So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad?

June 11, 2008

* It is unpleasant to accept the fact that many people are evil, and entire cultures, even the finest, can fall prey to evil leaders
* Much of contemporary western culture is deeply committed to a belief in the goodness of all mankind ... despite all the evidence to the contrary
* But it’s not too late to change things if western leaders wise up

 

CONTENTS

1. So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad?
2. “Why did the west fail to see the coming of the catastrophe?”
3. “The notion of a productive meeting with Iranian leaders is fantasy”
4. Obama “fibbing about his Iran record”
5. The poor Kurds
6. Russia’s Gazprom “to invest $200m in Iran-Armenia Pipeline”
7. Ahmadinejad “will disappear before Israel does”
8. “People vs. Dinosaurs” (By Thomas Friedman, NY Times, June 8, 2008)
9. “Iran and the problem of evil” (By Michael Ledeen, WSJ, June 7, 2008)
10. “Talking Iran” (By Jonathan Schanzer, Weekly Standard, June 5, 2008)


[Note by Tom Gross]

This dispatch contains three new articles concerning Iran. There are summaries first for those who don’t have time to read them in full. After the summaries and before the “full articles” section, I also attach four other short items I have written about Iran.

 

SO WHO WOULD YOU PUT YOUR MONEY ON? BUFFETT OR AHMADINEJAD?

In the first article below, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, takes up some of the same themes I made in my “Israel at 60” opinion piece in The National Review last month (which was also reprinted in The New York Post to coincide with President Bush’s arrival in Israel on May 13). Friedman writes:

Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”

By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

... Buffett just brushed off [Hizbullah and Iran’s threats] with a wave... He said, “I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.”

... In the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with 7 million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.

... So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

***

Tom Gross adds: This is a rare example of Friedman writing a positive article about Israel without feeling the need to “balance” it by throwing in some negative comments about Israel into the same column.

For previous notes about Israeli investments by Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, please see past dispatches on this list.

You may also wish to reread the spoof dispatch of May 27, 2004, titled: “Write your own Thomas Friedman column!”

 

“WHY DID THE WEST FAIL TO SEE THE COMING OF THE CATASTROPHE?”

In the second article below, Iran expert Michael Ledeen, writing in The Wall Street Journal, warns:

Ever since World War II, we have been driven by a passionate desire to understand how mass genocide, terror states and global war came about – and how we can prevent them in the future.

Above all, we have sought answers to several basic questions: Why did the West fail to see the coming of the catastrophe? Why were there so few efforts to thwart the fascist tide, and why did virtually all Western leaders, and so many Western intellectuals, treat the fascists as if they were normal political leaders, instead of the virulent revolutionaries they really were? Why did the main designated victims – the Jews – similarly fail to recognize the magnitude of their impending doom? Why was resistance so rare?

... The failure to understand what was happening took a well-known form: a systematic refusal to view our enemies plain. Hitler’s rants, whether in “Mein Kampf” or at Nazi Party rallies, were often downplayed as “politics,” a way of maintaining popular support.

... Some scholars broadened the analysis to include other evil regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia, which also systematically murdered millions of people and whose ambitions similarly threatened the West. Just as with fascism, most contemporaries found it nearly impossible to believe that the Gulag Archipelago was what it was. And just as with fascism, we studied it so that the next time we would see evil early enough to prevent it from threatening us again.

By now, there is very little we do not know about such regimes, and such movements.

... Yet they are with us again, and we are acting as we did in the last century.

... No doubt there are many reasons. One is the deep-seated belief that all people are basically the same, and all are basically good. Most human history, above all the history of the last century, points in the opposite direction. But it is unpleasant to accept the fact that many people are evil, and entire cultures, even the finest, can fall prey to evil leaders and march in lockstep to their commands. Much of contemporary Western culture is deeply committed to a belief in the goodness of all mankind; we are reluctant to abandon that reassuring article of faith. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we prefer to pursue the path of reasonableness, even with enemies whose thoroughly unreasonable fanaticism is manifest...

 

“THE NOTION OF A PRODUCTIVE MEETING WITH IRANIAN LEADERS IS FANTASY”

The third and final article is by Jonathan Schanzer (who is also a subscriber to this email list). Writing on the Weekly Standard Online, he says:

... The notion of a productive meeting with Iranian leaders is fantasy. However, the debate is important because it reveals how the proponents of engagement fail to understand the realities in Iran.

Among those who advocate engagement with Iran, the prevailing argument is that a meeting with Iran would not necessarily have to include Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs [and a senior advisor to Barack Obama], insists that a meeting should take place with “the appropriate Iranian leaders.” She suggests that Ahmadinejad may be “long gone” before such a meeting ever takes place.

This assumes that Ahmadinejad is the primary problem, and ignores the fact that the last four presidents of Iran have supported the revolutionary goals of the Islamic Republic...

... Susan Rice and others who advocate negotiations with Iran ignore the immutable fact that Iranian presidents are chosen by the Iranian political system because of their anti-Western principles...

 

OBAMA “FIBBING ABOUT HIS IRAN RECORD”

Several commentators have pointed out that last week, speaking to the pro-Israel AIPAC conference, Senator Barack Obama “tried to run from his own Iran policy.”

In September 2007, a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate led to the passing of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. At the time, Obama vehemently opposed this effort and attacked Hillary Clinton and others for supporting it.

Last week before AIPAC, Obama claimed that he always thought the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. In fact he was at the forefront of working against the bipartisan effort to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards last year.

 

THE POOR KURDS

The Kurds have been some of the most reliable friends and allies of the United States, so this news is unwelcome:

Iran, Turkey coordinate Iraq Strikes
The Associated Press
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 10:28 AM

ANKARA, Turkey -- A Turkish TV station is quoting a senior military commander as saying that Turkey and Iran have carried out coordinated strikes against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. CNN-Turk television reports that Gen. Ilker Basbug has confirmed for the first time that the two countries share intelligence against the rebels. He said the two countries plan to launch more coordinated operations against the rebel group in the future.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been fighting for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984 from bases in northern Iraq. The Iranian army frequently shells villages in the mountains of northern Iraq, where it alleges that rebels from PEJAK, or the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, are based.

 

RUSSIA’S GAZPROM “TO INVEST $200M IN IRAN-ARMENIA PIPELINE”

Armenia’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Armen Movsisyan, said that by the end of next year, the Russian gas giant Gazprom will invest more than 200 million U.S. dollars in the construction of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline, reports the official Iranian Fars news agency.

Gazprom is under the de facto control of the Russian government, which has been criticized for preventing western efforts to try and halt Iran’s nuclear program. Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials have reportedly personally seized billions of dollars of Gazprom’s assets for their own private use.

 

AHMADINEJAD “WILL DISAPPEAR BEFORE ISRAEL DOES”

Israeli officials have denied a senior minister’s threat last week to strike Iran if it does not halt its nuclear drive, accusing him of using the issue for domestic political ends.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai slammed what he called Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz’s “cynical use of central strategic issues for internal political reasons” in an interview with Israel radio.

Mofaz, the infrastructure minister and a senior member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party, told the popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper that “if Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it.... Other options are disappearing. The sanctions are not effective. There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the Iranian nuclear program.”

Asked for a response to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel should be “erased from the map,” Mofaz said Ahmadinejad “will disappear before Israel does.”

He stressed such an operation could only be conducted with U.S. support. His remarks are the most explicit threat yet against Iran from a member of the Israeli government.

A former defense minister and army chief, Mofaz hopes to replace embattled Ehud Olmert as prime minister and at the helm of the ruling Kadima party.

-- Tom Gross


FULL ARTICLES

“I’M NOT INTERESTED IN THE NEXT QUARTER. I’M INTERESTED IN THE NEXT 20 YEARS.”

People vs. Dinosaurs
By Thomas Friedman
The New York Times
June 8, 2008

Tefen Industrial Park, Israel:

Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”

By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran’s holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a monthlong war. I asked Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett’s reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.

Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.’” Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your “employees” are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it’s in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.

The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.

The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture – in Czech – from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”

That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with 7 million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.

Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., told me: “In the last eight months, we have had delegations from I.B.M., General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R & D centers in Israel.”

Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was – to put it in American baseball terms – born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state – with more than 10 percent unemployment.

Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people – one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.

Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.

Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.

So who will be here in 20 years? I’m with Buffett: I’ll bet on the people who bet on their people – not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.

 

MUCH OF CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE IS DEEPLY COMMITTED TO A BELIEF IN THE GOODNESS OF ALL MANKIND ... DESPITE ALL THE EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY

Iran and the Problem of Evil
By Michael Ledeen
The Wall Street Journal
June 7, 2008

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121279291616353311.html?mod=djemEditorialPage

Ever since World War II, we have been driven by a passionate desire to understand how mass genocide, terror states and global war came about – and how we can prevent them in the future.

