Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Why plans to "moderate" the Iranian regime are failing

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Update from AIJAC

June 3, 2016

Update 06/16 #01

It is now widely being acknowledged that there is little sign that the Iranian regime is moderating its internal or external policies in the wake of the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), signed last year and supposedly implemented in January. This Update features three pieces which each suggest some explanations of why moderating the Iranian regime is likely much more difficult than policymakers in Washington and elsewhere realised.

We lead off with noted American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead - who starts out by noting the election last week of ultra-hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as head of the important Assembly of Experts, which effectively knocked on the head the argument that the "moderates" won the Iranian parliamentary election in February. Mead says that in fact hardline values are effectively wired into the Iranian political leadership - because all leaders there recognise that multi-ethnic Iran needs a unifying ideological bind to hold it together. Furthermore, they also all recognise that Iran's international status and ambitions in the region depend on maintaining a state of conflict and confrontation with "American imperialism and Zionist aggression". For Mead's insightful look at the real underlying calculations likely being made by all Iranian leaders, whether supposedly "moderate" or "hardline", CLICK HERE

Next up are Iran experts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, who look at what the Iranian regime achieves by backing their repeated "Holocaust cartoon" contests. They note that antisemitism has always been part of the political values of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini bringing his own conspiratorial beliefs about Jews into the 1979 revolution. But more importantly, they reinforce Mead's point about Iran's regional ambitions requiring a confrontational stance - effectively, Gerecht and Takeyh argue, antisemitism and Holocaust-denial are exploited by Teheran to build regional support for their stance in their current confrontation with the Sunni Arab states. For all the details of this important argument,  CLICK HERE. Incidentally, the Iranians have just announced the winner of their latest  "Holocaust cartoon" contest - and it is indeed vile

Finally, American writer Lee Smith offers a polemical but still perceptive piece on the way the nuclear deal was sold - and how the claims made about the deal by the Obama Administration and its supporters flew in the face of the Iranian worldview. In particular, he notes that the Administration and supportive journalists and NGOs, such as the Ploughshares Fund, made their core argument that the only alternative to the JCPOA is war - yet Iranian regime figures are openly saying today that they regard themselves as at war with the US in any case. He also discusses the way in which the "echo chamber" created by the US Administration, as admitted by key advisor Ben Rhodes, ignored professional analysis on the loophole in the deal from groups like the Institute for Science and International Security, headed by former IAEA nuclear inspector David Albright. For Smith's argument in full, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

Moderation Postponed in Iran

 

Walter Russell Mead
The American Interest, May 26

For reasons practical as well as ideological, hard-liners continue to hold on in Tehran.



Somehow all those plucky moderates elected in Iran don’t seem to be having much impact on actual decisions:

A hard-line Iranian cleric who has been in the country’s power structure since its 1979 Islamic Revolution was chosen on Tuesday to lead the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that picks the country’s next supreme leader.

The selection of 89-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an ultraconservative who called for the execution of opposition activists after Iran’s disputed 2009 election and encouraged Iraqis to become suicide bombers against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, signals the power hard-liners still wield in Iran despite a recent nuclear deal with world powers.

In Tuesday’s vote, Jannati received the backing of 55 members of the 88-seat Assembly and beat two other candidates for the post of speaker, moderate Ebrahim Amini and conservative Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi. He will serve as the body’s speaker for two years.

Ayatollah Jannati has managed to reach the age of 89 without strapping on an explosive vest to go on a virgin hunt, despite his no doubt keen hunger to experience the martyrdom he encouraged on others. At that age his future influence on Iranian politics may be limited, but if the hardline bloc can get 55 out of 88 votes for its preferred candidate, it seems likely that the next Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution will be just as hardline and anti-America as the last two.

For those puzzled by the hardline show of strength, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the smarter commentary at the time of the Iranian parliamentary elections this winter. The White House echo chamber and the 27 year-old know-nothings that Ben Rhodes has on speed dial were gushing over the “triumph” of the moderates and spinning it as a big win for the White House policy—but those who looked under the hood saw something different. As Eli Lake put it at the time:

Beginning in January, the regime’s Guardian Council began purging any candidates who espoused the slightest deviation from the country’s septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Candidates who favored releasing political prisoners — including the leaders of the Green Movement that many Iranians feel won the 2009 presidential elections — were disqualified. Even members of the Assembly of Experts, who had previously passed the vetting process, were disqualified. So too was the grandson of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To paraphrase a former top U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, Iranians on Friday will have a choice between hardliners and hard hardliners.

Bottom line: the much ballyhooed ‘triumph of the moderates’ was another piece of White House spin, presumably pumped into the national consciousness by those helpful folks at Ploughshares.

What’s really going on in Iran has almost nothing to do with the happy clappy Beltway talk about peaceable mullahs and the kinder, gentler theocracy they aspire to create. Unfortunately, hardline values are hard wired into the Iranian regime and Iranian foreign policy, and no White House spinmeister can make that grim reality go away.

Iran is a multi-ethnic state, like the Soviet Union, or the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Arabs, Baluchis and many others share the territory of the Islamic Republic with ethnic Persians, who comprise only about 60 percent of the total population. These ethnic groups haven’t always been happy under Persian domination. Kurds have rebelled against Iran, as they have against Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Azeris and Kurds actually set up independent states under Soviet tutelage after World War II, and only strong pressure from the US and the UK forced the Soviets to withdraw and allowed Tehran to regain control.

The Islamic Republic needs an ideological bond to keep the country together; that is what the Shi’a identity does. (This doesn’t work in rebellious Sunni Baluchistan, but the large majority of Iran’s multiethnic citizens are Shi’a). As a Shi’a state, the government in Tehran can appeal to a broader public than just those who would be motivated by Persian nationalism—just as communism helped hold the Soviet Union’s many restive ethnic groups together. If Tehran sacrificed its hard Shi’a edge, it would face the same kind of centrifugal forces that have torn apart many other multiethnic conglomerate states in recent decades, from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia and to, now, Syria and Iraq.

So an Iranian moderate leadership would risk looking like Gorbachev’s regime; when he broke with communist ideology, the Soviet Union crumbled under his hands. Convinced hardliners and fervent true believers aren’t the only members of the power elite who won’t want to do a Gorbachev; pragmatists will also see the need for Shi’a ideology, even if they personally would rather live in a more liberal atmosphere.

But if Iran’s unity is linked to hardline Shi’a politics, its international position is even more tightly wedded to hatred of America and Israel. Iran wants to become a global great power by dominating the oil rich Middle East. Its Shi’a co-religionists and allies (who comprise a much larger percentage of the population in and around the Persian Gulf than they do in the rest of the Islamic world) can be and often are foot soldiers in Iran’s plans: think of the Alawites of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Hezbollah is also aiding the pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen.)

But working with the Shi’a isn’t enough: Iran needs to legitimate its presence as an aspiring hegemon in a mostly Arab, mostly Sunni part of the world. This is where the rage against the US and Israel comes in. Iran positions itself as the only true leader of Islamic ‘resistance’ to American imperialism and Zionist aggression. This helps discredit Sunni powers and clerics who are either ineffective or compliant allies of the US (the charge Iran levels against Saudi Arabia). If Iran drops the anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism from its foreign policy as part of a ‘moderating trend’, it doesn’t have an ideological leg to stand on in the struggle for hearts and minds in the modern Middle East.

For Iran to step away from its hardline politics would mean risking the country’s unity and abandoning its foreign policy ambitions. That’s not impossible; Gorbachev’s example shows that an imperial power can moderate its domestic and international stance. Unfortunately, the immediate collapse of Gorbachev’s empire at home and the ensuing loss of Moscow’s superpower status made it likely that not too many great powers in the future will follow this example.

