“Iranium” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Military Option”

By Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib
26 January 2011, 2:47

The Israeli filmmakers who brought you Obsession and The Third Jihad are at it again. In just a week, they’re set to launch their new documentary, Iranium, an hour-long look at the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.

The new Clarion Fund film, bolstered by slick graphics and archival footage, lays out cases for attacking Iran and an official U.S. policy of regime change. From the interviewees to the movie’s producers and writer/director, most of the participants espouse hardline, hawkish views on Iran.

The film opens with a history lesson that begins in 1978 with the first signs of the widespread unrest that would eventually topple the Shah. Iran’s despotic dictator is presented as “a long-time ally of the United States,” as the film’s narrator, Iranian actor Shoreh Aghdashloo, explains.

Then comes the Islamic Revolution, and the film places the blame squarely on the fecklessness of President Jimmy Carter.

“The fact that Jimmy Carter did not support the Shah in his time of difficulties actually signaled to the Iranian people that the Shah’s rule was over,” says Harold Rhode, a disciple of Bernard Lewis (who also appears in the film) and a former Pentagon analyst involved in Douglas Feith and his Office of Special Plans’ activities building a public case for war with Iraq.

Rhode’s comment hints at themes that keep reemerging throughout the documentary: The belief that Middle Easterners respond only to shows of strength, and that, while Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have been weak on Iran, Ronald Reagan’s supposed strength was respected in the region (with the exception, of course, of his withdrawal from Lebanon after the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks there were bombed in 1983).

The partisan outlook should not come as a surprise: Most of the analysts interviewed in the film are drawn from two neoconservative Washington think tanks that have supported Republican policies and derided Democratic ones. (Two Democratic representatives appear in the film; both are pro-Israel hawks closely associated with the neoconservative movement.)

A central interviewee — one who passes along a list of largely unsubstantiated links between Iran and al-Qaeda as facts — is Clare Lopez, a fellow at the Center for Security Policy (CSP). Both Lopez and CSP head Frank Gaffney, who also appears in Iranium, were just named to Clarion’s advisory board. Retired Air Force general Thomas McInerney, also in the film, sits on CSP’s Military Committee.

The other Washington think tank to which the film owes a great debt is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which lent no fewer than six of its experts to the effort: Interviews are shown with Reuel Marc Gerecht, Mark Dubowitz, Michael Ledeen, Walid Phares, James Woolsey (also an honorary cochair of CSP), and FDD president Cliff May (a former top flack for the Republican National Committee).

Among the FDD experts, Gerecht has been the most strident in calling for an Israeli or U.S. military attack on Iran, while Dubowitz has focused on sanctioning Iran’s energy resources (though, in the film, he’s the one who points to U.S. public support for attacking Iran). The FDD recently held a conference on Iran at which its scholars, among others, advocated for escalating measures against the Islamic Republic.

The film doesn’t depart from this modus operandi. After a long buildup describing Iran’s desire to spread the Islamic Revolution abroad (such as through its alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez), the film describes the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s public avowals of the program’s peaceful aims are dismissed, and the next section — titled “Pushing the Button” — explains how the world won’t be able to deter Iran from using a weapon.

“Americans and Europeans are really uncomfortable with the idea of holy war and mass murder for religious reasons,” Cliff May says in the film. “Because they can’t imagine that for themselves, they also can’t imagine that others behave that way. But this is a failure of imagination.” Bernard Lewis compares the inability to deter a nuclear Iran with Iran’s use of “martyrs” in the Iran-Iraq War, in which young Iranians were sent across Iraqi minefields.

But both these generalizations miss a key point: Iran’s leaders, despite a willingness to sacrifice citizens, have demonstrated that they are concerned primarily with themselves. Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon would almost certainly imperil the regime’s survival.

The Clarion Fund itself appears to be an offshoot of the evangelist, ultra-orthodox Jerusalem-based Aish-HaTorah. While the film primarily shows American Iran-hawks, the filmmakers themselves retain close ties to the Israeli far right. Their first big movie, Obsession: Radical Islam’s War With the West, was promoted by a coalition of neoconservatives and ex-Israeli diplomats — and condemned by American Muslim groups as “Islamophobic.”

A major Republican donor, Barre Seid, reportedly funded the $17 million distribution of Obsession into nearly 30 million homes in “swing states” during the run-up to the 2008 election.

Israeli-Canadian Clarion chief Raphael Shore produces all of Clarion’s films, and brought Alex Traiman, an apparent Israeli-American West Bank settler and former radio host at Israel’s religious right channel, to write and direct Iranium.

If the filmmakers and their interview subjects don’t reveal the ideological underpinnings of the project, the location and emcee of the film’s February 1 Washington premiere should. The event will be hosted by the Heritage Foundation, with arch-neoconservative Richard Perle (an advisor to both CSP and FDD) giving introductions. That screening will set off several weeks of premieres across the United States, with Iranium showing at AMC Theaters and other locations.

A cancelled pre-screening in Ottawa, Canada, last week caused a controversy and even a small diplomatic row. A scheduled showing at the National Archives was called off after the Iranian embassy there objected and anonymous threats of protests were made. Ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government complained, and the Iranian embassy received a note affirming Canada’s devotion to free speech. A minister ordered the archive to show the film.

Clarion’s last film, about a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to take over America, was labeled a “wacky movie” by a NYPD official after it was screened for officers and, subsequently, deemed “inappropriate” for further police showings. Iranium may be equally “wacky,” but it maintains a grave tone, with countless stock video clips of missile launches and a soundtrack of suspenseful music that might be used to score a thriller.

The film’s narrative, at a few points, might surpass the credulity of its audience: Gaffney, whose views on Islam recently provoked a Muslim conservative to call him a “crazy bigot,” hauls out his go-to electromagnetic pulse threat and Phares earnestly declares that the United States should support the Green Movement because U.S. foreign policy “around the world” is “basically to stand with the underdog.”

The criticisms of Obama keep coming through the end of the film. In 2008, during the Obsession controversy, Clarion briefly posted an article on its website endorsing John McCain. In Iranium, sandwiched between two clips of the president speaking, Rhode makes a shocking statement: “The fact that the United States keeps giving into [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is a signal to the Iranian people that American policy is to support Ahmadinejad.”

Tighter sanctions and increased support for the Green Movement are both endorsed in the section titled “Stopping the Regime,” but Clarion’s experts also favor keeping the “military option” on the table.

“If Israel feels compelled for reasons of self-preservation to mount an attack against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, the United States will nevertheless be blamed for the Israeli attack and the United States will be drawn into the aftermath of such an attack no matter whether we were part of it at the beginning or not,” explains CSP’s Lopez.

While the film’s justification for military action appears to hinge on Israel’s willingness to launch a unilateral attack, recent comments from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan pushing back the Iranian nuclear clock may pose a challenge to the sense of urgency expressed by Clarion’s experts and the narrative of imminent conflict crafted by the film’s producers.

Iranium fits nicely into Clarion’s oeuvre. Like the producers’ previous movie, it portrays a clash of civilizations, suggests that Muslims value death over life, and portrays irrational hatred toward Israel and anti-Semitism as key to comprehending the anger and frustration voiced by Muslim countries against the United States. While Iranium does little to elaborate on these basic tropes about the Muslim world — in this case, mainly Iran — the formula for the Clarion Fund’s anti-Muslim propaganda is becoming more apparent with each new iteration.

Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton are New York-based journalists who blog daily on U.S.-Iran relations at

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