Russia, Iran, & the Future in the Mideast
An exclusive interview with Natan Sharansky on the eve of
President Bush's summit with Vladimir Putin.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Students of end-times prophecies know Ezekiel 38-39 foretells the rise of a dictator (Gog) in Russia (Magog) who will build an alliance with Iran (Persia) and other Islamic nations, and threaten to devour a newly peaceful State of Israel.
Such students will want to take note of President Bush's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin February 24-25, in Slovakia. Mr. Bush was expected to confront the Russian leader on his increasingly dictatorial moves, Russia's nuclear relationship with Iran, and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now dramatically accelerated by the recent peace summit in Egypt.
To better understand the challenges ahead in Russia, Iran, and the Middle East, Tyndale novelist Joel C. Rosenberg (author of the forthcoming The Ezekiel Option, July 2005) interviewed former Soviet dissident-turned-Israeli Cabinet Member Natan Sharansky. The following article appears in WORLD magazine (www.worldmag.com).
Interview with Natan Sharansky
(Washington, D.C.)—When President Bush landed in Europe for the first foreign trip of his second term, he arrived with historic accomplishments under his belt.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, democracy is again on the march. The Taliban is dead and Afghanistan held its first successful democratic elections in 5,000 years. Yasser Arafat is dead and Palestinians just elected a self-proclaimed "moderate" who vows to cut a peace deal with Israel. Ukrainians in December elected a pro-Western reformer, after preventing the democratic process there from being hijacked by pro-Kremlin cronies. Most dramatic, Saddam Hussein's regime has been toppled and more than 8 million Iraqis turned out to vote January 30, despite ongoing violence.
That said, serious challenges lie ahead. Among them: turning Arab and Israeli talk into a just and lasting peace agreement, pacifying Iraq, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and persuading Russia not to retreat from the democratic reforms of the 1990s into a new form of fascist authoritarianism.
On Tuesday, February 22, Mr. Bush met with NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels. On Wednesday, he landed in Germany to meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Thursday and Friday he traveled to the Slovak capital of Bratislava for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But it is the President's meeting on November 11 with Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky that has leaders in Europe and the Middle East scratching their heads. Why would Mr. Bush get so excited about Mr. Sharansky's new book, The Case ror Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, that he would hold an hour-long discussion in the Oval Office that The New York Times dubbed the "Bush book club"? Why would the President urge Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, his own speechwriters, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to read Mr. Sharansky's book? Why has he used it to shape his inaugural address and State of the Union speech?
The President himself addressed such questions in January on CNN. "This is a book by Natan Sharansky, who is—was imprisoned in the Soviet Union. He's an heroic figure. He's now an Israeli official who talks about freedom and what it means and how freedom can change the globe. And I agree with him. I believed that before I met Natan Sharansky. This is a book that, however, summarizes how I feel. I would urge people to read it."
WORLD magazine asked me for an update on the eve of the President's trip to Europe. As a former aide to Mr. Sharansky, I wrote the first in-depth portrait of the Bush-Sharansky Oval Office meeting in an essay for National Review Online last November. On Saturday, February 12, I sat down with Mr. Sharansky at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., to conduct this interview for WORLD magazine.
WORLD: Your new book, The Case for Democracy, has become a New York Times bestseller. You have just finished a media blitz through the U.S. that includes appearances on Meet the Press, the PBS NewsHour, NBC Nightly News, two presentations before Members of Congress, a speech at Harvard, and a flurry of talk radio programs. Why do you believe there is such interest in your views on democracy right now?
SHARANSKY: There are two reasons, really. The first is 9/11. The second is President Bush.
After the horrible attacks on America on 9/11, many people in the United States began to realize that Western attempts over the years to bring about stability by supporting dictators in the Middle East have been very problematic. Dictatorships are inherently dangerous and belligerent, and 9/11 made many people realize that it is not enough just to destroy the terrorists. You must change the governing structures in the countries that produce the terrorists.
