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Kooks With Nukes

The Journal Editorial Report

Stuart Varney: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," showdown with Iran. That rogue state refuses to halt its nuclear program as a U.N. deadline comes and goes. How should the U.S. respond? And it's back-to-school time for kids all across the country, and they're taking a lot more with them than notebooks and backpacks. A look at the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly in today's popular culture, and how it's influencing our children.

But first, these headlines.

Varney: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Stuart Varney, in for Paul Gigot.

A U.N. deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear program came and went this week, with that country's president defiantly refusing to compromise, saying Tehran would not be bullied into giving up its right to that controversial technology. The IAEA said Iran showed no signs of stopping its work, beginning enrichment of a new batch of uranium as recently as last week.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri joins me now from London. Amir, President Bush compares today's Islamists with the Nazis. And he's drawing a parallel, it seems, with the 1930s, and by implication the suggestion is that we're headed towards World War III. Do you think we're headed that way?

Taheri: Well, the war has already started. In fact, it started in 1979 when the Khomeinists invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized these diplomats hostage. But of course when we say war, we shouldn't think only of planes flying and huge armies with tanks and so on. This war has many different facets--ideological, low-intensity war, terrorism and so on. And this has been going on for nearly three decades now, and we are nowhere near seeing the end of it.

Varney: But do you think we are headed for the classic military confrontation, as in World War II?

Taheri: The classic military confrontation has already also happened, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And I wouldn't exclude it in the case of Iran either, although this might not be necessary at this moment. The worst thing to do would be to launch a few missiles at Iran and leave it at that, because what the present Iranian leadership wants now is a mini-showdown with the United States so that they can say, OK, we have had our showdown and we won, and we survived. You saw the similar case in Lebanon with Hezbollah recently. Hezbollah suffered very heavily, and Lebanon was damaged very heavily, and nevertheless they are claiming that they won. So one should not fall into that trap.

This is a war that requires patience and persistence. It has to be fought at many, many different levels. The military side of it should not be excluded, but there are lots of other things that could be done before we reach the military level of this war.

Varney: Like what, for example?

Taheri: Like, to start with, beginning to apply the sanctions that exist under the Nonproliferation Treaty. Like exposing the violations of human rights that the Iranian regime is doing. Like applying the sanctions under the Iran-Syria Act that the U.S. itself has passed and has not applied diligently. Like supporting the Iranian workers who are on strike, supporting Iranian student movements, Iranian liberal and democratic organizations, and the opposition inside and outside the country.

The Iranian economy is in shambles even right now. As you saw today, we had an air crash, which is becoming a frequent feature in Iran because the Iranian planes are not maintained. They can't have spare parts because of the sanctions and so on. A lot of money is leaving the country because of this uncertainty. And the continuation of this situation of uncertainty is very bad for the leadership. And--yeah.

Varney: Amir, if Iran is bidding for leadership in the Muslim world, and if Ahmadinejad wants to strengthen his leadership domestically, it would seem almost impossible for Iran to retreat and walk away from its plans to acquire nuclear weapons. It's almost impossible, isn't it?

Taheri: Yes, but, you know, at the moment, the package offered to Iran--and this is very important for people to understand--nobody is asking Iran to give up nuclear technology at all. What they are asking is the suspension of uranium processing and enrichment, maybe until next March. Anyway, Iran does not need to enrich uranium, because it doesn't have a single working nuclear power station. It is like, you know, somebody who buys gasoline but doesn't have a car, or a man who doesn't have a hair but wants to have a hairdryer.

So it is very easy for the present Iranian leadership to announce that we accept this package, we suspend uranium enrichment, which we don't need anyway, until next March when our first and only nuclear power station, built by the Russians, is supposed to start working, and then start negotiation. But they don't want negotiation. But they want confrontation, and they think because the West is weak, because the United States will soon be in retreat after President Bush has left the office, they can push it and then say, declare victory. They say, You see, we took up the infidel and the leader of the United States, and we have won.

Varney: Amir Taheri joining us from London. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

Taheri: Thank you.

