April 19, 2009

Confronting Hate: Preventing Another Holocaust

Madam Speaker, at ten o'clock this morning, the nation of Israel observed two minutes of silence in observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For those two minutes, all activity in the country ceased to honor of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the madness of the Final Solution. For Israelis, the Holocaust remains the crucible that produced their state and its impact is felt daily across Israeli society--from politics to the arts.

Here in the United States, the Holocaust is more remote. The GIs who helped to liberate the Nazi death camps more than six decades ago are fading into history and the grainy black and white footage of the victims images that stunned the world in the 1940s--now seem distant to many Americans.

For Israelis, though, the Holocaust serves as an omnipresent reminder of the historical insecurity of the Jewish people for whom persecution and exile have characterized two millennia of wandering from their ancient homeland. Coupled with Israel's mainly hostile and fundamentally unstable neighbors, the memory of Hitler's attempt to exterminate European Jewry has served to make Israelis extraordinarily vigilant in the face of constant security threats.

Israeli security analysts have focused their concern in recent years on Iran, which they see as the most critical existential threat to the Jewish state.

Through its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Tehran has taken up positions along Israel's borders and its proxies have repaid their Iranian masters handsomely by provoking large-scale military actions by Israel in 2006 and December of last year.

Through its relentless pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle, Iran's radical regime seeks to dominate the region and to erect a permanent threat to Israel's security and the Israeli people.

Through its statements and the virulence of state-controlled media, Iranian leaders, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are clearly fixated on the demonization and destruction of Israel. Just yesterday, the Iranian president sparked a walkout at a United Nations racism conference in Geneva when he launched into a rambling rant against Israel and Jews. The prospect of Ahmadinejad with nuclear weapons is one that keeps many Israelis up at night and should be keeping many of us awake as well.

Given the potential consequences, the United States must make the prevention of Iran developing the bomb a cornerstone of both its strategy for the Middle East and its nonproliferation agenda. To do otherwise would place Israel in Iran's nuclear crosshairs and likely spur a regional arms race as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates could seek to match any Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

I support President Obama's decision to reach out to Tehran and I believe that tough, concerted diplomacy can be effective in getting the Iranian government to reassess its nuclear policy. But to be effective, that diplomacy must include a wide range of both inducements and disincentives. And it must take into account the character and nature of the current Iranian regime. And, finally, those charged with executing the policy must be willing to consider other alternatives should diplomacy fail.

Tehran's current declared enrichment activities at its Natanz facility are subject to regular inspections by the InternationalAtomic Energy Agency, which should be able to spot diversion or any attempt to produce weapons grade material before it can be turned into a weapon. As long as the IAEA can maintain its surveillance of the Natanz facility, any Iranian intention to produce weapons-grade material there is likely to be frustrated.

What concerns many senior officials in Israel, here in the United States and in Europe, is the possibility that Iran, which continues to withhold a lot of information about its nuclear program, may have a parallel, secret nuclear program that is beyond the reach of the IAEA and western intelligence monitoring. As David Albright, the President of the Institute for Science and International Security, told the Financial Times last week, aside from Natanz "we don't know anything about what they are doing, how many centrifuges they have made, or whether they are ready to go with a duplicate facility that would allow them to produce fissile material."

The juxtaposition of renewed diplomatic overtures and the unease over the extent of what we do not know about Iran's capabilities or its intentions, may strengthen our hand with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, who are working to produce a collective response to the Iranian nuclear challenge. If our international partners perceive a new American willingness to explore seriously the prospect for a negotiated resolution to the Iran problem, they may also be ready to consider the more robust coercive measures that may become necessary if Iran is shown to be pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.

International cohesion will be absolutely vital if we are to resolve this standoff without resorting to force. Tehran has been adroit at exploiting differences between the United States and its international partners, some of whom have been unwilling to consider the possibility that President Ahmadinejad's vitriol is not merely intended for domestic consumption but is a real reflection of his murderous intentions. This could prove a tragic mistake.

Seventy-five years ago, Europeans, Americans and even many German Jews dismissed Hitler's threats against the Jews as political posturing. How could Germany, a nation with a rich and distinguished culture, whose cities embodied the best of cosmopolitan Europe, follow a depraved Austrian corporal into the depths of hatred? Humanity paid an enormous price for its passivity and the world pledged "never again."

We may now be faced with a similar threat from another society with a rich culture going back thousands of years and a sophisticated citizenry. Do we dismiss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a hate-filled demagogue, or do we take his threats seriously? All of us--Americans, Israelis, Europeans and Russians--would be well advised to remember the past, even as we work towards what we hope will be a safer tomorrow.