On August 5, 2012, Stephen Zunes—professor of politics and international studies and director of the Middle East studies program at the University of San Francisco—made his seventh appearance at the hilltop Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (UUCB) in the northern enclave of Kensington. Zunes is a regular at UUCB, no doubt because his views are in line with the church’s “Social Justice Council,” which, according to their website, “sponsors forums focussing [sic] on social justice topics” in pursuit of the quixotic goal of “working towards a better, more just world.” Accordingly, there were copies of the British-based newspaper Positive News in the vestibule with the headline, “U.N. Calls for Happiness-based Economy.”
The church may call for happiness, but as Zunes’s lecture demonstrated, it willfully ignores terrorists, who have been known to cause quite a bit of unhappiness, not to mention death. His topic was “The United States and Iran” and in keeping with his past talks on the subject, Zunes assured the audience of approximately fifty people that Iran is not a threat. He claimed that Iran’s nuclear weapons would not be ready for another four to five years; that Iran would never strike first with nuclear weapons; that there are no Hezbollah cells in South America and on America’s southern border; and that reports of Iranian-sponsored global terrorism are exaggerated.
He emphasized repeatedly that sanctions and threats are counterproductive because they increase the regime’s repressiveness. Attacking Iran, he claimed, will ignite Persian nationalism and cause dissidents to ally with the regime. Thus assured that no action is needed, the audience was visibly relieved.
The real point of Zunes’s talk, however, was not to encourage inaction, but to condemn the U.S. Congress for its alleged belligerence towards Iran and to encourage the United Nations to create a “Middle East nuclear-free zone.”
Referring to two bills supported in the House of Representatives by large bipartisan majorities, Zunes asserted that, “Congress is really pushing the United States to go to war.” He continued:
It’s a bipartisan calling for war. Never before has Congress forbid negotiations and deterrence. Obama’s threshold is Iran actually starting to build nuclear weapons. Congress lowered the threshold [to] Iran simply having the capability of developing nuclear weapons, which some in Congress say they already have.
In pushing for a “Middle East nuclear-free zone,” Zunes ignored the fact that Israel—surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction—must maintain control of its own defense and could never trust such a zone. He alluded to the U.N. General Assembly’s push for a nuclear-free Middle East, which is simply a means of pressuring Israel to disarm unilaterally. Zunes urged the audience to contact their members of Congress for the same purpose.
Returning to the theme of downplaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Zunes displayed the usual apologist naiveté:
Iran really does have a nuclear program. At this point, however, no evidence suggests the current program is anything but peaceful. Even the U.S. government acknowledges that as far as it can tell it is an exclusively civilian nuclear program.
This fails to acknowledge International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano’s January, 2012 statement that the IAEA, “has credible information that Iran is engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosives.” Just this month, Haaretz reported that the Obama administration received a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report demonstrating that “Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program” and that “the Iranian development of a nuclear weapon is progressing far beyond the scope known to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Zunes, however, assured his audience that, “they are unlikely to have a single deployable nuclear warhead for four or five years. In other words, there’s plenty of time.”
His repeated insistence that Iran’s violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are “no different” than those of other signatories failed to account for Iran’s open hostility toward the Jewish state, its sponsorship of terrorism across the world, or the threats of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to obliterate Israel—a threat he reiterated twice just this month.
Zunes mocked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s concerns that Iran may give small nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, its proxy in South America:
[Hezbollah] will bring them into Latin America and smuggle them over the Mexican border and set them off in an American city—there’s all kinds of crazy scenarios. . . . This is how desperate people are to justify an attack.
In fact, there is ample evidence to support this scenario. Iran and Hezbollah have long had a foothold in South America, and America’s porous southern border provides ample opportunity for Hezbollah to team with Mexican drug cartels and move northward. Ilan Berman has argued that had Iran succeeded in its October, 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. with the assistance of a Mexican drug cartel, it “would potentially have killed scores of U.S. citizens in the nation’s capital in the most significant terrorist event since 9/11.”
Despite decades of Iranian-sponsored global terrorist attacks, Zunes claimed that Iran’s ties to international terrorism are overstated. He would only concede that there are some “pretty sketchy groups that would be willing to attack Americans and their interests worldwide.” “Pretty sketchy groups” is an understatement.
During the question and answer period, a member of the audience asked, “What is the rationale for resolutions against Iran in the American Congress?” to which Zunes responded:
The concern about Iran getting the bomb is not about Israel being nuked, but that Iran will have deterrence so the United States can’t throw its weight around. They aren’t going to bomb Israel.
Zunes’s absolute certainty might be weakened were he on the receiving end of the Iranian regime’s constant threats. He then ranted about xenophobia and “privilege” in the U.S., providing a glimpse into his own personal demons in the process:
There is fear of having our privilege taken from us, that we are no longer exceptional. I come from the South. On my mother’s side were slave owners. They were afraid of the slaves. That’s why that [family] side is so dysfunctional . . . it’s fear of the unwashed masses—they will take our privilege. Fear is useful: Israel burning; images of the Holocaust; terror milked by politicians; internalized Jewish terror of anti-Semitism that is exaggerated for political reasons; the burning; the ovens. Fear is definitely a big piece.
For Zunes and his audience, however, fear was definitely not a factor. Neither, for that matter, was reality. He can rationalize mortal danger all he likes, but it won’t make it go away. There are challenges that even “social justice” can’t solve.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].
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