Underestimating the Iranian Threat

Amir Taheri is an intelligent and well—informed commentator on world affairs whose work appears in the Arab News. But today he wrote a dangerously obtuse commentary ——— not his usual style at all. This is important, because his subject is Iran's nuclear ambitions, which are profoundly dangerous. Taheri fails to see the strategic consequences of Tehran's rush for nukes. If he, of all people, does not understand, no doubt other Middle Eastern commentators are also missing a deadly threat to themselves.

Mr. Taheri claims to see a wave of "Western media hype" indicating that the US will invade Iran on March 19 of this year. This is a pure red herring. However, there is plausible speculation about an attempt to strike Iranian facilities by conventional armed forces. Such an attack might involve Israel, Iranian opposition forces, and perhaps the UK, US, and other NATO countries. The aim would be  to slow down Tehran's nuclear development. Such a strike might happen in March, when uranium enrichment may become irreversible at the Natanz enrichment facilities.

Those are reasonable ideas, not just hype.

Even more seriously,Taheri utterly misses the real danger this poses to the Arab world. He points out that Iran long ago admitted to violating the Non—Proliferation Treaty. Therefore, says Taheri, the Khomeinist rush to enrich uranium is not significant or even real news. No one worries about other nuclear powers — why pick on Iran?

The danger of Iranian nukes is not just the technology. France has had atom bombs since Charles De Gaulle, but nobody is worried about a French attack on Berlin or New York. Such an attack would be suicidal, and France does not have a suicidal government.  No, the real fear is that Tehran's fanatical leaders are quite prepared to use nukes, once they get them. No one has used nuclear weapons in the last fifty years, ever since the "balance of nuclear terror" became a fact of life. 

Technology is neutral. How nations use technology is crucial.

Today there are only two regimes in the world that might use nuclear weapons in a mass—suicidal fashion. They are led by people who talk madly, and act as if they mean it. We don't know if and when they might encounter a personal or political crisis that would make them push that button as a last, desperate act.

For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, is suffering from liver cancer, and is expected to die in the coming year. That is no doubt triggering an intense struggle for succession to the most powerful position in Tehran. What if someone in the struggle had access to nuclear weapons?

The leaders of Iran and North Korea care little about losing a hundred thousand people, as Iran did in the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and as North Korea has done, simply by criminal mismanagement of its economy. So the biggest problem isn't their technology but their fanatical inclinations, combined with the means for one man to produce a catastrophe at the push of a button.

Mr. Taheri seems to hint that Iran could launch a nuke at Israel without harming anyone else. But that is utterly misguided. First, Iran has other enemies, including Sunni Arab nations, which could not retaliate against a nuclear attack. Second, Israel might well respond to an Iranian WMD attack with some of its 200 presumed nuclear weapons. That is a vital fact for anyone living in the neighborhood. Any nuclear attack on Israel is likely to trigger massive retaliation.

The effects would not be localized.  If Israel were to bomb Tehran, Qom or Natanz, radioactive fallout could spread to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf States.  Some readers of the Arab News would surely suffer.  Further, an Iranian attack on Tel Aviv would devastate the Palestinians, who do not have fallout shelters and survival training, as the Israeli population does. The logic of Mutually Assured Destruction is precisely that: mutual.

The psychological results of a nuclear exchange would be just as devastating. Riots would break out everywhere. Arab governments might well be overthrown, with radicals taking over in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.  The economic repercussions would be massive, including trade sanctions against Israel and Iran. The Tehran regime might respond by blocking oil shipping through the Straits of Hormuz, easy enough to do. They might try to infiltrate cheap dirty nukes into other countries, even the Sunni nations of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. An Iran bent on national shahada (martyrdom) could smuggle WMDs into Europe, Russia and the US, heedless of the massive strikes they would invite in response.

Even if the world were spared such catastrophic consequences, the oil shock alone would rock the international economy for years to come.

So this is not a simple matter of some neocon conspiracy in the US government, plotting to save Israel from an Iranian nuke. The question that should concern every thinking person in the world is how to stop any nuclear power from triggering a chain reaction in which there would be no victors, and very few safe havens.

That is the real abyss facing the world in 2006. It applies just as much to North Korea as it does to Iran.

Everything else flows from that iron logic. Given the very real  danger, it is not unreasonable for targeted countries  to try to destroy Iranian facilities by conventional military means, before the stakes become too high. That might save many, many lives. It would give the world a breathing space, a time for the Tehran regime to moderate, or for others to take over. 

Whether Iran's nuclear build—up will be attacked is unknown. But the danger is not imaginary. 

The military historian John Keegan wrote in the UK Telegraph that

"We should very worried about Iran. [....]

"Iran is actually turning itself into a nuclear weapons state, a fact disputed by none of the players on the international scene. Iran, moreover, does not seek such weapons for psychological reasons. It wants them for practical purposes, including, according to a statement by its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former revolutionary guard, to "wipe Israel from the map." [....]

"Iran's record must cause not only the West but all Iran's neighbours to take the threat seriously. [italics added]

"This is a bad and worrying time in world affairs."

It is a time for all nations to think very hard.