We can’t understand the power politics of Iran without understanding that those close to power in that country understand this logic very clearly. The religious basis of the state isn’t something the Iranian power elite will lightly toss away, no matter how atheistic and hypocritical it might personally feel. King James I of England, whose string of young male lovers shocked respectable opinion and ennobled the Dukes of Buckingham, used to silence the Calvinist divines who wanted him to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops by saying, “No bishops, no king.” What he meant was that the political structure of the country and his own throne depended on the support of the religious ideas and structures embodied in the episcopacy. He had no intention of modifying his personal behavior to conform with conservative Christian doctrine, but as a matter of politics he understood that the institutional power of the Church of England was an indispensable prop for his personal potential. In Iran today, they might say “No mullahs, no country.” Without the bonds of Shi’a religious ideas, the hierarchical structures of Shi’a religious organization, and the ideology of Islamic resistance grounded in hatred of America and Israel, Iran would not be the formidable power that it has become.

These truths don’t mean that we have to despair about the prospect of change in Iran, or resign ourselves to the inevitability of conflict between Iran and the United States. We learned during the Cold War that we can sometimes make pragmatic deals with strategic rivals, and there are good reasons why the US and Iran can avoid war even if we move to limit Iran’s aggressive regional policies.

But change will be slow. Optimists point to the Soviet example, arguing that the strategy of containment can be effective, and that ideological fervor does not last forever. The fierce burning certainties of one generation are the conventional pieties of the next, and often the worm eaten cliches and sterile formulas of a third. That happened to communism and something like it will probably happen inside Iran in due course.

This is probably true, but while we may someday get a string of Iranian Brezhnevs (corrupt guardians of a rigid status quo who just want to hold onto power), the odds against an Iranian Gorbachev popping up remain weak. The optimists underestimate the incentives for the hardliners to hold on—not just out of sincere conviction and zeal, but out of pragmatic calculations. China’s Xi is no fanatical Communist zealot, but neither is he prepared to throw away the ideology and political organization that keeps him and his allies on top. There are very few communist true believers in China, but the party is stronger than it was in 1990. There are many people inside the Chinese Communist Party who think that Marxism is a pile of ridiculous hogwash; but just because an ideology is foolish and outmoded doesn’t mean that it doesn’t remain an essential tool of social cohesion and national power. People believe in power long after they have lost faith in ideals. Any ‘moderation’ of the Iranian elite is more likely to manifest as an increasing cynicism about an ideology that they continue to deploy, rather than a naive embrace of western liberal concepts that would undermine the power and threaten the existence of the Iranian state.

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Article 2

Iran’s Holocaust denial is part of a malevolent strategy


By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh
Washington Post, May 27


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last month in New York. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

The Islamic Republic of Iran held another Holocaust cartoon festival this month, inviting the usual despicable cast of characters. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assured the New Yorker that although the event would proceed, Iran would ensure that the “people who have preached racial hatred and violence will not be invited.” Evidently, Zarif believes there are Holocaust deniers who do not harbor “racial hatred.”

As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani once remarked to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the Holocaust — the question of whether it happened and the dimensions of the slaughter — is really “a matter for historians and researchers to illuminate.” Crimes against humanity are bad, Rouhani averred, as he quickly glided over the Nazis’ anti-Jewish malevolence to similar crimes committed today, leaving no doubt for a Middle Eastern audience that he was talking about Israel. Among Iran’s ruling elite, Holocaust denial and the accompanying conspiracies about Jewish power are omnipresent and diverse, but they all have strategic intent. Anti-Semitism is not only central to the regime’s identity; it’s also inextricably tied to its soft-power propaganda aimed at the larger Muslim world, especially Arabs.

Anti-Semitism was part of Iran’s inception. The revolution’s father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent much of his life indulging it. In Khomeini’s rendition, the Jews, always untrustworthy in Islamic history, are surrogates of Western imperialism who have displaced Palestinian Muslims and even distorted Islam’s scriptural texts. Khomeini’s hatred toward Israel exceeded even his disdain for America. The United States was a pernicious, seductive imperial power. But it was America’s conduct, not its existence, that the mullahs contested. Israel, on the other hand, was for Khomeini an unlawful entity, irrespective of its actual policies and behavior. No peace compact or negotiated settlement with the aggrieved Palestinians could ameliorate this essential illegitimacy. Israel must be wiped off the map.

