Not What They Seem

Jerusalem Post

March 6

The essence of the Purim story is that things are often — usually — not what they seem. That is the rationale normally given for the custom of dressing up, to make that very point. However, this idea is rarely extracted from the abstract and applied to real-life situations in the here-and-now, although it can and certainly should be..

But where better to start than Persia, scene of the Purim story in the country’s imperial heyday — but now known as Iran. As our esteemed Prime Minister pointed out to the worthy members of Congress the other day, we Jews have had considerable experience with nasty Persian potentates down the millennia and centuries. But he made sure not to mention –although he surely knows, that Iran is not at all what it seems. The late unlamented Mao Zedong would have quickly identified it as a ‘paper tiger’, yet it would be difficult to find even faint echoes of this in the millions of words of analysis poured forth by the legions of commentators before, during and after Netanyahu’s speech.

Behind the ballistic missiles and whirring centrifuges, Iran is facing a demographic implosion of massive proportions, with the birth rate plunging from its pre-Islamic revolution levels of some 7 births per woman down to European or sub-replacement levels today. This information, as Bibi would have said, is not obtainable only thanks to daring espionage operations or sophisticated intelligence gathering. It is openly accessible from UN and even from Iranian sources. Indeed, the Iranian leadership — you know, those awful ayatollahs — talk about it quite openly ad make no attempt to hide the fact that they view it as a major national crisis and a potentially devastating threat. No doubt they blame the Jews for causing it, but so far nothing the government has tried has succeeded in turning the tide.

This dire long-term disaster comes on top of the immediate and rapidly-worsening economic crisis that is engulfing Iran, as the plunging price of oil leaves the government with a huge budget deficit. Between economic strangulation and demographic asphyxiation, Iran is not in good shape and is certainly not in a position to throw its weight around regionally, let alone globally.

But that clearly isn’t stopping it trying to do so and, it can be argued, the prospect of fiscal bankruptcy and physical attenuation is not guaranteed to make the fanatic clique that runs the country nicer people or more amenable to reasoned argument. On the contrary, it may well make them more desperate and urgent in their messianic crusade. It is no reason to make concessions to them and it certainly doesn’t make the deal under negotiation any more palatable. But if you know those facts, it makes you look at and think about Iran in a completely different way.

Neighbors of the Iranians, not as nasty, vicious and generally Hamanic as the Shi’ite regime in Iran, but still doing a good job in revealing themselves as irrepressible, irrational anti-Semites is the ruling Sunni Islamist party in Turkey, the AKP, led by the ever-more-autocratic former-premier-now-president Erdogan. The Israeli leadership and media are somewhat more circumspect in describing this gang, perhaps because we still do a lot of business with Turkey or because there are still a lot of Jews living there. But the media make the same mistake, of focusing on the foam from Erdogan’s rants — which certainly make good copy — and not bothering to examine some basic facts about Turkey.

Were they to do so, they would uncover the same syndromes that so severely affect Iran. The country is suffering from a demographic funk, in which the birth rate has plunged to well below replacement levels, especially in the big cities and among the main Turkish ethnic group. Alongside this long-term challenge is the immediate and chronic problem of the country’s balance of payments deficit which, in plain language, means that it is reliant on external financing. If that isn’t plain enough, it means that they have to borrow to get by.

Turkey and Iran have something else in common, which is a large cohort of educated, Westernised young people who are not enamoured with the religio-political orientation of the regime. True, the level of political repression is much higher in Turkey — although Erdogan is working hard to catch up — but both countries may be described as potentially explosive in a socio-political context.

The make-believe extends to the Western media’s latest bogeyman — ISIS. Bibi played on the American media’s obsession with ISIS but, once again, things are not what they seem — in this case, the threat posed by ISIS is nowhere near as severe as it is portrayed. Indeed, as soon as an organized and determined force is directed against it, ISIS is revealed to be no more than a criminal gang of maniacal murderers suffering from delusions of grandeur.

Underestimating your enemies’ strengths is potentially fatal, but overestimating them is not helpful — especially when you have a lot of enemies and have to prioritise dealing with them.

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