June 6, 2006
Give 'em More RopeBy J.R. Dunn
One thing can be said for Iranians — they've sure come up with a novel method of running a secret nuclear program.
The U.S. ran the Manhattan Project (more in hope than execution, it turned out) as one of the most secret programs of the Second World War. The USSR's first bomb test in 1949 might have remained hidden if the U.S. hadn't detected radioactive debris over the Bering Strait. Israel played its program so close the vest that no one is quite certain when the threshold was breached. Even North Korea has been very circumspect with any detailed information concerning weapons.
But not Iran. The Iranians have done everything but put up a billboard on Times Square with a mushroom cloud on it. They may silkily insist they're interested only in power reactors, but the accompanying threats, missile tests, and leave little doubt as to actual intentions.
Over the past few weeks the Iranians have shelled a Kurdish camp across the Iraqi border, sent a condescending (not to mention insulting) letter to the White House, proposed a totalitarian Islamic dress code for the country (and at least debating —— something they have not denied —— requiring Jews and others to wear colored insignia) and tested yet another Shahab—3 missile, a weapon that in media stories always features as part of its name, 'capable of reaching Israel.'
Even as these words were being typed, news came of 100 Iranians who 'pledged themselves as suicide bombers' in case of war. (We'll make a
Despite appearances Iran is not actually seeking a war. They are in no position to fight one. Their last actual combat in 1988, which I have just now christened the Lower Gulf War, ended with much of their naval forces sunk or crippled and the U.S. Navy in absolute control of the Persian Gulf, a situation that it has maintained to this day. The Iranian Army put in a wretched performance during the Iran—Iraq War and has not improved since.
As for the superweapons they've been boasting about — the underwater rocket torpedo of incredible speed and the totally stealthed missile —— such devices may be theoretically possible (the underwater jobbie apparently rides on a cushion of its own air bubbles, reducing friction to a minimum), but not by way of the Islamic Republic.
Which leaves Hezbollah, always brought up in hushed tones as the real Iranian secret weapon, despite the fact that the organization has accomplished nothing apart from bothering the Israelis for the past twenty years. The assumption appears to be that the U.S. has no defense against terrorists, despite the fact that last two men to put that belief into practice are currently on the run in Iraq and living in a cave in Waziristan, respectively. In addition, Hezbollah's leaders have dismissed any thought of coming to Iran's aid, on the grounds that 'Iran can take care of itself.' Hezbollah will go on, said Hezbollah leader Sheik Kassem, 'Whether Iran is there or not.' Not a very encouraging thought for the ayatollahs.
So what are they up to? Readers of this site will not be unaware of the contention that the entire business is a bluff, one designed to repel international interference until a nuclear weapon is in hand and Iran can move up a weight class into regional superpower status. But recent developments have raised yet another possibility: Iran may also be hoping to deliver a stinging humiliation to the U.S. without a shot being fired.
Much of the Iranian campaign is patterned after the successful North Korean shell game, with its tantrums, walkouts, and negotiating ploys. But the Iranians have added a number of variations of their own, among them the series of direct threats and the strange behavior of their president (It's as if Ahmadinejad was trying to outpsycho Kim Jong—Il — the mind boggles.) North Korea tended to be low—key in its threats, and Kim did not deign to write to anybody.
But North Korea is not the only model. Iran's actions strongly resemble those of another state that attempted to play the WMD card: Saddam Hussein's Iraq. During the buildup to the Iraq War, along with the same style of catch—me—if—you—can diplomatic games, Saddam was also in the habit of tossing threats in the direction of Israel and lobbing the occasional SAM missile at passing Coalition jets, which helped keep the pot boiling merrily.
Granted, some skepticism may be warranted, considering Saddam's current situation. But look at it from the Iranian point of view: despite being virtually isolated from the international system, Saddam succeeded in undermining the sanctions regime, circumventing UN oversight, buying off a still unknown but large number of UN and European diplomats, seriously shaking the Coalition's foundations, peeling off at least one crucial U.S. ally — that is, Turkey —— and more than once creating at least the illusion that any potential attack was more trouble than it was worth. And this was accomplished by one of the most despised rulers in the world. No doubt the ayatollahs think they can do better.
Particularly since the underlying situation differs so drastically from 2002. At that time, the U.S. was working with a deep ( though not as deep as hoped, or deserved) reservoir of sympathy over 9/11. It was coming off the surprisingly easy overthrow of the Taliban regime. Sympathetic center right governments were in power across much of Europe.
Iran wants an American offensive
Much has changed, in large part due to distorted perceptions of the Iraq War. To move against Iran today, the U.S. would very likely have to act almost alone, fighting the open hostility of many allies, in a world in which anti—Americanism has returned to its historical peak. It would be an uphill battle against an under—the—table program of Iranian oil bribes, potential mischief from people like Morales and Chavez, open hostility from the Muslim world, and interference from both the EU and the UN. It's just possible, under those circumstances, to entertain a vision of the U.S. forced to back down, of a historic humiliation at the hands of the Islamic Republic.
To bring this off, the Iranians require a confrontation. A statement or action that can be plausibly portrayed as an American threat to the peace. Viewed in light of this scenario, recent Iranian activities fall into line — the constant drumbeat of threats, the attacks on groups under American protection, even Ahmadenijad's famous letter, which can be seen as an attempt to persuade interested onlookers (i.e., Europe) that Iran is truly interested in a negotiated settlement.
Rash action by the U.S. would turn attention away from Iran, and rally international opponents in Europe, the Muslim world, and the UN. If Israel could be dragged in, so much the better. With the U.S. entangled, a deal — midwifed by some useless European state —— could be offered, one that would require only cosmetic compliance while allowing the ayatollahs to keep whatever capabilities they wished. It really wouldn't matter whether the U.S. accepted it or not.
As a bonus, the exterior threat might well pull together the fractious ethnic factions within Iran, solving, for the moment, the ayatollah's internal domestic problems.
The advantages of sitting tight
But what happens if the U.S. won't play? That puts Iran into a bind. They'll have to keep upping the ante with more and more bizarre actions and statements. After awhile these will tend to grow less than convincing — the letter, the uranium dancers — even embarrassing, rendering it difficult for anyone to take the Iranian government seriously, much less offer it anything in the way of support.
Considering that it's several years before a working nuke can be produced, the lengths to which Ahmadinejad and his keepers may be forced take the breath away. It'll be well worth waiting for.
This takes Iranian behavior out of the realm of the grotesque into the rational, and thus plausible. And if that's the case, the U.S. is pursuing the best possible strategy — say little, and that tempered by sheer diplomacy. Let the Iranians hang. Keep them guessing. Make them offers (such as the recent U.S. offer to join the EU 3 talks) that they can't help but reject, and look the
If the U.S. is not sweating, we can be sure the Iranians are. They have no idea what we have planned, and so can't counteract it. As it stands, they're pressuring themselves, which is the way we want it. We simply need to keep giving them more rope.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor, and former editor of the International Military Encyclopedia.