Varney: More on the nuclear showdown with Iran when we come back. As the international community weighs its next step, are there moves the U.S. can make unilaterally? Plus, America's kids are heading back to school armed with a summer's worth of music, movies and celebrity scandal. Our panel's here with a culture check when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

President Bush:

It is time for Iran to make a choice. We've made our choice. We will continue to work closely with our allies to find a diplomatic solution. But there must be consequences for Iran's defiance. And we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

Varney: Well, as you heard there, as the international community ponders the next step in its nuclear dispute with Iran, a recent FOX poll says 43% of Americans believe we're not being aggressive enough when it comes to dealing with that rogue state. Are there unilateral steps, therefore, that the U.S. can take?

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial page deputy editor Dan Henninger, foreign-affairs columnist Bret Stephens and editorial features editor Tunku Varadarajan.

Bret, to you first. What could the U.S. do, on its own, that would give real pain and discomfort to Iran?

Stephens: I think there are two large things that the U.S. could do. First of all, much of the Iranian economy is controlled by the so-called Bonyad foundations. They're essentially monopolies. And they are run by key figures in the regime, like the Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who's a former president and still a powerbroker in Iran--has strong economic stakes in the country. All of these Bonyad have bank accounts in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia, and those banks have correspondent banks in the United States. Sanctions could be put on those banks.

The second thing is a gasoline embargo. People say Iran is an oil superpower, but it imports 40% of its refined gasoline, because it lacks its own refining capability. And most of that gasoline comes from a single company called Vitol, which is Rotterdam-based company. If you imposed a gasoline embargo on the Iranians, you would bring the Iranian economy, which as Amir Taheri said is already in a bad state, to an absolute standstill. That would really hurt, and that would change the internal dynamics of the Iranian regime.

Varney: OK. Dan, in the immediate future, the question is U.N. sanctions. Is there any chance that U.N. sanctions, if they were imposed, would have any effect at all?

Henninger: I don't think they'd have any effect on the Iranian regime's course--their intentions here. I mean, they're playing for a big prize. They're playing for political domination in the Persian Gulf with protection from Russia and China. And given that stake for them, I think these dinky threats from the United Nations and the Europeans and the United States are simply a fly that they're going to swat away until, you know, it comes to crunch time and the West is actually talking about something like military action. But there is really no incentive for the Iranians to back off the goal that they're seeking.

Varney: OK. How about Ahmadinejad? He's portrayed as messianic, almost a nut, if I may use the expression. But Tunku, isn't he playing a rather shrewd diplomatic game?

Varadarajan: Yeah, I think the biggest mistake people make is to treat Ahmadinejad--treat his theater as his reality. And I think the point that we're missing in all this is how astute Iranian diplomacy has been, and how much better than our own diplomacy it's been. Of course, our task is much harder. The United States needs to unite countries, effectively herding cats behind a sort of punitive goal. Iran's only aim is to divide countries, and it's always easier in diplomacy to divide than unite.

Stephens: There's also a template here. I mean, the Iranians--let's imagine that the harshest possible sanctions from the U.N. are applied on Iran. That would be something like the sanctions that the U.N. applied on Iraq. And we have a decade's worth of experience with those sanctions, which comes down to the Oil for Food scandal. That is to say, these sanctions were applied. They were supposed to be enforced by the Russians, the Chinese, the U.N. Secretariat and so forth. And Iraq and Saddam Hussein just ran roughshod over them because they had a commodity that the world really needed: oil.

The Chinese have natural-gas deals with the Iranians. The Iranians are looking for deals with the Japanese, the Russians of course, the French. And it would be improbable, to say the least, to imagine that even harsh sanctions could effectively work with the Iranians because the Iraqis showed how difficult it is.

Varadarajan: I'll make a bold assertion here. Sanctions don't work when they're imposed on countries that have something valuable to sell or that have regimes that don't care about their citizens.

Varney: That simple?

Varadarajan: Yeah.

Varney: What happens in the immediate future then?

Henninger: Well, in the immediate future, I think we go through this, basically, charade of discussing it in the Security Council, trying to impose sanctions on--restrictions on their travel, this sort of thing we're talking about right now. And this simply gives the Iranians time to push forward with the program, which clearly they've got under way.

