April 17, 2006
Don't Panic on IranBy James Lewis
The hardest thing in times of crisis is not to panic ——— to hang on and think very hard about the options. "Don't shoot 'till you see the whites of their eyes" is the old phrase. It signals mental clarity, readiness to act, and also patience and calm. It is not a bad slogan for coping with today's rise of a new Hitlerite regime, soon to be armed with nuclear weapons.
Caroline Glick, writing in the Jerusalem Post, is understandably anxious about Tehran's constant stream of threats against Israel. In an editorial called "The fateful hour has arrived," she sounds a Churchillian alarm.
If I were the target of Iranian nuclear threats I'd be just as nervous. When your life and the lives of your children seem in danger, we are all wired to go into instant action.
But that is precisely what the madman of the moment, Mahmoud Ahmadiinejad, is trying to accomplish: To sow fear, appeasement, and panicky reactions. This is a guy who sent thousands of young boys to blow up minefields with their own bodies during the Iran—Iraq War, deluded by a promise of eternal paradise for martyrs. He knows all about threats and intimidation. That's how he got where he is.
Our first reaction must be to hold our fire until we pinpoint Tehran's weak spots. In fact, the regime has some real vulnerabilities as well as a kind of mad determination to dominate the world. If the time comes to respond, it should be at a time and place of our choosing. Not Ahmadinejad's.
That is as true for Israel as it is for the United States. Threats to destroy our two countries are hardly new. The difference, of course, is the advent of nuclear weapons that give nearby targets, like Israel and the US 5th fleet, only a few dozen seconds to respond. (The same applies to Saudi Arabia and Iran's other neighbors, who feel scared to death).
Here are a few of Iran's vulnerabilities.
First, production of a real nuclear weapon will take some time. If Tehran has a running cascade of thousands of uranium centrifuges it might produce a weapon very quickly. Iran has missiles, but these cannot carry the sort of low tech nuclear weapons it migth produce. Publicly available intelligence indicates the moment of real threat is still a few years off. Tehran cannot strike with nuclear weapons for some time.
Second, Israel has a formidable array of nukes, and the means to deliver them accurately. With its three missile—firing subs, it has a second strike capacity that is more than adequate. Even if Iran gets a single nuclear weapon, Israel has an estimated 200, and can produce enough to roast every Mullah in the land many times over. On the defense side, only two updated Patriot batteries may be enough to lower the chances of an Iranian missile attack. But any mad Iranian attack would justify a nuclear response.
Third, the US military have amazing conventional and nuclear capacities, as General McInerney just pointed out. The US 5th Fleet is patrolling the neighborhood, which puts US forces at risk, and on standby to respond instantly. A missile attack on Israel would instantly threaten every other neighboring countries, and indeed European countries as well.
Fourth, a constant flow of oil tankers goes through the Gulf. Every country that needs that oil has a vital stake in US naval protection. Suppliers are just as dependent as buyers. Nobody trusts Tehran to protect the Gulf ——— nobody.
Fifth, there are plausible time boundaries to the nuclear threat. It will become real in two or three years, with the first Iranian nuclear weapon. It will rise over subsequent years as Tehran amasses more weapons. And it is likely to decline over a ten to twenty year period, as we have seen with equally frightening regimes during the Cold War.
Today we see China and Russia as deeply invested in international stability. We do not fear a nuclear strike from them, because we know that they know it would be instant suicide. They have become rational actors. We know that many Iranians are quite Westernized. Over time, the modernists may begin to prevail by slow degrees.
The maniacs of Tehran sound profoundly irrational. However, we have dealt with irrational—sounding regimes before, even ones armed with nukes. Early in the Cold War the USSR and Mao's China used pretty much the same words Ahmadinejad is using today. That doesn't make the mounting danger easy to tolerate, but it gives us grounds for long—term hope.
Sixth, we know something about Tehran's strategy behind the provocative language. Amir Taheri has a great depth of knowledge about Tehran; writing in the London Telegraph, he sounds alarmed, as is only sensible. But he believes the mullahs are playing long—term chess, not Russian roulette.
Ahmadinejad is just the latest creature of the mullahs to make nuclear threats ——— it goes all the way back to Ayatollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani, and the current Supremo, Khamenei. In reality, in the last 25 years the Iranians have made war by proxy, using terorrist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. The mullahs practice patience and long—term strategy. So did Mao Zedong and Khrushchev. We don't know with complete certainty, but chances are that they will ratchet up the pressure slowly, taking their gains incrementally, rather than in a single suicidal toss of the dice. These people think long—term.
Here is a prediction. Within the next 24 months the West will come to a decision that crazy maniacs armed with nukes are not acceptable, anywhere in the world. That consensus will have the tacit consent of Arab countries, which are even more at risk than Israel — believe it or not — because they have no nuclear retaliatory capacity. As the first enriched uranium is produced in Natanz or Isfahan, actions will be taken by several nations. Many of them will be covert. At some point they will become visible.
The United States and the civilized world must seize the right moment, with the right actions.
Iran's nuclear threat is not immediate. We must never panic or react impulsively.
Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor.