The world is full of crazy old men. America has its share. But most of those crazy old men don’t go out in public to advocate America nuking other countries. And most of them aren’t major donors to right-wing American and Israeli politicians and think tanks.
Speaking on a panel New York’s Yeshiva University on Tuesday night, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson suggested that the U.S. launching a nuclear weapon into Iran would be the appropriate way to handle negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran,’” he explained. “’You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.’” The audience applauded.
Adelson got a lot of coverage during the 2012 presidential campaign for the amount of money he threw around. He contributed over $93 million to Republican super PACs, making him the single biggest donor to such groups “by a wide margin,” according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign-finance records. All told, Adelson and his wife Miriam dumped over $150 million of their personal wealth into the effort to defeat Barack Obama
Adelson is also a major donor to Israel-related causes, what he himself identifies as his primary issue. As to where he stands on the matter, keep in mind that this is a guy for whom the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—the powerful conservative pro-Israel organization currently pushing a deal-breaking hard line on Iran negotiations—is too moderate. He broke with the group in 2007 over its support for U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, calling the creation of a Palestinian state “a steppingstone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.”
In a 2013 piece in Salon, investigative journalist Eli Clifton reported that Adelson had donated over $1.5 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank that’s home to some of the U.S.’s most extreme anti-Iran hawks. One of whom, Reuel Marc Gerecht, talks about bombing Iran so much that even he jokes about how much he talks about bombing Iran. Another, Mark Dubowitz, admitted in 2011 that he sees the nuclear issue as simply a fig leaf for the larger goal of regime change in Iran.
“One can perhaps tolerate the views expressed on Tuesday night in semi demented, rich old uncles,” wrote journalist Lisa Goldman in a must-read report from the scene. “But not from a man who purchases and wields political influence at the highest levels.”
Yet in the discussion over Iran as it occurs in the U.S., particularly in Washington, there’s no norm against expressing views as odious as Adelson’s. Nor do any of the recipients of his considerable largesse see the need to distance themselves from his views.
There’s also the question of what impact these statements have in Iranian debates. Iran’s state-run Press TV has already picked up the clip. “If anything, such a statement is likely to strengthen the resolve of those in the [Iranian] regime who believe that Iran should build a nuclear bomb – for deterrence purposes,” wrote Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst from Israel. “After all, an influential political financier has just called for a nuclear first strike against their country.”
One would hope that Iranians might understand that the only reason Adelson was even on the stage the other night is that he’s just a rich old coot with a lot of cash to throw around, and not a real policymaker. On the other hand, as Javedanfar suggests, Iran’s hardliners can be as opportunistic as the U.S.’s own, seizing on statements from non-governmental actors and presenting them as official positions.
This was the case in 2011, when a conservative website in the U.S. reported that an Iranian documentary on the End Times revealed the true intentions of Iran’s rulers. The fact that the documentary was produced by an organization loosely affiliated with supporters of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and was quickly denounced by Iran’s most influential clerics, didn’t seem to matter. For many on the American right, the idea that Iran’s rulers just can’t wait to get a nuclear weapon in order to trigger the apocalypse—what I’ve referred to as “the martyr state myth”—is simply a matter of fact.
The impact inside Iran (no joke intended) aside, it’s worth taking a closer look at Adelson’s agenda, and the organizations and programs that he funds in order to advance it. Adelson has shown that he’s willing to pull his support even from conservative organizations like AIPAC that aren’t holding as hard a line as he would prefer. The question is whether the guy who wants to nuke Iran thinks he’s getting his money’s worth.