I mean, it seems to me, there's one aspect of this that doesn't get enough attention, and that's the fact that Iran sits atop the Straits of Hormuz. And the Straits of Hormuz are this little narrow passage through which passes 20% of the world's oil. Now, if the West were going to be serious, they would move a military contingent of ships into the Gulf, explicitly telling Iran, we're going to protect the straits no matter what happens here. And that would at least give the Iranian leadership the sense that the West was going to get serious about protecting its own interests, which is what is at stake.

Varney: Briefly, panel--all of us--does the U.S. have the will to bomb Iran? Tunku?

Varadarajan: I don't think so. It doesn't have the will. And I think, probably for the moment at least, has the good sense not to do so.

Varney: Bret?

Stephens: I once predicted that it did. But I have to retract that prediction.

Henninger: I think that George Bush does have the will. I think that's the X factor in this equation. Bush has said he won't let them get nuclear capability, and Bush tends to stick by his principles.

Varney: All right.

When we come back, as children across the country head back to school, our panel takes a look at the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly in today's popular culture.

Varney: And welcome back. As children across the country head back to school, they're taking a lot more with them than a new lunchbox and some sharpened pencils. Oh, yes, from sneakers to cell phones, many American kids are taking their cues from celebrities, movies and music videos. So, is the cultural arrow pointing up or down?

Dan, you write on culture. I hesitate to call you a culture vulture, but you probably are. So which way is the arrow pointing for America's youth?

Henninger: Well, I guess I would say the arrow for America's youth is spinning.

Varney: Oh, come on.

Henninger: Well, they don't know which way to turn. I mean, on the one hand, you have a mass culture of the sort that was just on the screen--movies, music, television--which, by and large, is coarse and crude. I mean, the mass market for culture just generally grinds further and further downward. On the other hand, you have a kind of niche culture, smaller slivers, like J.K. Rowling and "Harry Potter" and--I mean, it is possible for parents to seek out good things for their children.

But the fact is the kids have to swim through the larger culture and, along with their parents, fight against these downward, constant downward pressures. Like, for instance, this week, you had The MTV video award, which was just the most incredible display of coarseness and grossness on television. And so the kids have got to somehow absorb this at that age and make sense of it. And it's a constant struggle.

Varney: I want to take this--sorry, Bret--I'm going to take this in a different direction, and chuck in my own two cents' worth. My two youngest children have just gone through a summer in which they had indoor entertainment, screen-based entertainment, text messaging and cell-phone communication. It was very different from the outdoor, run-around stuff of 10 and 15 years ago. So for me, the cultural arrow is pointing down. What say you?

Stephens: Well, look, I mean, the cultural arrow has been pointing down since the dawn of Western civilization--


--and people have been saying this. There was Elvis the Pelvis in 1954. In 1983, there was a presidential report, "A Nation at Risk," talking about how lousy the schools were. And people have been pessimistic about the culture for decades, and yet America has been doing OK. And that's because youth culture is exactly that. It's confined to youth, and most people tend to grow out of it. I mean, I'm every bit as much a product of the Ozzy Osbournes of my day, as you are, I suppose, of Elvis, and as my children will be of Marilyn Manson or whatever that guy's name is--


--or whoever will be popular in five or 10 years when they start becoming consumers of mass culture. My suspicion is that they're going to be OK. People grow out of it. And that's been the case with the United States since the day of the flappers in the 1920s.

Varney: Clearly, Bret, you are only just out of your own youth-culture period. Tunku?

Varadarajan: You know, the arrow is up or down depending on whether you're standing up or standing on your head. I mean, I think popular culture, or mass culture, has always been an organic thing. It's generated by the market in taste and the market in culture. And attempting to manage it is ill-advised, if not impossible. To me, the worry isn't so much with the popular culture in this country. It's with the elite culture, which I think has come to a standstill and stagnates. Look at the Larry Summers case at Harvard. I don't mind MTV. It's Harvard I worry about.

