Goodbye to the myth of Iran’s “Mad Mullahs”?
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
After years of portraying Iran’s leaders as irrational actors driven by religious zeal, American neo-conservatives and their Israeli allies appear to be shelving the “mad mullah” argument used to underline the danger of Iran getting nuclear weapons. The mullahs are now seen as shrewd calculators of risk.
The change of tone was reflected in a report on Iran and the bomb by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Washington-based conservative think tank whose hawkish views influenced the decision-making on going to war in Iraq.
The report, published this week, is based on the assumption that sanctions and sabotage will fail and Iran will have a nuclear weapon by the time the next U.S. president takes office in 2013.
And how, according to AEI, has Iran behaved on the road to the nuclear club? “There is a clear pattern … Far from being hothead provocateurs, Iran’s leaders – including both Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei and President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad – often play a shrewd, long game … The nuclear program is a case in point. Each escalation – conversion, enrichment, installation of advanced centrifuges, higher enrichment – has been dribbled out.”
“Iranian leaders have rarely been willing to provoke a crisis merely to shift the ground inexorably toward a particular goal. Nor is this an aberration. Historically, the Islamic Republic has handled trouble well and it has often emerged with its goals achieved at the end of each crisis.” In a passage on Afghanistan, the study notes that “Iran has pursued a pragmatic, cautious policy to exert influence.”
Shrewd, cautious pragmatists? That’s a long way from a string of assertions by American hawks and Israeli leaders that Iran was working on a nuclear bomb with the express purpose of dropping it on Israel, in the full knowledge that doing so would be tantamount to national suicide given Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and second-strike capability. Irrational behavior taken to extremes.
The loudest warnings have come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told a meeting of American Jews in 2006, when he was still leader of the Likud opposition, that ”It’s 1938 (the year before World War II began) and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs (and) is preparing another holocaust for the Jewish people.”
The real concern, as the AEI report makes clear, is not that Iran would attack Israel but that a nuclear-armed Iran would profoundly change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East. That is “the real prize,” in the words of Thomas Donnelly, one of the authors of the report. It stresses that U.S. national security strategy for the past six decades has rested on the premise that for the United States, the Middle East is a critical region that must not be dominated by a hostile hegemon.
Containing a nuclear Iran the way the United States contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War would be difficult and costly, according to the report, and require more U.S. troops in the region than there are now.
PROBLEM WITHOUT SOLUTION
Aspiring to domination is a perfectly rational aim for Iran, the most populous country in the region (78 million) and achieving that aim has been brought closer by U.S. policies – first by knocking out Iran’s main rival, Iraq, and then by handing over Iraq to a government run by a prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who is much closer to Tehran than to Washington.
How to deny the prize of regional dominance to Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, is a problem whose solution has so far eluded the United States, its western allies and Israel. Ever tightening sanctions for the better part of a quarter century have failed to curb Iran’s ambitions. So has, more recently, a covert campaign of sabotage and assassinations.
How close Iran is to getting a bomb, or the capability to build one at short notice, has long been a matter of dispute between experts. Warnings of an imminent nuclear “breakout” go back to 1984. In the latest round of the nuclear guessing game, the shortest time line is six months, forecast this week by the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that Iran, which denies working on nuclear weapons, has mimicked the way Israel went about building its own nuclear arsenal in the 1960s, with a mixture of secrecy, denial and ambiguity. It is also uncertain whether there has been a political decision by Ayatollah Khameini to go ahead and make a bomb.
“The United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” President Barack Obama has said repeatedly, calling a nuclear-armed Iran “unacceptable.” That goes along with the assertion that “all options are on the table,” short-hand for a preventive military strike on nuclear installations.
It’s a message that would have more weight if it were not complemented by public comments about the inadvisability of military action. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for example, laid out in detail this month why he thought that an attack would do no more than set back the nuclear program for a year or two but result in a conflagration that would consume the Middle East.
His reasoning is sound but it results in a mixed signal from Washington. At times, silence is golden.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)