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Zakaria’s Iran Misconceptions
The IAEA’s report confirms our suspicions, not our hopes.


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In 2009, Fareed Zakaria wrote an article asserting that “everything you know about Iran is wrong.” Following the release of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Tuesday, November 8, it seems, rather, that Mr. Zakaria was wrong about everything. Zakaria suggested that Iran did not really want an atomic bomb; instead, it “could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program.” However, according to the IAEA report, Iran is not content with a civilian nuclear program, and is quickly developing nuclear-weapons capabilities. Iran is currently engaged in several projects that have no applicability for a civilian program, e.g., research on nuclear-payload delivery systems.

In his essay, Zakaria accepted Iranian leaders’ solemn pronouncements that they had no desire to acquire nuclear weapons. Both President Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that atomic bombs were “un-Islamic,” and Zakaria swallowed their statements. He did not seem to consider that strategic considerations make it prudent for the Iranians to disavow any nuclear ambitions. Throughout history, most nations have denied pursuing aggressive ambitions when a confession would have brought international opprobrium.

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The IAEA report depicts in stark terms Iran’s clandestine attempts to build nuclear weapons. Iran is in the process of procuring “nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals.” Iran is also developing “undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material” and has acquired “nuclear weapons development information and documentation” from former nuclear scientists. This allowed Iran’s development of an indigenous nuclear-weapons program.

But according to Zakaria, we should not worry, because “Iranians aren’t suicidal.” His proof rested on the corruption of leading Iranian officials: “Iran’s ruling elite is obsessed with gathering wealth and maintaining power . . . Many in the regime have been squirreling away money into bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland for their children and grandchildren.” Hoarding of wealth is not a sign of peaceful intentions. The Nazi leadership was infamous for stockpiling assets, and the possible dangers to their loot did not preclude them from starting the Second World War.

The difficulty then and now is that Iran does not view development of a nuclear weapon as creating an existential threat for itself. Neither Israel nor America has ever threatened to destroy Iran. The danger lies in what Iran could do with its nuclear capabilities. President Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “eliminated from the pages of history.” Zakaria made no mention of Ahmadinejad’s messianic beliefs, which have caused consternation in the West.

At the time, Zakaria scoffed at any worries the Israelis had concerning Iran. Rather, he viewed Israel as the dangerous state in the Middle East, quoting “one of Netanyahu’s advisers [who] said of Iran, ‘Think Amalek.’” Zakaria tried to twist the quote, interpreting the reference to the Amalekites, a group of people who were eventually eliminated in the Bible, as a desire by the Israeli leadership to eliminate Iran. It is far more likely that Netanyahu’s adviser was referencing the Jewish belief in the Amalekites, frequent adversaries of the Hebrews, as the eternal, existential threat that arises in every generation. Zakaria did not see Iran as such a threat to Israel; instead, according to him, Iran was possibly ready to make a deal with the West. Two years later, Iran rejected President Obama’s generous offer to trade enriched uranium for finished civilian nuclear fuel. It appears Iran is not prepared to negotiate in good faith.

The past few years have also not been kind to Zakaria’s other major assertion, that “Iran isn’t a dictatorship.” While he admitted that Iran is not a democracy, his equivocation that Iran is “an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent,” is laughable. The Iranians who were murdered or arrested during the suppression of the “Green Revolution,” just weeks after his 2009 article, or the 2011 “Day of Rage,” might disagree with his description. A leadership that is willing to fix elections and kill its own people to maintain its power seems an untrustworthy partner for negotiations. Yet Zakaria insisted that America must negotiate with Tehran.

There are times for negotiations and times for difficult choices. It seems that Israel has already begun a covert campaign to hobble the Iranian nuclear program through targeted assassinations, but only revolution or military action will halt the Iranian regime’s march towards nuclear weapons. As the world approaches the possibility of another major war in the Middle East, it may be time for Fareed Zakaria to admit that everything he thought he knew about Iran was wrong.

— Nathaniel Botwinick is an editorial intern at National Review Online.



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