Since the ayatollah’s death, Tehran’s efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state have continued, no matter who among the ruling elite has had the upper hand. Whether it’s those aligned behind Ali Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor), the revolutionary pragmatists backing Rouhani or the Islamic leftists who once rallied behind the reforming president Mohammad Khatami, attitudes toward Israel and the Holocaust have remained constant. For them, Zionism is a racist, exclusionary ideology that should be opposed not just by Muslims but also by all who care about human rights. Iran’s propaganda insists that Zionism was imposed on the region by force of arms, sustained by bloodshed and perpetuated by craven U.S. politicians beholden to domestic Jewish groups. Khamenei has gone so far as to claim that to ensure the compliance of U.S. politicians, “these Zionist capitalists both bribe and threaten them.” Even more: These Jewish American overlords “have murdered some of their high-ranking and great officials.” Anti-Semitism in Iran is an Orwellian voyage of ideology, where fiery sermons and conferences calling for the annihilation of Israel and denying the Holocaust have become the sanctioned language of the Islamic republic.

In foreign affairs, this antagonism to Israel enforces the clerical regime’s claims to regional leadership, especially at a time when the mullahs’ ecumenical message to Sunni Muslims has been compromised by Iran’s role in provoking and sustaining sectarian warfare in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran’s anti-Semitic assault is one of the few rhetorical weapons the clerics can deploy that has broad popular appeal among Sunni Muslims. Arab leaders may envision agreements with Israel, but many of their constituents loathe the idea, especially in Egypt, which has a cold peace with Israel, and in Saudi Arabia, where royals unofficially flirt with Israeli officials in a great game to counter the mullahs.

In particular, Iran needs anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial conferences that brandish its Islamist credentials to compete against the Saudi propaganda machine, which is running full-throttle against the Shiites, depicting Iranians as Muslim heretics and Persian usurpers eyeing Arab lands. From their global network of pulpits and Arab satellite TV channels, the Saudis call the faithful against a rapacious Iran and its Shiite insurgents taking over the ancient seats of Arab civilizations in Baghdad and Damascus.

And the clerical regime’s anti-Semitism will grow worse as the rewards of the nuclear deal increase. The mullahs no longer have to worry how the regime’s hatred of Jews plays in the West — the buffoonish character of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is gone and sanctions are falling. The U.S.-educated Zarif is adept at handling Western officials and journalists. In his capable hands, Holocaust festivals become yet another reason to support Rouhani’s “moderates.” And Western opprobrium not reinforced with sanctions just affirms the correctness and utility of the mullahs’ anti-Jewish worldview. What matters most is the war for Muslim minds, and the clerical regime intends to exploit anti-Semitism for all that it’s worth.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Article 3

Ploughshares and the Iran Deal Echo Chamber

 By Lee Smith

The Weekly Standard, May 24, 2016

Guess who's not part of the White House's Iran deal "echo chamber"? Yep, Qassem Suleimani. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force thinks Iran and America aren't poised for realignment, but rather are at war. And Iran, he says, is thrashing the great Satan. "Iran relied on logic during its confrontation with the U.S. and benefited from its enemies' mistakes," Suleimani said in a speech yesterday. "Iranian support [of the Assad regime] forced America to back down from its goals in Syria."

