By Nader Hashemi
My training is in political theory. I get paid to theorize. When I attempted to do this recently in the context of an interview on the heinous attack against Salman Rushdie, several Colorado Jewish organizations condemned me. I was accused of “scapegoating Jews for intervening in international affairs” and echoing “ancient blood libels” that “reeks of antisemitism.” CNN’s Jake Tapper, in a since-deleted tweet, amplified a message with my photo that accused me of being a “pro-Iranian regime” academic spreading “a vile form of Jew-hatred.”
The controversy started last week when I appeared on the Iran Podcast hosted by the respected journalist, Negar Mortazavi, a critic of the Iranian regime. The subject of our conversation was Iran and the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie.
I was asked about the politics and possible motives behind the attempt on Rushdie’s life against the backdrop of the Iran nuclear deal. I speculated on three possible scenarios. My theorizing was motivated by a basic political science impulse: is the timing of the attack significant and who stands to benefit?
First, I suggested that Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old attacker, was self-radicalized online. Internet radicalization is an undisputable fact of our contemporary world. It is entirely plausible he did this on his own. Secondly, I looked at regional states that might have a compelling interest in targeting Rushdie. The Islamic Republic of Iran tops the list. Not only did they issue a 1989 fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder, but they have never revoked or repudiated it. Recently, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with an attempt to assassinate John Bolton in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top general Qasem Suleimani in 2020. The Islamic Republic has a long and sordid history of targeting its enemies aboard.
On a related point, rogue members of the IRGC could have been indirectly involved in the attack on Rushdie. The timing of the attack is important here. It occurred at the precise time when reports were emerging that diplomacy to revive the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) were coming to fruition. From the outset, Iranian hardline factions have opposed the JCPOA. Their financial empire has significantly expanded under US sanctions, and they have bolstered their mafia-like control over Iran’s economy, their various smuggling networks, and an expansive patron-clientelist system. They have a direct material interest in scuttling nuclear negotiations.
Critically, there is reporting to suggest that Hadi Matar had online contact with the IRGC. Could he have been lured into staging this attack? In my interview, I suggested this possibility. A NATO counter-terrorism official agrees with me. The “stabbing had all the hallmarks of a ‘guided’ attack,” this European official said, “where an intelligence service talks a supporter into action, without direct support or involvement in the attack itself.”
There is a third scenario worth pondering. What if the man posing online as an IRGC operative was a Mossad agent? Is this theory within the realm of the possible? During my interview, I extemporaneously speculated on the topic and for good reasons.
According to Hadi Matar’s family, he became intensely religious after returning from Lebanon in 2018. He was born and raised in the United States, and all reports suggest he is not an educational success story. As a result, it is quite likely that he was not fluent in Arabic or Persian. At best, he possessed conversational Arabic skills. This is common among second-generation immigrant children. These facts are highly significant. They suggest that Matar’s access to the ideological propaganda of Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran was limited to English language sources.
If you enter the media world of Hezbollah and Islamic Republic militancy, especially the much smaller English language sources that Matar could access online, there has been very little discussion of Salman Rushdie in recent years. Rushdie’s name rarely appeared and for good reason. Iran’s targets have shifted in the 33 years since the death sentence was first issued. Iranian state propaganda had changed accordingly. Salman Rushdie himself has acknowledged this point. In recent years, he traveled the world with little security. Life was “very normal again,” he told an interviewer two weeks before the attack. These details are important to remember when we examine the life of Hadi Matar.
Critically, we are talking about a short period of time (2018-2022) when Matar might have been perusing Iranian/Hezbollah websites after his militant conversion in 2018. During this period, there was almost zero focus on Rushdie within this world of Shia militancy. Any possible exposure to the case of Salman Rushdie that Matar might have had was further limited because he could only access English-language websites.
Significantly, Matar was born 10 years after Khomeini’s infamous fatwa was issued. Given these conditions, how did he first become aware of Salman Rushdie? How did Matar develop his obsession with Rushdie? What motivated him to organize a plot to assassinate the British author? These are important questions that merit investigation. During my short interview on the Iran Podcast, I briefly considered these questions. As I have argued here and, on the podcast, it is entirely plausible that it was an IRGC member who lured Matar to upstate New York where Rushdie was stabbed. But it is also possible that a Mossad agent posing as an IRGC operative might have groomed Hadi Matar.
What corroborating evidence might point to an Israeli link?