Varney: All right. Well, now, address my point. It's not so much the content of the culture. It's the way of life. It's that sedentary way of life. It's that screen-based entertainment. It's that text-messaging form of communication. Don't I have a point here, Dan?

Henninger: You have a slight point.


I mean, you're talking about basically the dumbing down of American education, where everything is kind of fast and easy, and you're going to Cliff Notes and so forth.

Varney: Yeah.

Henninger: But I have to disagree a little bit with Tunku on this point. The biggest problem, I think, is breaking down the distinction between private behavior and public behavior. A lot of this culture, like the MTV stuff and the movies, is based on sexual innuendo or sexual explicitness. There is nothing wrong with sex, but it's supposed to take place in the privacy of your bedroom or the privacy of your home, not to be made as public as it has been over the last 25 years. And this is, I think, the thing parents feel they are constantly fighting against as their young teenage children go off to junior high school and high school.

Varney: So the cultural arrow is not spinning, it's down, isn't it?

Henninger: It is grinding down, yes.

Varney: Bret, it's up?

Stephens: Look, as I said, kids grow out of being kids. And one large part of this is that popular culture is part of capitalist culture. And so, in a way, that shapes it and tempers it. It's not a sort of separate culture. It isn't basically at variance with what we do as a nation.

Varney: Bret, it sounds like appeasement to me.

Varadarajan: The problem--

Varney: Last word.

Stephens: Concessions to my childern. Varadarajan: The problem is not with our children's minds, it's with their bodies. They're too fat. They get enough affection, but they don't get enough exercise.

Varney: We're out of time. We could have discussed that forever.

Thanks very much. We have a lot more to take when we come back after this break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Varney: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses." It's our way of calling attention to the best and, yes, the worst of the week.

Item one, a New Hampshire college defends the free-speech rights of a professor who blames the government for 9/11. Dan?

Henninger: Yes, indeed. Prof. William Woodward of the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches psychology, is a member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, who believe that the federal government was actually responsible for what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, and apparently, has begun raising this subject in his classroom. So the governor has put out that he thinks Prof. Woodward is crazy and offensive. This caused the university, in turn, to come forth and say they're going to protect his academic freedom and that he is entitled to his opinion.

Well, thank heaven Prof. Woodward isn't trying to teach something really crazy, like intelligent design--


--in which case they'd throw him out on the sidewalk. And I guess what I feel about this is, it's fine if the University of New Hampshire wants to defend his academic freedom. But wouldn't it be nice if they could also say, We think the professor is a little bit nutty?

Varney: Well said. Bret, they are few and far between, but you, I believe, have a hit from Hollywood. What?

Stephens: Yup. Bruce Willis, Danny DeVito, Gary Sinise, James Wood, Nicole Kidman, Michael Douglas, Ridley Scott--they're among 84 people who signed a remarkable statement in the L.A. Times condemning terrorism and condemning Hezbollah and Hamas. And they wrote, in that ad, "If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die. We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs." You know, we do a lot of carping about Hollywood lacking moral clarity. But I think this is a case of Hollywood showing its eloquence and truthfulness and real clarity and courage, and they ought to be congratulated.

Varney: Well said, Bret.

Finally, Tunku, bring us up to date on what, a looming catastrophe in Pakistan?

Varadarajan: Yes. I'd like viewers to get used to the concept of Baluchistan. Since 9/11, curiously, the U.S. government has downplayed the importance of democracy in Pakistan; and Baluchistan, Pakistan's largest province, shows why this is a blunder. Earlier this week the Pakistani army killed a 79-year-old leader of the separatist movement in Baluchistan, a former governor of that province. Why should Americans care? Gen. Musharraf, a leading ally in the global war on terror, is killing his opponents at home, and he's in power because of our support. I think the irony of that, at the very least, should make us interested, to stay on it.

Varney: Well said. One hit of my own, if I may. Andre Agassi, at the age of 36, who beats a top-ranked 21-year-old in one of the greatest tennis matches ever. So game, set and match to Andre Agassi, a fellow traveler in middle age.

All right. That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks for joining us, from all of us. Paul joins us again next week.

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