James Lewis is a frequent contributor.

Amir Taheri is an intelligent and well—informed commentator on world affairs whose work appears in the Arab News. But today he wrote a dangerously obtuse commentary ——— not his usual style at all. This is important, because his subject is Iran's nuclear ambitions, which are profoundly dangerous. Taheri fails to see the strategic consequences of Tehran's rush for nukes. If he, of all people, does not understand, no doubt other Middle Eastern commentators are also missing a deadly threat to themselves.

Mr. Taheri claims to see a wave of "Western media hype" indicating that the US will invade Iran on March 19 of this year. This is a pure red herring. However, there is plausible speculation about an attempt to strike Iranian facilities by conventional armed forces. Such an attack might involve Israel, Iranian opposition forces, and perhaps the UK, US, and other NATO countries. The aim would be  to slow down Tehran's nuclear development. Such a strike might happen in March, when uranium enrichment may become irreversible at the Natanz enrichment facilities.

Those are reasonable ideas, not just hype.

Even more seriously,Taheri utterly misses the real danger this poses to the Arab world. He points out that Iran long ago admitted to violating the Non—Proliferation Treaty. Therefore, says Taheri, the Khomeinist rush to enrich uranium is not significant or even real news. No one worries about other nuclear powers — why pick on Iran?

The danger of Iranian nukes is not just the technology. France has had atom bombs since Charles De Gaulle, but nobody is worried about a French attack on Berlin or New York. Such an attack would be suicidal, and France does not have a suicidal government.  No, the real fear is that Tehran's fanatical leaders are quite prepared to use nukes, once they get them. No one has used nuclear weapons in the last fifty years, ever since the "balance of nuclear terror" became a fact of life. 

Technology is neutral. How nations use technology is crucial.

Today there are only two regimes in the world that might use nuclear weapons in a mass—suicidal fashion. They are led by people who talk madly, and act as if they mean it. We don't know if and when they might encounter a personal or political crisis that would make them push that button as a last, desperate act.

For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, is suffering from liver cancer, and is expected to die in the coming year. That is no doubt triggering an intense struggle for succession to the most powerful position in Tehran. What if someone in the struggle had access to nuclear weapons?

The leaders of Iran and North Korea care little about losing a hundred thousand people, as Iran did in the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and as North Korea has done, simply by criminal mismanagement of its economy. So the biggest problem isn't their technology but their fanatical inclinations, combined with the means for one man to produce a catastrophe at the push of a button.

Mr. Taheri seems to hint that Iran could launch a nuke at Israel without harming anyone else. But that is utterly misguided. First, Iran has other enemies, including Sunni Arab nations, which could not retaliate against a nuclear attack. Second, Israel might well respond to an Iranian WMD attack with some of its 200 presumed nuclear weapons. That is a vital fact for anyone living in the neighborhood. Any nuclear attack on Israel is likely to trigger massive retaliation.

The effects would not be localized.  If Israel were to bomb Tehran, Qom or Natanz, radioactive fallout could spread to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf States.  Some readers of the Arab News would surely suffer.  Further, an Iranian attack on Tel Aviv would devastate the Palestinians, who do not have fallout shelters and survival training, as the Israeli population does. The logic of Mutually Assured Destruction is precisely that: mutual.

The psychological results of a nuclear exchange would be just as devastating. Riots would break out everywhere. Arab governments might well be overthrown, with radicals taking over in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.  The economic repercussions would be massive, including trade sanctions against Israel and Iran. The Tehran regime might respond by blocking oil shipping through the Straits of Hormuz, easy enough to do. They might try to infiltrate cheap dirty nukes into other countries, even the Sunni nations of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. An Iran bent on national shahada (martyrdom) could smuggle WMDs into Europe, Russia and the US, heedless of the massive strikes they would invite in response.

Even if the world were spared such catastrophic consequences, the oil shock alone would rock the international economy for years to come.

So this is not a simple matter of some neocon conspiracy in the US government, plotting to save Israel from an Iranian nuke. The question that should concern every thinking person in the world is how to stop any nuclear power from triggering a chain reaction in which there would be no victors, and very few safe havens.

That is the real abyss facing the world in 2006. It applies just as much to North Korea as it does to Iran.

Everything else flows from that iron logic. Given the very real  danger, it is not unreasonable for targeted countries  to try to destroy Iranian facilities by conventional military means, before the stakes become too high. That might save many, many lives. It would give the world a breathing space, a time for the Tehran regime to moderate, or for others to take over. 

Whether Iran's nuclear build—up will be attacked is unknown. But the danger is not imaginary. 

The military historian John Keegan wrote in the UK Telegraph that

"We should very worried about Iran. [....]

"Iran is actually turning itself into a nuclear weapons state, a fact disputed by none of the players on the international scene. Iran, moreover, does not seek such weapons for psychological reasons. It wants them for practical purposes, including, according to a statement by its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former revolutionary guard, to "wipe Israel from the map." [....]

"Iran's record must cause not only the West but all Iran's neighbours to take the threat seriously. [italics added]

"This is a bad and worrying time in world affairs."

It is a time for all nations to think very hard.

James Lewis is a frequent contributor.