(Updated below with MJ Rosenberg’s take.)

For those who lament the utter lack of any compelling television discussion about foreign policy, particularly about U.S.-Iran relations, there was actually a very engaging conversation yesterday on MSNBC.

On the Dylan Ratigan Show, a midday program on the cable news channel MSNBC, neocon Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies debated Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald. The discussion was heated throughout, but picks up at about five and half minutes in, when May accused Ratigan of being anti-American. Then the discussion really dug into the actual threat posed by Iran to the U.S. — “Uncooperative, for sure, but just how dangerous are they?” asked Ratigan to kick off the discussion.

Check it out here (or here on Greenwald’s site), or watch the clip:

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Ratigan asserted that Iran is not a threat and May, for the second time, said that Iranians chant “Death to America.” Greenwald made two great points here: 1) That Iran sees the U.S. and Israel’s bellicose rhetoric against the Islamic Republic, and sees occupying U.S. armies to its East and West; and that 2) one need only glance at newspapers to see that America and Israel have launched numerous wars of aggression in recent decades, whereas to find an unprovoked Iranian attack on another country, one must go back centuries.

May, upon being accused of being a “warmonger,” asks: “How am I war mongering when I support President Obama and the sanctions, which is a way to peacefully…”

Greenwald interrupted: “What if the sanctions fail? Do you think the U.S. should attack Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program?”

May: “I think we have a big problem if the sanctions fail…”

Greenwald cut him off, and they went back and forth. “Why can’t you answer that?”

May responded: “I think we should…”

Then Greenwald came back: “You think we should. Exactly. That’s what makes you a war monger. You want to attack Iran even though they’re not attacking us, just like you wanted to attack Iraq even though they didn’t attack us. That’s what a war monger is: someone who wants to launch aggressive wars.”

May came back again with the Iranian slogan, “Death to America.”

“That’s all you got?” Ratigan asked, exacerbated, saying its “stick and stones.”

“You sound like a six-year-old,” Greenwald piled on.

May again restated the threat of slogans, citing the U.S. and Israel. “That may not concern you, you may think that’s not a problem. But happily most Americans watching Ahmadinejad on TV understand that.”

Actually, “most Americans” don’t. As I wrote last week on the big, new Chicago Council poll on American opinions about foreign policy:

[O]nly 18 percent of respondents think the U.S. should launch a military strike on Iranian nuclear targets now. Even if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop Iranian advancement toward a bomb, a slim plurality still think the U.S. should not bomb Iran (49 percent oppose it, 47 would support it).

The conversation overall was the sort of frank discussion we don’t see enough of on television: two impassioned figures on each side of a debate — a real progressive and a neoconservative, no less — and a host who takes sides with reason instead of with a misplaced notion of “balance” or “equal time.”

Update: MJ Rosenberg, a long-time insider and observer of Middle East affairs in D.C., gives his take on the Greenwald vs. May debate. In his Friday newsletter, which has been running more than a decade, Rosenberg places May’s hawkish position in the context of an uptick in chatter about bombing Iran. From the Political Corrections website, a project of Media Matters Action Network, where Rosenberg is a senior foreign policy fellow:

Greenwald opposes confrontation with Iran and believes the case for war is utterly phony.  May is a war hawk on Iran, as he was on Iraq.  (He also supports any and all Israeli military actions.)

May is kicking off the fall campaign to get America to support an Israeli attack on Iran.  Of course, an Israeli attack would be viewed by the entire Muslim world as a US attack and would, as our military warns, endanger US forces throughout the region.

The “Bomb Iran” campaign is just beginning. If President Obama does not stand firm, May and his friends may win the day as they did in 2003.

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