What an ingrate! The White House frees up tens of billions of dollars so the Iranians can continue helping Assad wage his murderous campaign of sectarian cleansing in Syria, and Tehran's Mr. Fix-It turns around and rubs it in the administration's face. The only alternative to the nuclear deal, said the White House and its various friends in the media, academy, and think-tank community, is war. Wrong, says Suleimani, there's only war. It looks like the IRGC's external operations unit is not getting the Ploughshares talking points.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Ploughshares Fund gave financial support to media outlets, including National Public Radio, as part of its efforts to support the White House's nuclear deal with Iran. According to Ploughshares' 2015 annual report, the organization gave NPR $100,000 to help it report on the nuclear deal and related issues in 2015. Reports elsewhere indicate that the foundation has given NPR $700,000 over the last decade.

Both NPR and Ploughshares argue that the grant didn't affect reporting the agreement. "We have a rigorous editorial firewall process in place to ensure our coverage is independent and is not influenced by funders or special interests," the partially publicly supported media outlet claimed. Funding, Ploughshares' spokeswoman Jennifer Abrahamson told the AP, "does not influence the editorial content of their coverage in any way, nor would we want it to."

This is ridiculous. If Ploughshares didn't want to influence the editorial content in line with its mission—to "build a safe, secure world by developing and investing in initiatives to reduce and ultimately eliminate the world's nuclear stockpiles"—it would rightly have to answer to its own financial backers for wasting their money. It's clear from other internal Ploughshares documents, in fact, that the fund closely tracks whether it's getting its money's worth from directly funding the media.

In 2014 Ploughshares commissioned a "Cultural Strategy Report" describing how the fund could use Hollywood, radio, journalists, and even video games to push its agenda. A section on how to provide money to journalists acknowledges "we understand that similar efforts supported by Ploughshares Fund in the past did not generate the desired volume of coverage (funding of reporters at The Nation and Mother Jones and a partnership with the Center for Public Integrity to create a national security desk)." Note that NPR is not mentioned, and how $100,000 was transferred to NPR in 2015, as it had been most years over the past decade.

Since David Samuels' controversial profile of Obama lieutenant Ben Rhodes was published in the New York Times Magazine two weeks ago, a map of what Rhodes called the echo chamber has begun to emerge. Ploughshares, as Rhodes noted, was among those individuals and organizations who "were saying things that validated what we had given them to say" about the nuclear deal. And to ensure the cycle of mutually assured validation, Ploughshares supported others to keep them everyone on message. It wasn't just NPR, or experiments with Mother Jones and the Nation.

It's now been reported that funds were also distributed to an Iranian former nuclear negotiator teaching at Princeton (Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote about him here); research organizations and think-tanks, like the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the Arms Control Association; to a range of communitarian interest groups, lobbies and faith based organizations like J Street, the National Iranian American Council, and Friends Committee on National Legislation, which calls itself a "Quaker Lobby in the Public Interest"; even to an email listserv, Gulf 2000, that disseminated Iran deal talking points, as well as conspiracy theories, to policymakers, analysts, and journalists, including Iran deal advocates like Al-Monitor journalist Laura Rozen and Ploughshares President Joe Cirincione.

As Rhodes explained to Samuels, he saw the echo chamber, a "far-reaching spin campaign," as the only way to conduct the nuclear agreement with Iran. "I mean, I'd prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote," said Rhodes. "But that's impossible."

But it was the echo chamber that made public debate impossible. That was its purpose.

According to the echo chamber, no critic or opponent of the Iran deal was operating in good faith. They were all liars or warmongers, or disloyal and bought by a foreign government. The White House and its media surrogates trafficked in plainly anti-Semitic conceits to intimidate opponents, like leaders in the American Jewish community and even lawmakers from the president's own party, like senators Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez.

But perhaps the clearest illustration of how the administration and its allies waged its campaign comes from a report published by the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit organization headed by David Albright, a physicist who among other distinctions cooperated with the IAEA's Action Team from 1992-1997. Albright and his organization were not opposed to a negotiated agreement to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, but made themselves inconvenient because they consistently made recommendations about how to close loopholes the Iranians might exploit in the future. And so the echo chamber went to work. An excerpt from ISIS' 2014 report, "Iran's Stock of near 20 Percent LEU under the Extension of the Joint Plan of Action" describes the echo chamber at work:

Several media outlets and groups, including Al Monitor, Arms Control Association (ACA), and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) have omitted this aspect of the story in their reporting on the extension agreement. For example, ACA and Al Monitor both stated, "Iran will convert 35 additional kg of its [ACA stated Iran's] remaining 75 kg of 20% oxide into reactor fuel," without discussing the large fraction of near 20 percent LEU that has not ended up in fuel assemblies. NIAC did the same in a policy memo with a few more words added for clarity's sake and made more mistakes in its reporting on the extension. These groups have little in-house technical expertise and thus should avoid making snap judgments without the added background of technical analysis. However, this explanation does not completely explain the errors and omissions. The information about the TRR fuel is readily available in International Atomic Energy Agency reports and each of these groups analyzes to some extent these reports. In addition, although perhaps not intentionally due to the confusion over the provisions, these groups also mistakenly reported on the limitations in the November extension agreement, incorrectly describing additional monitoring as "snap" inspections and misunderstanding limitations on the IR-6 centrifuge.

But as another problem, there appears to be groupthink going on among some of these and other groups leading to a willingness to uncritically and unwaveringly support the interim deal and defensively react to any compliance questions. In the past, at least, individuals from these three groups in particular participated in a Ploughshares Fund sponsored Iran listserv that shared and shaped positions on addressing the Iranian nuclear issue in the media and in analysis. Based on ISIS staff's experience as participants on this listserv a few years ago, this shaping too often devolved into poor analysis. ISIS first attempted to improve and correct analysis, and then ISIS staff decided to remove themselves from the listserv. It is unclear if the groupthink element and one-sided shaping are happening here, or if the listserv still exists, but it is worth asking.

Ploughshares believes that silencing critics of a flawed nuclear agreement and filling the public sphere with incomplete or false information is heroic. In the organization's 2015 annual report, board chairwoman Mary Lloyd Estrin wrote of "the absolutely critical role that civil society played in tipping the scales towards this extraordinary policy victory." It's perhaps not surprising that Ploughshares confuses the people and institutions it supports with the public sphere, but in this case at least it's precisely the opposite.

Civil society is the assortment of institutions, like the media, the academy, non-governmental organizations, etc. that exist apart from and frequently in opposition to the government in order to express the will of the citizens of a free society. Its purpose is to inform those citizens so they are better equipped to make decisions about their lives and the life of the nation and thereby hold their government accountable.

But Ploughshares conscripted journalists, researchers, and NGOs to do the opposite, and to promote what everyone acknowledges was the Obama administration's most fundamental second term agenda item, what Rhodes once described as the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare. What Ploughshares did was to pollute the public sphere with self-validated and self-validating noise for the purpose of deceiving the public on behalf of the state. It seems that for the Ploughshares Fund, the highest form of patriotism is manufacturing consent.

If the White House threatened to punish Democrats tempted to challenge the deal, Ploughshares helped lawmakers feel better about caving in. They paid for think tanks to produce incomplete or erroneous factsheets, they paid for journalists to publish it, and they paid for lobbyists to carry it to Capitol Hill.

Still, Rhodes may be giving Ploughshares too much credit. The president of the United States usually gets his way in foreign affairs. Ploughshares' spirited push-back against right-wing institutions like the New York Times Magazine and the Associated Press is perhaps best seen as a fund-raising campaign: Sign on with the winners who helped the White House win.

As we are starting to see now, the echo chamber wasn't just a political instrument used to win a policy debate. It is also the manifestation of a political sensibility of an administration whose spirit of governance is fueled by contempt and paranoia.

Neither the White House nor the Ploughshares Fund believes that it endangered democratic society by corrupting the public sphere. No, they preserved it by helping to shut out one side. You can't have a rational debate, said Rhodes. And that's because the people who most threaten your peace, prosperity, and liberty are those you share a country with. It's because the gravest danger you face is not an Iranian terrorist who says he is at war with you, but your neighbor who votes differently than you.

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