A Dose of Reason On Iran

When issues heat up, especially those that may involve potential armed conflict, the one thing you can count on is that reason generally goes out the window. The forces promoting conflict tend toward demonization and distortion to frighten people sufficiently so they will back military action while anti-war tend to ignore the very real concerns that might exist with the country in question, sometimes even praising those who should not be praised for “standing up to imperialism” or some other ism.

The United States’ military action in Iraq as well as the simmering conflict between Israel and Syria, the worsening situation with the Palestinians and on top of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah have greatly increased the instability in the never-stable Middle East. The prospect of an attack on Iran would greatly magnify the already considerable instability even by Mideast standards. Though I have never believed Iran would be attacked and still don’t, those pressing for such an attack have increased their efforts greatly, so the possibility is greater than ever. Some rational analysis of this situation is sorely needed.

Iran as a real threat

Let’s start with this: Iran is a threat. Iran has long harbored ambitions of expanding its influence in the Middle East, and the destruction of Iraq removed the biggest barrier to their goals. Iran is the leader of the Shi’ite world, a part of Islam much smaller than the majority Sunni, but also a group whose people happen to be situated in several countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) on top of large oil deposits.

Iran’s relationships with both the US and Israel have been severely strained since the overthrow of the US-sponsored Shah in 1979. The Iranian populace is not likely to soon forget that the brutal Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was reinstated in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup, despite the official apology for this dastardly deed that the US issued in 2000. Iran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric as well as their support for anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah is a fundamental part of their populist appeal in the Muslim world.

But the greatest threat Iran poses is not to the US or Israel directly but rather to the other key US client in the region, Saudi Arabia. With a majority Shi’ite population in both neighboring Iraq and in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have long feared increasing Iranian influence. Iran’s growing popularity in the region, especially as compared to the cynicism which the Saudi ruling elite inspire, makes the Saudi royal family distinctly nervous, and with good reason. While Iran cannot pose a real military threat to the US or Israel, it can do so against Saudi Arabia, especially if it can rally popular forces against the rulers. This is not an immediate danger, but it is a long term one, and one which the Saudis fear more than any other.

Domestically, Iran’s revolution of 1979 did not bring about the sort of reforms the populace hoped for. Recognized religious groups enjoy protection under the law. There are three non-Muslim groups offered such protection: Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Other religious groups, most notably the Baha’i, suffer extreme persecution, which can even include execution. Women’s freedom in Iran took a major step back with the revolution, as this was a relative strength of Iran under the Shah. There remains a bloated bureaucracy despite a relatively strong social safety net, and corruption remains a major problem.

Iran’s nuclear program

The nuclear issue is, obviously, the most pressing today. It’s hard to imagine that Iran is not attempting to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iranians can see as well as anyone else the difference in the American approach to nuclear North Korea and non-nuclear Iraq. Moreover, Iran lives in a heavily nuclear neighborhood. Not only are American nuclear weapons positioned in the area, but Iran is much closer than the Arab states to nuclear powers Russia, Pakistan and India. China isn’t far away either and Iran also borders notoriously unstable Afghanistan, which, though unlikely to ever possess nuclear weapons, is generally a source of instability for the whole region. And, of course, there is also Israel’s worst-kept secret, its own nuclear arsenal. In such a situation, Iran has every reason to pursue nuclear weapons.

That said, there remains no conclusive proof (though there is circumstantial, but far from decisive, evidence) that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Developing nuclear power and converting that capability to weapons is not a small step, but many people equate the development of nuclear power with weapons development. This is simply wrong, and it’s important to point out that Iran, as a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is entitled to develop nuclear power for energy use. There is also reason to believe that Iran is sincere in its statements about its disinterest in nuclear weapons and, even if they do develop them, it is not the threat it is made out to be.

While I detailed the reasons Iran would want nukes, the fact is that they can never hope to compete with Israel in the nuclear arena. They simply don’t have the defense budget for it. Moreover, despite the horror stories we hear, Iran wouldn’t be capable of developing a nuclear weapon that could reliably target Israel for many years–their missile technology is not strong and, while they do have missiles that are capable of reaching Israel, they don’t have many and the accuracy of those they do have is not all that good. Obviously, Iran would not want to risk a significant possibility of missing Israel with a nuclear device and instead hitting an Arab state.

But more to the point, nothing in Iran’s history suggests they would make such an aggressive move. Their proactive military actions have been limited to the use of proxies, like Hezbollah. They were attacked by Iraq in 1980, and despite their fiery rhetoric, Iran has never directly attacked anyone. While it is fairly well equipped to fight a defensive war on its own terrain, its army and navy are not strong enough to seriously challenge a powerful enemy. So, Iran’s posture has generally been defensive militarily while it tries to advance its aims through other means such as support of various Shi’ite forces in other countries.

When it comes to international affairs, Iran under the Ayatollahs have not always played nice, but what country does? It has always been a rational actor in pursuing its interests, however. Despite its theocratic nature, Iran has not behaved in the international arena in an irrational or fanatical manner. This is precisely why many military experts, including a good number in both the US and Israel, believe that the world can live with a nuclear Iran. As Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli military expert says, “Since 1945 hardly one year has gone by in which some voices — mainly American ones concerned about preserving Washington’s monopoly over nuclear weapons to the greatest extent possible — did not decry the terrible consequences that would follow if additional countries went nuclear. So far, not one of those warnings has come true. To the contrary: in every place where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale wars between their owners have disappeared.”

Israel surely does not want to see a nuclear Iran. That is more than understandable; Israel itself would not be acting rationally if it took any other stance. Iran’s possession of any nuclear weapons would break Israel’s regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, and that impacts their strategic advantage. Still, that advantage would remain considerable.

Israel’s, as well as the United States’, interests and concerns are deeper than the simplistic explanation that a fanatical Iranian government would risk its own destruction in order to nuke “the Zionist entity.” While that sort of thing scares the hell out of people and therefore increases support for an aggressive stance — up to, and including an attack on Iran — it is inconceivable that Israeli or American leaders really believe this is a possibility. Israel and Iran have maintained clandestine communications all through the years of the theocratic reign in Iran; they realize as well as everyone else who is familiar with Iran that a nuclear attack on Israel is not a real possibility. The threat of such an attack can easily be sold to the Israeli and American publics because they are almost universally unfamiliar with the real Iran.

No, the concern is the breaking of Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Mideast as well as the threat Iran and the Shi’ite population in Arab countries could conceivably pose to the Saudis and the smaller Gulf monarchies. This is a justifiable fear and it is reasonable for the US and Israel to work to prevent Iranian possession of nuclear weapons. But it is not such a grave threat that it justifies military action which would greatly increase the already unmanageable instability in the region.

What about Iran’s crazy president?

When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Columbia University and the United Nations in New York this week, the response was powerful. Many protests and calls for Ahmadinejad to be barred from entering the country were heard. Columbia president Lee Bollinger embarrassed both the university and the country with his scathing attack on Ahmadinejad when he was supposed to be introducing him to the audience. No matter how deep the enmity is for a visiting foreign dignitary, this was inappropriate behavior. Either don’t invite him or maintain an air of civility. Bollinger need not have praised Ahmadinejad, but his behavior was unnecessary and, in the end, it didn’t stop petitions from circulating that he be fired for having allowed Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia anyway.

In the end, all of this only made Ahmadinejad look better. He handled the situation gracefully despite the insult and got to air his absurd and poisonous views. As several writers have pointed out, if Ahmadinejad didn’t exist, he’d have to be invented. In some ways, he both exists and has been invented. Bollinger’s apoplectic performance reflects the intensely fearful specter Ahmadinejad has become. It is common to see him compared to Hitler and pictures of him juxtaposed with one of Hitler are common. I’ve received in the mail and seen in many places photos of Ahmadinejad with a mushroom cloud behind him. This is the worst kind of fear mongering and it displaces rational analysis.

It is this fearful image of Ahmadinejad that drives much of the popular support, such as it is, in both Israel and the US for an attack on Iran. But is it justified?

Ahmadinejad is most certainly an anti-Semite. His sponsorship of a conference for Holocaust deniers under the guise of seeking historical truth (for an historical episode that, it needs to sadly be noted, is better-documented than any other atrocity because the perpetrators themselves wanted to keep such meticulous records of their savagery) makes that point quite clear. Yet in the one realm where Ahmadinejad could actually affect Jewish lives, that of Iran’s own Jewish population, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has done so. Iran’s Jews, some 30,000 in number, face some serious problems with anti-Semitism in Iran by most reports, (reports which also indicate that the current Iranian Jewish community still feels comfortable in Iran and are not seeking to leave en masse) but none of this has gotten any worse since Ahmadinejad became president.

Ahmadinejad also can be a clown, which is certainly the way he came off when he said that “we don’t have homosexuals in Iran like you do here.” It’s certainly true that you can’t see them in Iran, as no one would be suicidal enough to do anything but keep such a fact quite secret there. But the comment shows something about the simple approach Ahmadinejad takes to religion and his general bigotry.

Ahmadinejad is also virulently anti-Israel, but the oft-repeated quote of his that “Israel should be wiped off the map” is a mistranslation, whether deliberate or not. It was taken from a speech in which he was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini. As Professor Juan Cole explains:

“The phrase he then used as I read it is ‘The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad).’

Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope– that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah’s government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’ with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.”

Ahmadinejad is certainly not trying to be warm and fuzzy to Israel; he is trying to rally populist anti-Israel feelings around him. But what he is not doing is calling for war.

But more important than this is the simple fact that Ahmadinejad is simply irrelevant to the dealings with Israel. He does not make foreign policy, and he has no control over the military, other than a scant few forces that are at his command for use domestically. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to rally support are becoming increasingly desperate as well, as his popularity in the rest of the Muslim world (where it’s not exactly flying high either) is a lot higher than it is in Iran. His presidential term has been marked by scandal and inefficiency. The Iranian economy is on a downward skid and Ahmadinejad is being blamed.

Moreover, his election over former president Akbar Rafsanjani was largely a choice between a candidate who was more conservative than the populace wanted (Ahmadinejad) over one whose previous tenure had been marked by extreme personal corruption (Rafsanjani had grown quite rich while in office amid many scandals. While corruption continues under Ahmadinejad, this is seen as his failure, but he is not seen as profiting from it as Rafsanjani did). Ahmadinejad’s extreme religious views are not sitting well with the Iranian populace and neither are many of his domestic policies. This has led to protests and agitating against him. Meanwhile, the ruling theocrats are not pleased with his antagonistic stances with the West, or his handling of domestic and economic issues (ironically, one issue that got him in trouble was his decision to allow women to attend male sporting events, albeit sitting in a separate section). His long-term future is not very secure and his ability to influence foreign policy from within has been whittled to next to nil.

Ahmadinejad is simply not a factor in Iran’s military plans. He is being used to frighten people. The people Ahmadinejad is a threat to are Iranians. He is completely unable to threaten Israel, much less the US. His involvement in the nuclear issue is entirely confined to energy; the decisions about weapons, both their manufacture and their use, are not his to make, or, at this point, even to influence. While the president is a foreign emissary and representative, he does not make foreign policy decisions; the Supreme Leader does that and, while the post of president is expected to be involved in such processes, Ahmadinejad’s fall from favor with Ayatollah Ali Khameini has marginalized him. The chances of his surviving the next election are extremely slim.

So what should be done?

When one considers how much brinkmanship is involved in matters like the Iranian nuclear issue, one can understand that the US and Israel do not want to take military options off the table in view of the Iranians. But the forces pushing for such an action must be confronted firmly by more sensible minds. The simple fact is, an air strike has only a small chance of success anyway and the backlash will be severe. Iran probably can’t do a lot about it directly, but it will ripple across Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. And a ground assault would be a worse nightmare than Iraq.

Israel would do well to take up the challenge Iran issued last week and disclose their nuclear weapons and grant the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection of their nuclear facility at Dimona. This does not require them to give up their current arsenal, and barring them from making more weapons should not be a significant factor–the number they possess are already a more than sufficient deterrent. Israel should, of course, only do this if Iran grants full and unfettered access to their nuclear facilities to the IAEA.

The United States needs to drop its opposition to Israel-Syria talks and instead promote such conversations with the goal of getting Israel to consummate the deal that was so close during the terms of both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak for a return of the Golan Heights in exchange for full normalization of relations between Syria and Israel. This would not only contribute to regional stability, it will disrupt the Iran-to-Hezbollah pipeline that runs through Syria.

These two conditions would allow the US to take advantage of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations and work with Iran to stabilize Iraq. Iran has a vested interest in opposing the Sunni militias and terrorist groups, many of whom have a passionate hatred for the Shi’ite regime. This is a partnership that can happen and can lead to much-improved relations between the US and Iran, something that would also please America’s European friends.

While a permanent peace between Iran and Israel is not as immediately necessary as it is for Israel and its Arab neighbors, right now these two powers are already clashing by proxy and that leaves open the possibility of a more direct conflict. Both Iran and Israel need to alter their approach for the current tensions to ease. As Iran expert Trita Parsi puts it in the conclusion of his new book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US: At a minimum, Iran must accept the two-state solution and reduce its regional ambitions by settling for a role that doesn’t clearly outstrip its resources…Israel, on the other hand, must amend its military outlook because its belief that it must dominate the region militarily will likely put it on a collision course with Tehran regardless of Iran’s ideology, political structure or policies.”

These are not idealistic dreams, they’re achievable goals. It won’t be easy, but Iran is by far the weakest party involved. This is not the same as dealing with the Palestinians, who have no real government and are largely governed by ideological constraints much more than rational decision-making because the decision-makers are not as empowered as governmental leaders are. In this case, if the stronger parties change their approach to employ not only a stick, but both a carrot and stick, there is every reason to believe that the Iranian leadership will react positively.