution, no restrain on looting.

          I may add, the countries those spread democracy by the barrel of guns & Bombs, keeping their mouth shut on Israeli crimes.

        • Israel is an apartheid State and therefore cannot be a democracy. Israel is an occupier and coloniser and therefore cannot be a democracy.

  12. Iran lost almost half of its population of some 15 million in the years between 1916 and 1919 to famine and disease because of plundering of its resources by the occupying British and Russian forces. During the WWI Iran was an officially declared neutral country. Watch
    link to youtube.com

  13. Would anyone care to speculate on what Iran might have become if Mossadeq had not been overthrown by the Anglo-American coup in 1953? Less theocratic and more democratic seem to be reasonable possibilities.

  14. As well as refusing to sign the NPT, Israel is also one of the handful of countries who have not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. Unlike Iran or even Syria.

    • It was a U.S. scientist, Edward Teller, who had close contacts with Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion, and advised Israeli leaders NEVER to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

      PM Ben-Gurion believed Israel’s survival depended upon its possession of an atomic arsenal and was very impressed with the fact that the Manhattan Project had been heavily staffed by Jewish nuclear physicists.

      It was Teller who warned CIA official Carl Duckett in the 1960s that Israel was developing and on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon.

  15. Iran signed and ratified Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty…the OPCW. Israel has signed but not ratified.

  16. Prof. Cole: I have been following your writings for as long as I’ve had internet access because I spent 10 years as a university professor teaching students most of whom were Palestinians . Your latest post is, of course, edifying but your reference to Spinoza really grabbed me. I stumbled upon him in my teens and read him with relish.

  17. 20% of Israel’s citizens are nonJewish – Palestinians left in Israel proper after the 1948 Nakhba. They are treated as second class. This extensive discrimination has been affirmed by major US Jewish organizations as government policy – in housing, education, health care, jobs, where one is allowed to live. In addition some of the Jewish extremists in the government and elsewhere keep calling for expulsion of Palestinians, certainly an ongoing and real threat. So while the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank are treated miserably as Juan says, within Israel proper there is also Apartheid, or Jim Crow, at work.

  18. It is true that all citizens of Iran can vote but for some reason he omits the fact that it’s minorities fare far more badly than those in Israel. Granted, there are certain disablilities to any minority, but they have redress to the court system, and often enough what is percieved as an inequality, is redressed.

    In Iran there is an Arab speaking minority that is, however treated very badly, and a while ago, an Arab-Iranian poet, an activist in that country for positive bilateral community relationships was charged with sedition and sentenced to death. As well, perceived violations on Islam are punished by imprisonment, and in some cases by death. Then too, it ain’t easy to be a Bahai, or a Christian in that country either.

    The bottom line is whatever their nuclear policy is, their treatment of the “other” as it pertains to those who are not Moslem, or Iranian is severely lacking. Israel, may not be perfect, but it is far more liberal and accepting of “others” than Iran, and, indeed, in some ways more liberal than in some localities in the States, considering the militarization of some police forces that seems to be the trend in many places.

    • So, for those who vote for the lesser evil they can practice on Israel and Iran as a warm up for the 2016 election in the United States.

  19. I find this article very patronizing. For example, this description of Iranian intellectuals:
    “…but one on one they are also level-headed and clear-eyed.” There is something very paternalistic and arrogant in that statement, even as a stand-alone; but particularly juxtaposed to “the searing honesty and high ethics of the Israeli thinkers [hanging out in Tel Aviv’s cafes].”

    More importantly, the whole “better-than” approach to the subject is too simplistic and a bit sophomoric, which surprises me because I usually find more nuance and thought in Juan Cole’s pieces.

    Further, the two countries are not comparable. Iranian society is ancient, complex, and developed organically over thousands of years. Israel is an ongoing neo-colonial project less than 70 years old that was formed artificially by the UN to atone for western sins at the miserable expense of the Palestinians, who are the indigenous people of that land. Of course Iran has social problems, as all nations do, and some of them are profound. But the oversimplification of that nation into these infantile bullet points, which seem to somehow come with a disclaimer or qualifier of relativism to Israel, is intellectually lethargic.

    Forget about Israel for a moment, Iran has highest female to male student ratio in the world among sovereign nations. Approximately 70% of Iran’s university students and 43% of its salaried workers were women. As early as 2007, 70% of Iran’s science and engineering students are women, which far exceeds that of the United States. Government ministers are 27% female, as are 60% of Iran’s judges. Just because countries are not aligned with the west does not put them in the backward categories that necessitate the kind of stooping but-they-do-have-some-good-points essays.

  20. The disappointing thing is that you continue to abide by Zionist propaganda by talking about Jews, a religion, and Iranians, a nationality. Most Jews do not live in Israel, never did and never will and Israel does not represent Judaism or Jews despite its claims. More to the point, what happened to some followers of Judaism at the hands of the Germans, along with many others discriminated against on the basis of sexuality, race, should not be used to ‘justify’ Israel’s ongoing occupation, colonisation and apartheid in Palestine. Every single time the Jewish experience of holocaust is brought up it blurs the picture of today’s reality which has Israeli war crimes and human rights atrocities equalling anything done by the Nazis. To wave the ‘holocaust’ flag does a disservice to Palestinians and all those who fight for justice.
    It is also worth remembering that far more died because of their race or nationality during the Second World War, than died because of their religion, as did some Jews – many if not most lived safely around the world – and anyone who continues to bring up something which happened nearly 70 years ago is being an apologist for Israeli atrocities today.

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