June 5, 2006


Military destiny and madness in Iran (Spengler, 6/06/06, Asia Times)

From a game-theoretical standpoint, therefore, Iran could postpone nuclear-weapons development with little prejudice to its ambitions. When Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatens to wipe Israel off the map, he is expressing a heartfelt sentiment rather than a practical policy, for Israel has a nuclear arsenal large enough to make Persian an extinct language overnight. Mutually assured destruction is a frightful policy, but it did keep the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union through 40 years of Cold War, and it is conceivable at least that a similar uneasy peace might prevail between Iran and Israel.

Iran's main strategic objectives are the Iraqi, the Azerbaijani, and eventually the Saudi oilfields, but its preferred and most successful methods are infiltration and subversion through the Shi'ite majorities who inhabit oil-rich regions on its borders. A collateral objective is to keep pressure on Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has sufficient rockets to destroy the Haifa refineries and other important Israeli targets.

Nuclear weapons, therefore, have little offensive value for Iran at the moment. To achieve its long-term ambitions, though, Iran cannot do without nuclear capability. In the event that the United States and its allies (if it still has any) were to attack Iran to forestall a regional oil grab, nuclear weapons would be of great use to Iran, either as a way of attacking enemy staging areas, or as a terrorist device.

If Iran were offered (1) subsidies for civilian nuclear technology, (2) research capability that kept the nuclear option open for the future, (3) a free hand among Shi'ites in neighboring countries, (4) endorsement of an oil pipeline to Pakistan and India, and (5) security guarantees from the United States, the Iranian government would agree to abandon the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade, at least for the time being.

Europe happily would make such an offer, for the present generation of Europeans wants nothing more than to pass away in peace. "Apres moi le deluge!" does not begin to express Europe's aversion to conflict. But the United States will veto the concessions that Iran demands unless Iran abandons its Shi'ite co-religionists in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Indicative was National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's accusation that Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. President Ahmadinejad already has boasted of Iran's ability to hurt Western countries if Iran comes under attack. Iran's influence among terrorist organizations constitutes a retaliatory weapon against the Western nations. The United States will not tolerate an agreement that leaves an Iranian knife at its throat.

But Iran's leverage against the West depends on the Shi'ites' enormous capacity for self-sacrifice (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 12, 2005). It cannot betray allies with whom it has ties of religion as well as blood without undermining its capacity to deploy such forces in the future. After more than a millennium the Shi'ite moment in history appears to have come, and no government can rule the major Shi'ite country without offering a path to victory for its denominational allies.

That is why it is so hard for Iran to bargain away its nuclear ambitions. As long as Iran lacks nuclear weapons, the Western powers (as well as Israel) have the option to scotch its plans at will. Without nuclear capability, Iran must live under the constant threat of an attack against which it cannot defend. Ahmadinejad's generation of Iranians, who came to adulthood in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and bled for their cause through the terrible Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, is determined to secure Iran's greatness for the ages.

To the contrary, young Iranians aren't just pro-American but even pro-Bush and have no interest in Ahmedinejad's imperial project, which is why he not only fears asking them to make any sacrifices, hasn't cracked down on the loose behavior of the young and has even truckled to popular opinion in incidents like the soccer kerfuffle. Spengler reminds one of those in the West who always insisted that the Russian people were fully behind the Soviet empire and willing to sacrifice their own standard of living to the Revolution. This persistent error underestimates the normal human selfishness of those living under non-responsive regimes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2006 8:45 AM

I don't see the conflict between your assertions and his. He speaks of "Ahmadinejad's generation of Iranians", who are over 40, and you speak of "young Iranians." It seems to me you're both right.

The Bush administration is using democracy and freedom to try to win over young Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon - so far, successfully. Spengler's point is that insofar as this tactic promises to succeed, it increases the motive for the likes of Ahmadinejad to bring about war sooner.

Posted by: pj at June 5, 2006 9:55 AM

Khatami and the other reformers are from that generation too. There just isn't broad support for destroying Iran to achieve a pipe dream. Iranians want a better life for themselves, just like people everywhere.

Posted by: oj at June 5, 2006 11:50 AM

I don't know why you think Khatami is a reformer.

Iranians want a better life for themselves, but this desire is strongest among the young, who will benefit from a better society for many more decades than their older countrymen. And among the older generation, there is a division between those in power and those out.

The regime members haven't given much evidence that their primary goal is bringing a better life to their countrymen. If that were their goal, they wouldn't be torturing and killing so many demonstrators, as you can see proof of on the various Iran/Azerbaijani/Kurd expatriot websites.

Posted by: pj at June 5, 2006 1:15 PM

That's not Ahmedinejad's primary goal, which is why he won't be re-elected.

Posted by: oj at June 5, 2006 2:19 PM