Above all, we have sought answers to several basic questions: Why did the West fail to see the coming of the catastrophe? Why were there so few efforts to thwart the fascist tide, and why did virtually all Western leaders, and so many Western intellectuals, treat the fascists as if they were normal political leaders, instead of the virulent revolutionaries they really were? Why did the main designated victims – the Jews – similarly fail to recognize the magnitude of their impending doom? Why was resistance so rare?

Most eventually accepted a twofold “explanation”: the uniqueness of the evil, and the lack of historical precedent for it. Italy and Germany were two of the most civilized and cultured nations in the world. It was difficult to appreciate that a great evil had become paramount in the countries that had produced Kant, Beethoven, Dante and Rossini.

How could Western leaders, let alone the victims, be blamed for failing to see something that was almost totally new – systematic mass murder on a vast scale, and a threat to civilization itself? Never before had there been such an organized campaign to destroy an entire “race,” and it was therefore almost impossible to see it coming, or even to recognize it as it got under way.

The failure to understand what was happening took a well-known form: a systematic refusal to view our enemies plain. Hitler’s rants, whether in “Mein Kampf” or at Nazi Party rallies, were often downplayed as “politics,” a way of maintaining popular support. They were rarely taken seriously as solemn promises he fully intended to fulfill. Mussolini’s call for the creation of a new Italian Empire, and his later alliance with Hitler, were often downplayed as mere bluster, or even excused on the grounds that, since other European countries had overseas territories, why not Italy?

Some scholars broadened the analysis to include other evil regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia, which also systematically murdered millions of people and whose ambitions similarly threatened the West. Just as with fascism, most contemporaries found it nearly impossible to believe that the Gulag Archipelago was what it was. And just as with fascism, we studied it so that the next time we would see evil early enough to prevent it from threatening us again.

By now, there is very little we do not know about such regimes, and such movements. Some of our greatest scholars have described them, analyzed the reasons for their success, and chronicled the wars we fought to defeat them. Our understanding is considerable, as is the honesty and intensity of our desire that such things must be prevented.

Yet they are with us again, and we are acting as we did in the last century. The world is simmering in the familiar rhetoric and actions of movements and regimes – from Hezbollah and al Qaeda to the Iranian Khomeinists and the Saudi Wahhabis – who swear to destroy us and others like us. Like their 20th-century predecessors, they openly proclaim their intentions, and carry them out whenever and wherever they can. Like our own 20th-century predecessors, we rarely take them seriously or act accordingly. More often than not, we downplay the consequences of their words, as if they were some Islamic or Arab version of “politics,” intended for internal consumption, and designed to accomplish domestic objectives.

Clearly, the explanations we gave for our failure to act in the last century were wrong. The rise of messianic mass movements is not new, and there is very little we do not know about them. Nor is there any excuse for us to be surprised at the success of evil leaders, even in countries with long histories and great cultural and political accomplishments. We know all about that. So we need to ask the old questions again. Why are we failing to see the mounting power of evil enemies? Why do we treat them as if they were normal political phenomena, as Western leaders do when they embrace negotiations as the best course of action?

No doubt there are many reasons. One is the deep-seated belief that all people are basically the same, and all are basically good. Most human history, above all the history of the last century, points in the opposite direction. But it is unpleasant to accept the fact that many people are evil, and entire cultures, even the finest, can fall prey to evil leaders and march in lockstep to their commands. Much of contemporary Western culture is deeply committed to a belief in the goodness of all mankind; we are reluctant to abandon that reassuring article of faith. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we prefer to pursue the path of reasonableness, even with enemies whose thoroughly unreasonable fanaticism is manifest.

This is not merely a philosophical issue, for to accept the threat to us means – short of a policy of national suicide – acting against it. As it did in the 20th century, it means war. It means that, temporarily at least, we have to make sacrifices on many fronts: in the comforts of our lives, indeed in lives lost, in the domestic focus of our passions – careers derailed and personal freedoms subjected to unpleasant and even dangerous restrictions – and the diversion of wealth from self-satisfaction to the instruments of power. All of this is painful; even the contemplation of it hurts.