First, Mossad has a long history of covert activity across the Middle East, including false flag operations. The Lavon Affairin Egypt in 1954 and bombings in Lebanon between 1979 and 1983 that killed hundreds of people is part of this history. There is also a legacy of Mossad assassinations. According to the prominent Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman: “since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world.”
This brings us to Iran. Israel and the Islamic Republic are unofficially at war. Israel’s targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and IRGC officials and covert action against important nuclear and economic sites within Iran have been widely reported. A few of these have been via false flag operations.
Equally significant is Israel’s fervent opposition to diplomacy between Iran and United States. In a video clip aired on Israeli television, Netanyahu boasted that Israel was responsible for Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal. Israel has gone to extreme lengths to kill the JCPOA, even risking a confrontation with its closest ally. This has included leakinginformation Obama officials gave to the Israelis about the nuclear negotiations with the intent of killing the deal. It also includes the hiring of investigators to dig up personal dirt on Obama’s top national security advisors who were promoting the deal and the killing of Iranian scientists at the precise moment when sensitive negotiations were taking place.
How might Israel benefit from an attack on Salman Rushdie?
If Salman Rushdie were to be assassinated by an Iranian-inspired militant, it might galvanize Western public opinion, at a critical moment, to halt nuclear talks with Iran, perhaps ending them forever. A core Israeli objective – for which they have invested enormous resources – would have been achieved. Having tried everything else to derail US-Iran diplomacy, this last desperate effort, at the precise moment when a nuclear agreement seems imminent, lends credence to my speculation. Is this idea farfetched? Perhaps. Is it within the boundaries of reasonable debate? Absolutely. Adding credence to my speculation is a statement last week by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. “We will do everything we can” to stop the JCPOA’s revival.
Given this backdrop and context, did my impromptu theorizing on a hypothetical Israeli role in the attack on Salman Rushdie to kill the Iran nuclear deal cross a moral redline? Did it merit condemnation? Was it tantamount to promoting Jew-hatred, as CNN’s Jake Tapper has suggested?
There is a long history of false accusations against Jews. This must be acknowledged. From the blood libel to blaming Jews for the bubonic plague, the Russian Revolution, spreading Communism, seeking global domination, orchestrating 9/11 and the Iraq war. Sadly, this discourse has also penetrated the Arab-Islamic world in modern times. But is that what is going on here?
The Mossad is an intelligence agency, an arm of the Israeli state. To axiomatically equate it with world Jewry is as nonsensical as suggesting the CIA represents Christianity. This claim does not stand up to critical scrutiny. In the moral imagination of my critics, however, this conflation passes for reasonable debate and as a result, any theorizing about Mossad promotes anti-Semitism.
To highlight the absurdity of my accusers, consider a relevant parallel. Roughly one week after the attack on Salman Rushdie, Darya Dugina was assassinated in Moscow. She is the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a prominent far-right philosopher and supporter of Vladimir Putin. Immediately, academic and East European experts speculated on this event. Who might have a motive, who stands to benefit, who is the perpetrator?
Various theories were advanced in the media from the Ukrainian Special Services or even Russian factions upset by failures in the Ukraine war and Dugin’s sharp criticism of them. This form of speculation is typical in the aftermath of a shocking event but notes a critical difference. No Western academics were subjected to orchestrated campaigns of defamation, slander, and intimidation for offering an opinion. No one was accused of bigotry. This type of slander disproportionately happens in the context of the Middle East and it is motivated by an attempt to police the debate on Israel.
There is a long history behind these efforts. Fifty years ago, the distinguished Israeli diplomat, Abba Eban, observed that “one of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism [i.e. criticism of Israeli state policy] is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism.” When Jimmy Carter published his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he was accused of anti-Semitism by the same organization that leveled the charge at me. More recently, when Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published their reports on Israeli apartheid, they too were accused by the same Jewish organizations who slandered me, of fueling global anti-Semitism.
Critical analysis and discussion of Israel can veer into anti-Semitism. It can easily be exploited for nefarious ends by unsavory groups. Those of us who teach, write, and work on the Middle East must always be sensitive to this exploitation. To suggest, however, that my extemporaneous theorizing on the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, in the context of sensitive Iran nuclear negotiations, comes anywhere close to promoting bigotry, is to stretch credulity to the breaking point. Not only are these accusations entirely false, but they are also extremely defamatory as well.