Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran?

TIME: Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran?
January 23, 2008 11:39
Posted by Scott MacLeod / TIME

Mike Ghouse: Evil exists because good people do nothing about it. John McCain, and Guiliani are bent in destroying other nations, with our money. I'd rather see that money spent on education around the globe about the values of respecting different points of view. It is the war mongers like these that are destructive. I hope we speak up against these men. You cannot destroy others and not expect enemies for eternitiy, these guys are more dangerous to America and the world than any one else.

Leading neoconservative thinker Norman Podhoretz is back, and so is the campaign to bomb Iran

Podhoretz has a followup to his 2007 Commentary article, The Case for Bombing Iran, in a lengthy new piece arguing that his case is still valid despite the recent adjustment in U.S. intelligence's assessment of the threat posed by Iran. Podhoretz remains thoroughly convinced of the need to bomb Iran to prevent the Islamic Republic from gaining a nuclear weapon. He seems to maintain his faith in President Bush's determination to do the right thing. But he now believes that it may be up to Bush's successor to have the "clarity and courage" to discharge the "responsibility" for bombing Iran. If somebody doesn't do it, he believes, the outbreak of a future nuclear war will become "inescapable."

No doubt about it, this guy--a Giuliani campaign advisor, by the way-- is talking scary stuff. Podhoretz is accustomed to being labeled, as he puts it, "as a warmonger for contending that bombing was the only way to stop the mullahs from getting the bomb." He wears like a badge of honor the fact that he has been "excoriated by more than one member of the foreign policy elites" for rejecting a carrot-and-stick approach to Iran. It goes to his credit that Podhoretz does not pretend that bombing Iran would be free of dire consequences. "Iran would retaliate by increasing the trouble it is already making for us in Iraq and by attacking Israel with missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads but possibly containing biological and/or chemical weapons," he writes. "There would also be a vast increase in the price of oil, with catastrophic consequences for every economy in the world, very much including our own. And there would be a deafening outcry from one end of the earth to the other against the inescapable civilian casualties."
The reason for Podhoretz's WSJ update is his concern that the recent National Intelligence Estimate downplaying the Iran threat has now placed formidable political obstacles in the way of Bush's military option. The NIE, the consensus view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies released in December, stated that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons plans in 2003. The NIE said Iran probably acted due to international pressure, using a cost-benefit approach, and seemed to be less determined to acquire nukes "than we have been judging since 2005."

Podhoretz recounts the familiar litany of concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Tehran refuses to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, which can be diverted from civil to military use. Iran is a state-sponsor of terrorism. Iran's quest for the bomb will trigger a cataclysmic nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In trying to discredit the NIE, Podhoretz chronicles the history of CIA foul-ups, like failing to anticipate crises from the Korean War to 9/11, and cites the inability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to detect all of Iran's enrichment activities prior to 2003. Podhoretz then takes direct aim, disparaging the NIE's authors as "bureaucrats" out to "blow up the near-universal consensus" about the threat Iran posed. Moreover, Podhoretz insists, the halting of the weapons program in 2003 "was much less significant than a layman would inevitably be led to think." That's mainly because the civilian uranium enrichment that continues can easily be diverted to a re-started weapons program someday. Podhoretz is concerned that the NIE's conclusions also undermine the argument for tighter sanctions against Iran, given that Bush had been arguing that compelling Iran to stop enrichment through sanctions was the only alternative to doing it through force. The most disastrous development, in Podhoretz's view, is the forming of a "new consensus within the American foreign-policy establishment... that the only thing worse than letting Iran get the bomb was bombing Iran." Podhoretz is worried that the foreign policy establishment is ready to adopt "the complacent idea that we could learn to live with an Iranian bomb."

Podhoretz's reasoning until this point is not altogether unreasonable. Iran's behavior and ambitions do pose serious strategic challenges; U.S. intelligence does have an uneven record of assessing threats; the NIE does change the calculus in dealings with Iran. The problem as before is that Podhoretz's case for bombing Iran rests on something more: a simplistic, vastly overblown depiction of the Iranian regime and the threat that it poses--as if the long, troubled history of the Middle East were a Marvel comic book story of super-heroes and super-villains.

In Podhoretz's assessment, Iran is "ruled by Islamo-fascist revolutionaries who not only [are] ready to die for their beliefs but [care less] about protecting their people than about the spread of their ideology and their power." He equates the Islamic regime with Hitler's Nazi empire, arguing that failing to "stop" Iran is equivalent to European appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Quoting the work of Bernard Lewis, Podhoretz argues that "Mutual Assured Destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that [the mullahs ruling Iran] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights."

In practice, Podhoretz contends, Iran would transfer nuclear technology to terrorists, who would use it to attack the U.S. They would seek "to realize their evil dream of (in the words of Mr. Ahmadinejad) 'wiping Israel off the map.'" Iran would use nuclear "intimidation and blackmail" to transform Europe "into a continent where Muslim law and practice would more and more prevail." He goes so far as to state that "nuclear weapons would even serve the purposes of a far more ambitious aim: the creation of what Mr. Ahmadinejad called 'a world without America.'" Stopping Iran, Podhoretz concludes, is necessary so "millions of lives can be saved."

Islamic revolutionaries do indeed play a role in Iran's regime. But as anyone who has spent an hour in Tehran knows, this is a complex regime and political system that can hardly be described so glibly. As the powerful reformist forces that elected moderate President Khatami in 1997 demonstrated, there are strongly competing influences within the Iranian system. Iranian experts estimate Supreme Leader Khamenei's popular following at little more than 15% of 65 million people, hardly the profile of an unstoppable "Islamo-fascist." President Ahmadinejad is bitterly opposed by many, including some of his fellow hard-liners and conservatives. Compared to people throughout much of the Arab world, citizens in Iran are largely tired of Islamic rule. There's little appetite for goose-stepping military parades in Tehran. The regime's die-hards are ready to sacrifice for their beliefs, but so are America's fine soldiers in Iraq--that doesn't make them evil. Khomeini did seek to spread Iran's revolutionary ideology throughout the Islamic world. It didn't succeed very well, and for a decade Iran has been busy working to improve relations with rather than overthrow autocratic Arab regimes. Podhoretz-Lewis's claim that Iranian rulers actually seek the deaths of millions of their countrymen as a religious experience is at best a bizarre and at worst an Islamophobic assertion. Iran did send hundreds of thousands to die at the war front with Iraq--after Saddam invaded Iran and proceeded to use weapons of mass destruction on the battlefield. Comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler suggests an intolerable if unintended trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust; in the three decades since the '79 revolution, no Iranian army has invaded another country. Iranian Jews may not be living in paradise, but they are represented in the Iranian parliament and have managed to emigrate safely to Israel.

Regarding Iran's potential behavior, there is little evidence to justify Podhoretz's sweeping claims that Iran seeks to destroy the U.S., turn Europe into a province of a Shi'ite Muslim empire and kill all the Jews living in Israel--perhaps by providing terrorists with nuclear weapons, and with an overall global death toll reaching into the millions. To the contrary, rhetoric aside, Iran has proved to be a pragmatic actor in international affairs, and increasingly so since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and the death of Ayatullah Khomeini a year later. Iran has made a major effort to develop better relations with every part of the world, except for the U.S. and Israel. In the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, it is often overlooked that unlike some countries, Israel for example, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite the international focus on Iran's foreign policy, the Iranian regime itself is mostly preoccupied with domestic issues like political struggles, including crackdowns on dissent, and economic welfare.

Iran clearly does seek to become a regional superpower. That may be very worrying but it is not very surprising. No other country in the Gulf has even half the size of Iran's population. But having strategic ambitions is hardly the same as having genocidal ones. Podhoretz's characterization of Iran and its motivations completely ignores various factors that Political Science 101 would tell you about some of Iran's behavior. Might Iran's aggressive posture toward the U.S. be related to certain U.S. policies toward Iran, such as the CIA overthrow of Iran's prime minister in 1953, support for the Shah's repressive regime for a quarter century, backing for Saddam Hussein's war against Iran from 1980-88 and efforts to undermine the current government? Could Iran's support for Hizballah be related at all to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and military occupation of the Shi'ite third of the country until 2000?

It's easy to demonize Iran, and Podhoretz's selective description lays out an extreme problem to justify his extreme solution--if Iran is threatening the lives of millions of people, it seems reasonable to prevent that by bombing Iran. But Podhoretz's concern may be less over Iran's theoretical nuclear threat than its actual political threat. A struggle for hearts and minds is underway in the Middle East, and Iran's outlook is winning more of them than America's is. Iran's real threat--with or without a nuclear weapon--is how it gives Islamic and political sustenance to those who oppose the policies of America and its allies in the region. If Iran poses the massive threat to humanity that Podhoretz claims it does, it seems like it would be a good idea to do something that the U.S. has not done and Podhoretz has not bothered to recommend: send a U.S. Secretary of State to Tehran to get a first-hand look, not to appease but to judge whether diplomacy has a chance to avert Bush's feared World War III (Podhoretz feels we are already fighting WW IV). If Podhoretz is worried about a nuclear arms race, perhaps its time to invite all the countries in the region, including Israel and Iran, to sign a pact destroying nuclear arsenals or pledging not to acquire them.

Iran's nuclear ambitions do not pose a clear and imminent danger, according to the NIE. But perhaps bombing Iran would mainly deal a good blow to a center of Islamic power in the Middle East, just as the toppling of Saddam Hussein dealt a setback for Arab power in the region. In both cases, false or trumped up fears about nuclear threats would have provided the convenient excuse to act.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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