Then there is anti-Semitism. Old Jew-hating texts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” now in Farsi and Arabic, are proliferating throughout the Middle East. Calls for the destruction of the Jews appear regularly on Iranian, Egyptian, Saudi and Syrian television and are heard in European and American mosques. There is little if any condemnation from the West, and virtually no action against it, suggesting, at a minimum, a familiar Western indifference to the fate of the Jews.

Finally, there is the nature of our political system. None of the democracies adequately prepared for war before it was unleashed on them in the 1940s. None was prepared for the terror assault of the 21st century. The nature of Western politics makes it very difficult for national leaders – even those rare men and women who see what is happening and want to act – to take timely, prudent measures before war is upon them. Leaders like Winston Churchill are relegated to the opposition until the battle is unavoidable. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to fight desperately to win Congressional approval for a national military draft a few months before Pearl Harbor.

Then, as now, the initiative lies with the enemies of the West. Even today, when we are engaged on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little apparent recognition that we are under attack by a familiar sort of enemy, and great reluctance to act accordingly. This time, ignorance cannot be claimed as an excuse. If we are defeated, it will be because of failure of will, not lack of understanding. As, indeed, was almost the case with our near-defeat in the 1940s.

 

WHY THE IRAN ENGAGEMENT DEBATE MATTERS

Talking Iran. Why The Iran Engagement Debate Matters
By Jonathan Schanzer
Weekly Standard Online
June 5, 2008

The debate continues over the benefits of engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a state that has been dedicated to Islamist terrorism since 1979. The notion of a productive meeting with Iranian leaders is fantasy. However, the debate is important because it reveals how the proponents of engagement fail to understand the realities in Iran.

Among those who advocate engagement with Iran, the prevailing argument is that a meeting with Iran would not necessarily have to include Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, insists that a meeting should take place with “the appropriate Iranian leaders.” She suggests that Ahmadinejad may be “long gone” before such a meeting ever takes place.

This assumes that Ahmadinejad is the primary problem, and ignores the fact that the last four presidents of Iran have supported the revolutionary goals of the Islamic Republic:

Ali Khameini was president from 1981 to 1989 then succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader. He delivered fiery anti-West sermons before large crowds that famously interrupted him chanting “death to America.” As the New York Times notes, “he usually spoke with a rifle in his hand, jabbing its muzzle into the air to make his points as he castigated ‘the Great Satan, America.’”

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997, a man seen by some as a reformer, was indicted along with the Hezbollah chief Imad Mughniyah by an Argentine judge for the bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people.

Ali Khatami, also hailed as a reformer during his tenure (1997-2005), ran a regime with numerous financial ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, conducted surveillance of U.S. military and diplomatic installations abroad, and developed South America’s tri-border area into a terrorist haven.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now under fire for his determination to move forward with Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention remarks he made denying the holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped from the map. But is he that much worse than his predecessors?

Susan Rice and others who advocate negotiations with Iran ignore the immutable fact that Iranian presidents are chosen by the Iranian political system because of their anti-Western principles. Of course, other engagement advocates argue that America should conduct a dialogue with Iran, but not with its president. Their point is that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran.

This is correct. Ahmadinejad may be the most powerful elected official, but the supreme guide, a position currently held by the aforementioned Ali Khameini, is typically seen as Iran’s most powerful person. Another important position is the chairman of the Expediency Council, currently held by the aforementioned Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In 2001, Rafsanjani stated that the Muslim world should use nuclear weapons against the Jewish state. And Khameini calls Israel a “cancerous tumor of a state that should be removed.” The notion that one could reason with any of these leaders ignores the reality that the Iranian regime must first reform if we are ever to find suitable interlocutors.

Finally, although meeting with U.S. officials would provide a measure of unearned legitimacy, it is doubtful that Iranian leaders would seek to meet with Americans unless they believed U.S. policies would change for their benefit.

Broadly speaking, Iran wants one of three things: a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, a draw-down in support for Israel, and/or the cessation of sanctions against Iran, put in place because of Tehran’s support to terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction programs. Do we want Iran’s leaders to believe that any of these issues are on the table for negotiation?

The majority of Americans do not wish to end a just war before it is won. Nor do they seek to turn its back on long-standing allies in a strategically important region. Nor, for that matter, would Americans agree to lift sanctions without first receiving important concessions (think Libya’s termination of its WMD program in 2003).

Thus, unlike other hair-splitting political debates, the debate over whether there should be direct meetings with Iranian leaders is important. It exposes the flawed arguments of those who insist that dialogue would bear fruit.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.