Talking Iran and Israel With Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha


In September 2008, I happened to be at Minneapolis airport, waiting for the same  flight as the band Rage Against the Machine, which was how I found myself in a foreign policy discussion with Zack de la Rocha. (The flight also gave me a chance to introduce Tom Morello to Ben Stein, but that’s another story.)

The upshot of my chat with the RATM front man was his observation that if Israel attacked Iran, that could pose big problems for us foreign policy establishment types. Not that de la Rocha and I have identical views on Israel, but he could see tricky dilemmas down the road. Sure enough, here we are three plus years later, watching the Israeli government reaching for the lid of that pandora’s box. So a tip of the hat goes to Zack for his keen instinct.

Reminders from the Iraq case

With the recent flood of analysis and commentary, there’s a lot of material to choose from, but I’d like to highlight a few strands of the debate. I’ll start with Colin Kahl’s excellent Foreign Affairs essay arguing against an attack. I found Kahl’s  reminders from the Iraq case particularly interesting. For instance, the reason we know that bombing facilities will only delay and not permanently halt a nuclear program is because that’s what happened after Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi facility. The Osirak attack hardly prevented us from having to deal with the issue in the 1990s. And I should quickly add that when people argue that delay itself is valuable, that is hardly a strategic perspective.

The discussion of Israel’s role in the first Gulf War in 1991 is also interesting from the perspective of Republicans’ foreign policy message. Just to recall, President George H.W. Bush prevailed upon Israel to refrain from getting sucked into the war — despite the obvious provocation of Saddam’s missile attacks on Israel. In return, Bush 41 helped shield Israel from the attacks with the Patriot anti-missile system. Regardless, though, the restraint shown by Israel was impressive.

The underlying rationale for this self-restraint was that Israel’s direct involvement would have blurred the stakes and distract from a clear focus on Iraq. In the geopolitics of the region, Israel brings added layers of conflict and sensitivity. In other words, we can’t look only through the prism of America’s own view of Israel as a close ally, but also the attitude and response of other players. As a matter of simple strategic calculus, duh.

But wait, let’s pause to note the huge disconnect between this kind of clear eyed-ness and the 2012 Republican competition over who can place themselves farthest to the right on the Israeli domestic political spectrum. This is an absolutely critical point. When the Republican candidates talk about the nation of Israel, usually they’re really only reflecting a certain segment of opinion in Israel. One more time: there is no consensual Israeli view on the wisdom of attacking Iran. Even within the Israeli national security establishment and political elite,  the issue is hotly contested.

Prospects for a diplomatic solution

The other major issue, of course, is whether and how a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran over its nuclear program. On this question, no one maps the terrain better than Trita Parsi, even if you don’t completely agree with him. Trita has a terrific new book, A Single Roll of the Dice, which I recommend highly for anyone interested in the subject. But if you’re not going to read the book, his blog post over at Fareed Zakarkia’s Global Public Square blog lays out the core problems.

Trita gives President Obama and his administration a lot of credit for placing Iran under heavy pressure, and for the deft diplomacy it took to build international support. His main critique concerns the trade-offs between exerting pressure (mainly sanctions) and leaving space for diplomatic negotiations. As he sees it, Obama’s own so-called “pressure track” has boxed him in and potentially put a diplomatic solution out of reach.

This is essentially a debate between different views of how to bring the Iranians to the table. From one vantage, Iran is motivated to reach an agreement, and the key things for the West are patience, diligence and a comprehensive agenda for talks. My reading of Trita is that he sees the need for pressure, but also the importance of calibrating the pressure to give diplomacy enough time and patience to work. What these two views share is a worry that mounting Iranian mistrust might already be so high that luring them to the negotiating table will be difficult to impossible.

So how about the Obama administration, where does its policy fit into this debate? The way I interpret it, the policy assumes Tehran is disposed against an agreement — preferring the freedom of action to master the uranium enrichment process. Not that they’re implacable and and unwilling to meet outside powers’ demands for transparency and monitoring. Rather, it’s an assumption that Iran’s cooperation depends on the price they pay for continuing to resist. Some critics charge the administration with relying too heavily on pressure, saying they’re underestimating Iran’s ability to withstand hardship. My response to that is to note the danger of overestimating Tehran’s ability to withstand isolation. Iranian leaders might understand how hard it would be to sustain the same degree of autarky as North Korea’s Kim family regime; as Iran moves closer to full-pariah status, they may calculate things differently.

The future of Iran’s uranium enrichment

The substantive issue at the heart of the matter is whether a diplomatic solution would let Iran continue enriching uranium. As Trita explains, this is a source of real tension between the United States and Israel. In short, the Israelis take a very hard line against any ongoing future enrichment by Iran.  (Bill Keller delved into the wonkish details in a recent post over at

This is where the issue tilts toward the need to accommodate Iran somewhat in order to reach a deal — aka the previous administration’s complete fantasy of a diplomatic outcome with Iran totally capitulating. As it happens, the authors of an op-ed on the subject in Friday’s NYTimes (Ambassadors Tom Pickering and Bill Luers) told us nearly four years ago in a much-cited NY Review of Books essay that zero enrichment was, practically speaking, a non-starter. Now, peering into the abyss of a new war with Iran, let me boil it down. If an agreement can be reached that permits some enrichment — under close international supervision — is that a prospect really worthy of going to war?

The rumors of war have significantly notched up the danger of a real catastrophe. Meanwhile, it’s the same tangled mess it’s always been. Even a rock star could see that.


Related Stories:

Do Tighter Iran Sanctions Set Up a Collision Course?

Does President Obama “Own” Post-Withdrawal Iraq?

GOP Candidate Foreign Policy Drivel – Let Me Count the Ways


Photo credit: Wikimedia commons


Vlasta M.
Vlasta M6 years ago

Ahmedinijad and ayatollahs of Iran who keep themselves in power in spite of protests of their population, with iron fist, ever since they deposed of shah in 1979, had been whipping Muslims mobs into frenzy against Jews and Israel. Numerous times, the delusional Jew-hater and Holocaust denier, Ahmdeinijad, threatened to wipe out the "Zionist entity" of the map of the world.

That is a rather good hint that Israel is in dire danger IF Iran manages to develop nuclear weapons, because Israel would be the first to be attacked by long range missiles from Iran, which Iran already has. Iran is also sending rockets to Hamas and Hetzbollahs to shoot smaller rockets from Gaza and Lebanon. The threat from those delusional Jew-hating Islamists is REAL. Israel never threatened to wipe out ANY country but just wants to be left in peace to build Israel, which it is doing in spite of hostile neighbors, which are again increasing with Islamists taking over in Egypt and wanting to scrap peace with Israel.

Secretly, most Muslim countries are hoping that Israel will do what they did with a reactor in Syria, because they are all afraid of nuclear Iran, which may turn against them too ;-)! Unlike when Iraq was in war with Iran (one way of population control), when it was a Muslims against a Muslim, it is more convenient that the Jews attack so that at the UN they can again defame Israel as "aggressor" as they did with Gaza, when Israel went in to destroy rocket launchers from which

Carola May
Carola May6 years ago

Sorry, the last one was cut off and is my favourite:

"The scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs."
Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, speaking about Jews as taught to Muslim children in mosques and madrassas around the world.

Carola May
Carola May6 years ago

Parvez, you are so brainwashed with Islamic hatred of Jews & the outrageous teaching of Islamists that Israel, by some twisted logic, 'belongs' to you Muslims. Muslims are always the 'victims' no matter how hateful or violent they are to others, no matter how many times they have invaded & tried to destroy little Israel, no matter that all the Muslim ruled states around Israel were all invaded, conquered by the sword & oppressed by Islam for centuries.Too bad logic isn't something you were taught.You & the fatuous John D, your Islamist blinded friend.

Note Parvez, John D & all the other Islamists who propaganise here never ever express any regret for any Islamic atrocity, imperialist conquest or hate. They never condemn the ethnic cleansing going on in Iran, Egypt & other Muslim occupied areas of non-Muslims. Even when asked or challenged to do so. They ignore it. Islam is meant to defeat the whole world, how can they condemn Allah's command?

Rob and Jay, you missed some good quotes:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."
-- Hassan Nasrallah, Leader of Hezbollah

"There are 50 million Arabs. What does it matter if we lose 10 million people to kill all the Jews? The price is worth it."
King ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia

"The scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the v

Rob and Jay B.
Jay S6 years ago

The Author says: 'we know that bombing facilities will only delay and not permanently halt a nuclear program...And I should quickly add that when people argue that delay itself is valuable, that is hardly a strategic perspective' We 'know' this?

Really? How asinine! If you weren't asleep during the phony invasion of Iraq by Baby Bush on fabricated charges of WMDs you will recall there were NO WMDs ever found, which seems to make your above comment totally false. What would they have found had Israel not gone in previously & bombed the nuclear facilities?

Well, you who are putting all the blame for this on little Israel oought to be more honest & tell us that you would take the same suicidal decision of bowing to the crazed mullahs of Iran (who 'love death more than you love life') if they were threatening to 'wipe' YOUR country off the map.

Israel is the only modern, advanced, democratic free country in the region surrounded by primitive societies fueled by a quasi-religion that commands its nutty followers to kill all Jews.

Iran is a dictatorship of Jew-hating Muslim primitives who have brutally oppressed & murdered their own people for over 30 years, destroying all freedoms. The Iranian people are the innocents, along with the Israelis, in this horror movie.

Too bad the US & its NATO puppets didn't invade Iran instead of Libya & help those people to gain their freedom. We wouldn't be facing any threats from a new democratic Iran, once no

Rob and Jay B.
Jay S6 years ago

John D, how interesting that you as an Islamist would take the name of Jesus in vain knowing no one is going to behead you for the offense you give to believing Christians. Let's let someone use Mohammed's name in vain & see what happens.

If anyone here is still naive enough to think little modern, democratic Israel, surrounded by Jew hating Muslim-ruled entities, isn't threatened then here are some quotes from Muslim leaders that should make that clear. Israelis haven't made these hate comments, Muslims have:

"Israel must be wiped off the map."
-- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian President, 2005

"Jerusalem belongs to us, and the whole world belongs to us!"
-- Shaykh Safwat Hegazy, Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood

"If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide."
-- Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Lebanon's Hezbollah

"Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion. This saves your honor. God is with you. "
-- Hajj Amin al Husseini, Grand Mufti of Muslim occupied Jerusalem

Beth S.
Beth S6 years ago

Well, Parvez, I'd put Israel more at a light beige, myself. Although I have red of an area in the south that has a limited outcropping of water impermeable red granite, which has proven useful for limited crop growth.

Regardless of the interesting geological and topographical note, Israel's arsenal, to all but the most intrepid anti-Israel propagandists and their insipid, gullible swallowers, in which category Parvez seems to fall, is clearly a very last-resort, tacit insurance policy against implacable enemies like Iran, which has in no way been threatened by Israel.

Note that almost none of the Arab countries have felt the NEED to arm themselves with nuclear weapons until Iran's sabre-rattling, which the Sunni nations fear most -- not Israel.

Parvez Zuberi
Parvez Zuberi6 years ago

Israel is the rouge nation and is a nuclear power which is a biggest threat to Muslim countries and they will not hesitate to use them ,so in order to balance the power Iran should have nuclear arsenal

Beth S.
Beth S6 years ago


On what do you base your belief that every nation around Iran has nuclear capability?

Turkmenistan? Afghanistan? Iraq? Turkey? Azerbaijan? UAE? Kuwait? Oman?

Beth S.
Beth S6 years ago

...from, let's say, as a resident of Tel Aviv. (?)

Beth S.
Beth S6 years ago

David S says: “Not that they’re implacable and and [sic] unwilling to meet outside powers’ demands for transparency and monitoring. Rather, it’s an assumption that Iran’s cooperation depends on the price they pay for continuing to resist.”

When you are dealing with Islamic fundamentalism, you are already dealing with a form of insanity. When dealing with Shiite Iran (add another layer of insanity), that has boldly declared that even if Israel were to drop nuclear bombs (which Israel does not intend to do) on Iran and kills millions of its people, well that’s okay, because they (Iran) have millions more to sacrifice, I think it is you, David, who may be underestimating Iran’s fanaticism and irrationality, hence, de facto implacability.

David S says: “If an agreement can be reached that permits some enrichment — under close international supervision — is that a prospect really worthy of going to war?”

However tempting the comparison is, Iran, for many reasons, is not Iraq.

You are also doing some jumping of the gun. You cannot analyze the IF until its probability has been assessed, and it’s not at all clear that we’re anywhere near that point. There are too many issues with even getting an agreement defining what amount of enrichment is okay, etc. – thus allowing Iran even more stall time – and the window of opportunity to prevent it from hardening its sites passes by, you might look