For 20 years I've been saying that it's better to have a democracy that hates you than a dictator that loves you. Why? Because a democracy is unlikely to wage war against you, but you never know what the dictator will do. Many people thought my speeches and articles on this topic seemed either too abstract or too grounded in my struggle with the Soviet system, but not practical to life in the world as it now exists [in the post-Soviet era]. Also, the desire within Western democracies to find immediate solutions to problems always seemed to encourage Western leaders to find "reliable dictators"—dictators with whom we could "do business"—as their first choice, rather than to push certain countries to become true democracies.
But President Bush, from the very beginning hours after 9/11, saw this new war as a challenge between the world of freedom and the world of terror …. And he made it clear that we must not only destroy terrorists. We must also encourage the change of regimes that have long supported terror.
More recently, President Bush has declared that he shares my belief in this connection between freedom and security. So now even the skeptics have to take a serious look at what I'm saying, because the leader of the free world is talking about this as well. I was once an isolated dissident [for democracy]. But now in President Bush I have found another dissident as well.
WORLD: One major test of "the case for democracy" was the recent elections in the West Bank and Gaza. How would you assess new Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a., "Abu Mazen") so far? Do you share Prime Minister Sharon's optimism that the conditions are ripe for a "historic breakthrough" with the Palestinians?
SHARANSKY: No doubt there is a new opportunity, and there are two factors. The first is new leadership. Sometimes it is easier for new leadership to change the course of a country or a people from the direction of past leaders because they are not fully responsible for the decisions of the past. So they have some room to maneuver. Second, the most important reason for optimism is because the leader of the free world believes and is saying openly that the only path to peace and security in the Middle East is to expand and promote democracy.
Will it really happen? That is still a very big question, and I am very, very cautious. Look, it doesn't matter how good or bad Abu Mazen is. The question is whether the world will make a linkage between democratic reforms in the Palestinian society and the peace process. Even if Abu Mazen really wants to make peace and really wants to create a healthy democracy in the Palestinian society, it won't be easy for him. He will only do it if there is a strong demand of him from the U.S., Israel, and Europe. He will only do it if the free world says, "We will only keep embracing you and supporting you if you embrace democratic reforms, if you keep moving to create a free society instead of a fear society."
Obviously, President Bush is making this linkage. But he is a rather lonely voice on this topic, both outside America and even inside America. There are not many other voices echoing the President yet. Even the career diplomats within his own State Department seem uncomfortable with the notion of supporting freedom and democracy. So we shall see.
WORLD: Do you believe Mr. Abbas is a peace-maker at heart? Is he capable of reining in Hamas and other terror groups? Why would they listen to him?
SHARANSKY: He can [crack down on the militants]. But he'll only do it even he has no other choice. Abu Mazen needs to be pressured by the free world. He needs the free world. He needs their verbal support, their financial support, their encouragement and legitimacy. So the U.S. and Europe and our own government have a lot of leverage. We need to keep pressing him to do the right thing. If he cannot or doesn't want to, then we have no interest in him as a partner.
WORLD: What was your reaction to the recent elections in Iraq? Are you optimistic about Iraq's future?
SHARANSKY: I am very optimistic. We should be clear that a democracy has not yet been built in Iraq. It is being built. It was wonderful to see those elections. But free elections usually come at the end of the democratic process, not the beginning. There is much more to be done to create democratic institutions and to create a society where people feel free to think what they want and say what they want and criticize their leaders without fear of reprisal. Still, the elections were an important first step.
People demonstrated that they were ready to take big personal risks to vote, and that was extraordinary. How many Americans would go to a polling station if there was a very real chance that they could be killed for voting? Less than 70 percent, I would guess. Does that mean Americans love freedom or democracy less than the Iraqis? Of course not. But it certainly means that the people of Iraq are determined to be free. They have had a very hard experience of living in a fear society, and when given an opportunity of moving from a fear society to a free society, they risked their lives to do it. That's a powerful message to the rest of the region and the rest of the world.
WORLD: Shifting to Russia, a growing number of observers in the West are concerned that Vladimir Putin is becoming a new Russian dictator. They point to the Kremlin's takeover of television stations, jailing of political opponents, and ending democratic elections for the governors of Russia's provinces. As someone who grew up in Russia and spent nine years in a KGB gulag as a dissident, what is your sense of the future of democracy in Russia?
SHARANSKY: We hear two types of statements these days. The first is that Russia went back to the past because Russians like their old totalitarian regimes and that is somehow proof that Russians can't be democrats or don't want democracy. This is nonsense. The other sentiment is that the Russian government is engaged in some serious retreats from democracy and the world should be concerned, and that is absolutely true.
Look, for a thousand years Russia never was a democracy. But I believe the Russian people want to be free. There have been tremendous changes there in the past ten or fifteen years. Millions of people are not enslaved in gulags like they once were. Millions are not working for the KGB anymore. Millions do not live in fear that with one mistaken word they'll be thrown in prison. This is real progress. There have been some serious retreats. But look, twelve years after the French revolution there was Napoleon. There are ups and downs in the development of democracy in any country. Now Putin is restricting many areas of Russian life. The free world should not be hesitant to raise these issues or to encourage the Russian government to expand freedom, not restrict it.
WORLD: Should President Bush make this a top priority when he meets with President Putin in Europe?
SHARANSKY: Of course.
WORLD: Why do you believe Russia is selling nuclear technology to Iran when Iran is widely recognized as a terrorist state and, in President Bush's famous phrase, part of the "axis of evil"?
SHARANSKY: Well, you know I was involved for a long time in the negotiations [between Israel and Russia] to persuade the Russians to stop selling these technologies to Iran.
WORLD: You had secret meetings with then FSB-chief Putin back in 1997, didn't you?
SHARANSKY: Yes, yes, and many other meetings with Russian leaders over the years. And it is important to point out that it wasn't the Russian government that was directly selling the technologies. It was various Russian companies, and the Kremlin wasn't fighting it enough …. In 1997, Putin told me personally—and he happened to be absolutely right about this—that the day will come when it is clear that it is Western sales of technologies to Iran that will be just as critical to helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction, maybe more so, as Russian technologies. And sure enough, a year ago when the scope of Iranian activities were discovered, everyone could see that the technologies that flowed through Pakistan, England, and Holland have created a big danger. Unless something happens, within one or two more years Iran will develop nuclear weapons.
WORLD: Does your government believe this emerging Russian-Iranian alliance is a direct threat to Israel's national security?
SHARANSKY: The free world seems blind to taking effective measures to stopping this impending disaster. Now it must be clear that the free world cannot afford to permit the regime of the Ayatollahs to have nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The Iranians have made their intentions perfectly clear. They intend to destroy Israel and the other "Satans" in this world.
WORLD: What should be done to stop Iran from acquiring "the bomb"?
SHARANSKY: As I point out in my book, Iran is a unique example of a country where in one generation a society of true believers in radical Islam has become a society of double-thinkers. That is, in their hearts and minds most Iranians are disgusted with their government and disillusioned with radical Islam, even though with their lips they must avoid being critical for fear of government reprisals.
There are many Iranians eager to change their government. With some encouragement from the free world I think we can help the people of Iran to bring about democratic change. I was glad to see President Bush speak directly to the Iranian people in his State of the Union address. But it is not enough. The United States, and Europe—the entire free world—must do much more to encourage the forces of freedom and reform within Iran, before it is too late.
WORLD: What if it is already too late? Do you foresee a scenario in which Israel is forced to take military action against Iran?
SHARANSKY: If it is too late and democratic change will not happen in Iran, and so much time was wasted, and the free world was too cautious to support the dissidents in Iran, then there is a very real danger that Iran will get nuclear weapons. And the free world will have no choice but to act. But I don't want to discuss specific scenarios. Let us hope it does not go that far.
Joel C. Rosenberg is a former WORLD magazine political columnist and a New York Times best-selling novelist of The Last Jihad (about the demise of Saddam Hussein) and The Last Days (about the death of Yasser Arafat). His next novel, The Ezekiel Option, launches in July 2005 from Tyndale.