by Erez Linn
Middle East Media Research Institute founder Yigal Carmon is disappointed with the U.S. for joining Russia in support of Iran's regional expansion
"Iran won't stand by and allow Saudi Arabia to take a bite out
of its growing regional power," says Yigal CarmonPhoto: AP
"Wherever there is a clash between peoples, cultures, states, religions or perceptions, the best way to understand the resulting conflict and to resolve it is to go back to the primary texts," says Yigal Carmon, the president and founder of MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates media broadcasts and articles from Arabic, Turkish, Farsi and other languages into English with the aim of giving the West a real-time glimpse into the Arab and Muslim world's attitudes.
Contrary to what many may think, MEMRI is not in the business of clearing a path for any particular leader, nor does it take any ideological stance – though Carmon himself has very clear views on current affairs.
"MEMRI is a concept, an idea," he says. "We study the media to understand the present, and we study textbooks to understand the future. ... Hundreds of universities make use of our services, because without knowing the language, they lose out on a primary source material that is critical for academic work."
Carmon recalls how Bernard Lewis, considered one of the world's leading Middle East scholars, fruitlessly tried to warn the CIA that Iran's shah was about to be overthrown by the ayatollahs in 1979.
"He got his hands on a book written by the Ayatollah Khomeini shortly before the latter returned to Iran," Carmon says. "He [Lewis] realized that this was a prelude to the revolution and presented the contents of the book to them, but the intelligence agency just said, 'Who is this guy [Khomeini] in Paris? Total nonsense.' Not too long after that, there was a revolution."
Carmon takes pride in the fact that he studies the Arab and Muslim world from "Marrakesh to Bangladesh." The institute has received many accolades over the years, and Lewis himself has called it the most important development in the study of the Middle East in a long time. Others have said that if an institute like MEMRI had existed before World War II, and Hitler's plans had been translated in real time, the threat he posed might have been realized earlier and the war, and the Holocaust, could have been prevented.
These days, Carmon is chiefly troubled by Iran, but not just because of what is happening in Tehran. He is also concerned about the secret agreements being struck in Washington and in Moscow, which he says are helping the ayatollahs' regime (the "Shiite ISIS" as he refers to it) to corner Israel.
"We are being sold out completely," he warns, referring to reports that the two superpowers have reached understandings about Syria that completely disregard Israel's demand to keep Iran away from its borders. "[U.S. President Donald] Trump made a deal with the Russians that makes Iran's presence legitimate in all of Syria, even very close to our border. That's even more critical than the nuclear agreement [with Iran]."
Carmon says that "the Russian-Iranian alliance poses an existential threat to Israel. Russia has made itself a true enemy of Israel and we need to wake up and understand that. They may have nothing against us, but they are allied with Iran and they use it as a proxy against the U.S. since they are painfully inferior to America, militarily and in every other way. The U.S. is their [Russia's] rival; the harm suffered by Israel means nothing to them."
But he says the U.S., which could have set boundaries, opted instead to cooperate with Russia.
"Israel is facing a historical challenge. The president of the United States has just joined the Russian-Iranian alliance, and by striking an agreement with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, he has essentially greenlighted an Iranian military deployment along Israel's border, despite knowing Iran's express intentions to annihilate Israel. This is an existential threat for Israel that outweighs the nuclear threat, which has yet to reach the practical stage," he said.
In this context, he notes that after Russia assumed an active role in the civil war in Syria, MEMRI started studying the Russian media as well, for the first time since the institute was founded in 1998.
Q: How do you respond to the claims that what you choose to highlight is biased and selective?
"The claim that we post only the negative things from the Arab world is completely false. We have made the voices of hundreds of [Arab and Muslim] reformists and liberals heard in the entire world, and particularly in the West where they weren't well known. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and considering what is currently happening in the Arab world, obviously the difficult aspects we've exposed reflected reality. Reality exploded.
"Unlike many other research institutes in the world, we avoid making recommendations. We present the reality as it is, we don't make suggestions."
Q: Was there a document you translated that actually changed the reality?
"We are helping Western countries defend themselves from terrorist attacks. One of many examples is when we reported a young man who was viciously inciting online to the Belgian authorities. He was consequently arrested, and in his home they found chainsaws that he and his friends were planning to use in an attack at a supermarket.
