ISSN 2330-717X

Understanding Iran – OpEd


In times of deep crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to understand the thinking and priorities of one’s adversary, in this case Iran.  I don’t use “adversary” at all personally, but in the sense of that country being at odds with one major power in the region, Israel, and one major international power, the U.S.  Unfortunately, there have been lots of garbage published about Iran’s motivations, much of it in the Israeli press and a good deal in the U.S. press as well.  But fortunately, there has been much clear-eyed analysis as well.

The NY Times and Haaretz have published a number of stories purporting to analyze what Iran might or might not do if attacked.  They’ve also attempted to read the tea leaves concerning the terror attacks over the past week in Georgia, India and Thailand.  These reports reveal little about Iranian thinking and much about the limited perspectives of the reporters and policymakers whose views they represent.  To take a case in point, Scott Shane and Robert Worth published a story titled, Frantic Actions Hint at Pressure on Iran Leaders (which was toned down in the online version to Aggressive Actions…) that claimed that the terror attacks attributed by many to Iran are a sign of the desperation of the Ayatollahs.  Other Israeli reports have practically chortled at the “amateurishness” of the agents carrying them out.

Here’s an example of the Times’ breathless reporting which reveals little worthwhile either about Iranian motivation or behavior:

A string of aggressive gestures by Iran this week…suggest that Iranian leaders are responding frantically, and with increasing unpredictability, to the tightening of sanctions by the West.

This betrays a certain cluelessness in analyzing the behavior of nations.  When you’re attacked repeatedly by an enemy, why wouldn’t you respond as Iran has done?  Why would a reporter divorce himself as Shane and Worth do here from the context of the story, that is the prior Israeli attacks on Iran?  Iran looks frantic and unpredictable only if one views this week’s incidents divorced from that context.  And it is context which separates yellow journalism from good or great journalism.

They continue their narrative by claiming “the belligerent moves by Iran actually underscore [its] weakness.”  This is also the line of much Israeli reporting which dismisses the likelihood of any serious Iranian response to an Israeli attack by saying the leadership knows that it might be overthrown if it threw everything it had at Israel.  The Times reporters in their article fill in their portrait of a hapless, erratic Iran by dismissing any Iranian offer of talks as lacking substance:

…Most analysts doubt that Iran is ready to make a diplomatic overture that the West will take seriously.

They even postulate (attributing this “insight” to the proverbial “some analysts”) that irate statements by Ayatollah Khamenei against Israel (in which he called it a “cancerous tumor”) to his desire to “provoke a limited war with Israel. ”

There is one problem with this type of reporting which seeks to find the chinks in Iran’s armor.  It will look very smart until Iran carries out a successful terror attack.  Then it will look absolutely stupid.  Terror is a savage and unpredictable club.  It can be wielded effectively for a time and then a single disaster can make everything that came before look bad.  Or it can fail abysmally until it doesn’t.  Israeli leaders are crowing like roosters at their partnership with MEK and the rows of corpses of dead generals and nuclear scientists it has produced.  But what happens the first time Israel stumbles (remember the mess Meir Dagan made by assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabouh in Dubai?) or worse?

Iran has failed in many of these attacks it purportedly carried out this week.  But what happens if it topples an Israeli embassy in some country?  Then we’re likely to have a full-scale war.  This may or may not be what Israel or the U.S. had in mind before they launched their covert campaign against Iran.  But after lightning strikes in the form of a massive terror incident it won’t matter what we thought would happen.  By then we’ll be sucked into a military escalation that will likely spiral out of control.

Barack Obama ought to ask himself if this is what he wants his foreign policy to look like going into a presidential election?  A protracted war against Iran fought on behalf of Israel.

Now, let’s turn our attention to some damn fine journalism.  I haven’t read anything this good about Iran in weeks, if not months.  Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor writes about the day after Iran gains nuclear capability.  Will the sky fall?  Will the Shahab 3′s be flying toward Tel Aviv?  Or will something different and more complex happen?

He notes the historical parallels to China in the 1960s.  At that time, Mao Zedong issued regular bellicose threats concerning China’s nuclear intentions and its ability to withstand a nuclear war.  They would make any statement by Khamenei look like a school boy’s taunts in comparison:

“China in the 1960s was viewed, at least in the US, as a crazy state – certainly no saner, no more stable, no more understanding of the world than Iran is today, so in a sense we’ve been through this,” says Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University…

As with Barack Obama today, Lyndon Johnson was similarly challenged as to how the U.S. should respond.  There were American generals who proposed bombing Chinese nuclear facilities to prevent it getting a bomb.  But LBJ wisely demurred.  China got the bomb and the skies didn’t fall.  But it could’ve gone either way:

“No country in the post-World War II period – not Iraq, Iran, or even North Korea – has given US policymakers more reason to fear its nuclearization than China.”

In addition, we should add that China, unlike Iran, didn’t pursue an opaque nuclear policy.  It pursued a nuclear program as fast it could that led directly to nuclear breakout and a sizable nuclear arsenal.  Iran’s program couldn’t be more different.  Even Gen. James Clapper in recent Congressional testimony confirmed Iran had not yet determined whether to create a nuclear weapon.  Many analysts don’t believe it will ever do so unless it faces an existential threat or crisis which convinces it to go through the final steps that would be necessary to produce a device.

Returning to the China historical analogy, how might we expect Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon to affect its overall approach to its neighbors?  Most analysts believe that China’s behavior after it got the bomb became more mature and reasoned than it had been before nuclear breakout:

“Nuclear weapons did not make China more hostile. If anything, its foreign policies became less aggressive and more mature over time,” noted Dr. [Francis] Gavin [of the University of Texas]. “Nuclear weapons could make Iran more aggressive. Or, as with China, they could provide international legitimacy and security, making Iran less aggressive than it has been.”

One of the other revelations of Peterson’s article is his interview with one of Israel’s most eminent military historians, Martin Van Creveld, who dismisses the notion that the day after Iran gets a bomb it will pose an existential threat to Israel:

“Absolutely nothing will happen,” says Van Creveld…”Israel has what it takes to deter Iran, and the Iranians know it.”

Mr. Van Creveld is implying that Israel’s own nuclear arsenal of an estimated 200 warheads would prevent any Iranian first strike. Israel has the only such arsenal in the Middle East, and – unlike Iran’s program – it has never been subject to UN inspection or safeguards.

“Say they build one bomb – it’s not good enough. They need how many – 2, 3, 5, 10, 20? And that will take them a long time, so it’s all nonsense,” says Van Creveld. Iran is “not going to commit suicide by dropping the bomb – or even threatening to drop the bomb – on us.”

The Israeli historian then compares this dread of an Iranian nuclear weapon to historic hysteria here in the U.S. regarding other imminent nuclear states:

“Over the years [the Americans] developed a whole theology of fear about other countries acquiring nuclear weapons,” says Van Creveld, the Israeli historian. “First was the Soviet Union, which we all know was hegemonic and expansionistic and Marxist and Godless, and they didn’t like apple pie,” he says. “Then it was against…France, for…reasons linked with NATO. Then it was Mao Zedong who was going to blow up the world, and then it was us [Israelis] though they never said so publicly. Then India …All these thousands and thousands of [nuclear] warnings which have been issued since 1949, and none … ever came true.”

So the world has two choices: it can lose its head and lapse into war; or it can keep its cool and figure out how to address a nuclear Iran in a sensible, pragmatic way as Lyndon Johnson did after China got its weapon in 1964.  It’s a mark of the decline in the quality of leadership throughout the world that we don’t have faith that Barack Obama can conduct as sensible a policy as Johnson did.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *