Iran's President Claimed Israel Supports ISIS on National TV and No One Noticed

Trump's impeachment has so dominated the news cycle that Iran's president going full raving anti-Semite barely made a ripple

What if I told you that the news this past week was so insane that Iran's president Hassan Rouhani went full anti-Semite on national television and claimed Israel supports ISIS and nobody noticed?

Because that actually happened:

CHRIS WALLACE (incredulous): Israel supports ISIS?!
ROUHANI (smiling): Certainly! Undoubtedly! Do you have any doubts?

As many of you know, anti-Semitism often takes the form of a conspiracy theory that casts Jews as nefarious string-pullers behind every evil in the world. Pick something awful—even the weather—and you'll find someone blaming the Jews for it, whether in the form of George Soros, the Rothschilds, the Israel lobby, or countless other stand-ins. “The Goebbels Gap,” I like to say, is the amount of time between something terrible happening in the world and someone figuring out a way to pin it on the Jews. The "Israel is behind ISIS" conspiracy theory is a textbook contemporary example.

Notice Rouhani’s grin when he declares that Israel supports ISIS. Does he actually believe the conspiracy theory he is espousing, or is he purposely lying and knows it? To be honest, I don’t know which prospect is more disturbing.

It’s worth unpacking Rouhani’s claim to understand just how despicable it is. One popular version of the “Israel ❤️ ISIS” conspiracy holds that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is actually a Mossad agent named Shimon Elliot. (No, really.) The Iranian president’s spin on this anti-Semitic absurdity is more sophisticated. He claims that Israel helps “injured ISIS fighters.” He is referring to Israel's humanitarian medical treatment of thousands of Syrian victims of Assad's barbarity, including women and children, over the last six years. Because Israel does not “card” the wounded people it treats, it stands to reason that some of them have been affiliated with ISIS. Thus, like the best anti-Semites, the Iranian president twists admirable Jewish behavior into evidence of essential evil.

In reality, ISIS has been shooting missiles at Israel from the Sinai, and Israel has been battling them on its border fronts.

Why this matters

You might be tempted to dismiss this outburst as old news. After all, the Iranian regime is controlled by a Supreme Leader who publicly denies the Holocaust in slickly-produced videos. Of course its president is cut from the same cloth!

But Rouhani’s rant and the relative silence that has greeted it remind us of two important things:

1. Trump has completely hijacked our national attention span. We are rightly preoccupied with his manifold misdeeds and the impeachment process surrounding them. But this Trump-suck means that we don’t have the bandwidth to absorb and reckon with other pressing problems around the world. And this creates greater space for bad actors like Rouhani to proliferate and operate with impunity.

2. No one should underestimate the awfulness of the Iranian regime and the implications of that for global security. It’s one thing to understand the necessity of negotiating with terrible actors like Rouhani to prevent worse outcomes in a messed-up world. But that should never lead us to whitewash his skin-crawling mendacity, or to understate the global disaster it would be if his regime obtained nuclear weapons. Rouhani’s grinning bigoted bile is a reminder of how difficult it is to negotiate rationally with someone when they don’t share the same reality as you, and are preoccupied with hateful conspiracy theories about how the world works. (Sound familiar?) Just because we have to do it doesn’t mean we should be naive about the trustworthiness of our interlocutors. Today and tomorrow, no American leader should take this regime’s claims at face value.


My goal is to help as many people as possible understand some of the most vexing issues of our time—all in plain English and without condescension. If you liked this post and want to support this sort of journalism, please be sure to subscribe to get future installments directly in your inbox, and tell your friends about it!