"We inform governments and legislatures about the reality of the Arab and Muslim world so as to improve their decision-making. However, we are well aware that quite often in history, political and military decisions aren't based on an objective analysis of reality; there are always leaders' values and judgment calls in play, for better or worse."
Carmon stresses that his organization's purpose is not to shape policy ("Research institutes tend to serve a political stance, and that's a tragedy," he says), but exclaims that he does not intend to stand idly by in the face of the mistakes he feels are being made on the Iran issue.
Q: I get the feeling that you do not support the nuclear agreement with Iran.
"The nuclear agreement fails to serve the purpose for which it was drafted, and that is a fact. The nuclear agreement was meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. For example, under the terms of the deal, 8.5 tons of enriched uranium were transferred to Russia. Where is the uranium today? It has disappeared. Former President [Barack] Obama's appointee Stephen Mull testified as much to Congress. The International Atomic Energy Agency also has no idea where it is.
Theoretically, since no one can say where it is, it is possible that it is back in Iran."
According to Carmon, as Trump himself has said, Iran is violating not only the spirit of the agreement but also its stipulations. Even the IAEA has noted that since the nuclear agreement was reached, Iran has twice exceeded the amount of heavy water it is permitted to possess. After it was found out, the water was transferred to Oman, which, according to Carmon, is not capable of storing it independently.
"Oman is a satellite of Iran. It has no military capability. It is completely at the mercy of Iran. Storing Iran's heavy water there, as though it had been removed from Iran, is fundamentally ridiculous. It clearly demonstrates what kind of agreement this is. They could have transferred it to the Netherlands or to Canada or to Brazil. Storing it in Oman is no different than keeping it in Iran itself."
Q: Are you claiming that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are in Oman?
"They wouldn't leave something like this unattended. And if they are watching it, then it violates the very foundation of the agreement because Iran is essentially still holding on to it."
Carmon lists a host of special procedural clauses that basically comprise a very comfortable agreement for Iran, unprecedented in its flexibility, ultimately allowing Iran to press ahead with its nuclear program by way of special protocols that only have the appearance of restrictions.
"The supposed oversight mechanism meant to be monitoring Iran's activity is a complete system of deception. The only thing that mattered was pushing the deal through."
He says there is no proof that Iran complied with the deal's stipulation that it decommission the nuclear facility in Arak.
"They poured concrete into the pipes leading to the core of the reactor. The IAEA came out with a declaration that they had sealed the core, but the Iranians claim that they didn't pour concrete into the core."
Q: What about the monitoring mechanisms included in the agreement?
"They pulled a shocking ruse. Ostensibly, there is a stringent monitoring regiment in place, with cameras and everything. But only in sites that Iran itself declared as nuclear facilities. There are six or seven of them. Everywhere else, particularly military sites where the IAEA knows they developed military nuclear devices in the past, is not under any kind of supervision."
Q: But if Iran refuses to allow inspectors to visit suspicious sites, the powers' special committee can declare Iran in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which adopted the agreement, and the sanctions will be automatically reimposed.
"Some people argue that, yes. But keep in mind that in the joint committee, anyone making a complaint must present their case and reveal their sources. Say America, or Israel, have secret sources, which lead them to file a complaint. Under the deal, they have to reveal the source to the Iranians. Does that seem reasonable? To expose them? And even after the exposure, Iran is given weeks [time for the inspectors to actually arrive at the site] to prepare. This is a mechanism that was designed to protect Iran. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano is working in the service of Iran, Russia and China. It is a role he was forced into by the Obama administration and its efforts to make sure this deal was passed, at any cost. Amano is lying when he says he can monitor any site. The Iranians openly forbid it and he doesn't even try."
So fearing Iran and feeling disappointed in the American position, Carmon actually pins his long-term hopes on the moderate Arab world, which he believes will ultimately wake up, after resolving its war with ISIS and its internal conflicts, and stop Iran from becoming a hegemon in the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent bold actions, enacting internal reforms as well as coming out against Hezbollah in Lebanon, is an encouraging sign. The Arab Spring, too, despite its many failures, has yet to make its final appearance, Carmon forecasts.
But when asked whether Iran, like Russia, can be viewed as a stabilizing force in the region, at least for now, he rejects the assertion out of hand.
"That was Obama's thinking. He stood by the 10% of Muslims who are Shiite, instead of the 90% who are Sunni. He told the Saudis that they need to share their power with Iran. A realistic leader would never put his money on the 10% against the 90%. I am extremely worried that President Trump's administration is now following in Obama's disastrous footsteps."
Q: The fact is that in Syria, Iran and Russia did manage to stabilize the situation.
"But is that the end of the story? Let's take things one step at a time. Sometimes, when a minority clearly deserves help in comparison with the majority, there is room for moral considerations and not just pure realism. But that is not the case here. In the Sunni camp, we are seeing important shifts. Mohammed bin Salman is coming out against the religious traditions that have made the region violent. Iran, on the other hand, is a Shiite Islamic country – there is no difference between Iran and ISIS other than that Iran is Shiite. Iran is also extremely ambitious, seeking to impose its rule on others. The number of people that the Iranian regime has murdered during its reign, including the murder of intellectuals, is very high. In 2009, they murdered people on the streets as they protested against election fraud. This regime is actively engaged in exporting and spreading the revolution."
Q: Do you think there is still hope for the Arab Spring?
"It's a matter of hundreds of years and it will develop very slowly, as in Europe, because it involves value shifts that generally take generations. There is always hope that human beings will advance from carnage to culture, but it can't happen in less time than it took Europe. Look at how Europe was at constant war until the middle of the last century, World War II. I am most encouraged by the fact that the first course of action by the Saudi heir to the throne was to arrest thousands of inciting religious figures. He went against what has been the foundation of Saudi legitimacy since the country's inception, and then he went on to advance women's rights, something that had been unheard of in the kingdom's history. He went against anyone who threatens his rule, and now he is openly confronting Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. "There's a phrase in spoken Arabic that says, 'He carries the ladder sideways' – when you walk like that, you amass more and more enemies. He believes in his power and he has the makings of a leader, like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [the founder of modern Turkey] had, of a man who is willing to stand up to the religious fanatics, who have destroyed the Islamic world everywhere."
Alongside his optimism at the hints of Saudi reform, Carmon fears that Iran will not just sit by and allow the Saudi kingdom take a bite out of its growing regional power.
"Here is a possible scenario for the next war: The Iranians, unable to come to terms with losing the civil war in Yemen [where they support the Shiite Houthi rebels], will draw out the Shiites in Bahrain and Lebanon. There is certainly a threat that Hezbollah will spark a provocation in Lebanon. Like in 2006, when Iran needed a flare up to divert attention from its nuclear file that was about be taken over by the Security Council, so they used Hezbollah to generate a provocation on our northern border.
"Strategically speaking, this war – even if Israel is dragged into it by way of Hezbollah and Syrian provocations – will actually be a clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia, reflecting a historic, religious, geopolitical and ethnic confrontation between the two. But of course Iran will make every effort to bring us into the mix to generate an international effect."
Carmon has no qualms about criticizing the platforms he uses to access the Arab world – social media and, generally speaking, the internet as a whole. According to him, the puppet masters behind the internet platforms are far more concerned with profits than with combating incitement.
"The global jihad has developed in unimaginable terms since the introduction of the internet. The internet is responsible for making individuals and small groups into a global movement that is not tied together by any organization but rather by common ideology. The ones who gave rise to this terrible thing that changed our lives are the internet giants, particularly the social networks. Alongside their innumerable advantages, they are also destroying the world. It is comparable to developing an atom bomb without neutralizing the dangers it poses. And it is all done out of greed. I think their influence is nothing short of criminal. Mark Zuckerberg [founder of Facebook] said that when someone posts about wanting to commit suicide, the network takes action to find them. But what about when someone wants to kill not himself but you? That doesn't interest the network nearly as much."
Q: It is said that journalists write the first draft of history. Is MEMRI formulating the first draft of analysis of history?
"We are very popular in Arab countries. Countless spokespeople mention our work, be it liberals who mention us positively or Muslim radicals who suffer from our exposure. North African religious scholar of the 13th century Bahyey Ibn Pekuda once said that a little light can repel much of the darkness and a little truth can drive away a lot of falsehood. Sometimes, I feel that he was talking about the kind of work that MEMRI does."
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