Paul Pillar

Another Phony Terrorist Alliance

It sure is hard to get away from the incessant ringing of alarm bells about the Iranian nuclear program, which receives attention as if it were the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. That certainly is true for any reader of my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post. This week's Sunday Opinion page is dominated by the subject, with a graphic at the top showing a stylized rocket with a radiation symbol taking off from Iranian territory. The page includes a piece by former Bush administration official Michael Makovsky and his associate Blaise Misztal that criticizes the Obama administration for not hewing rigorously to the line that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the worst possible thing that could happen to the world and must be stopped at all costs. The article is remarkable for the circularity of its reasoning in trying to ascribe dangers to that eventuality. For example, Makovsky and Misztal say that U.S. credibility would be “drained if, after numerous warnings to the contrary, we permit Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold”—which would not be a problem if, per the very aspect of the Obama administration public posture that they are criticizing, the United States does not keep trumpeting how “unacceptable” an Iranian nuke would be. They also say Iran and Israel “would have incentives to initiate a nuclear first strike.” A first strike by Iran would be insane and suicidal and therefore not involve any incentive to do it. A first strike by Israel would be a problem with Israel, not a problem with Iran, and in any event an Israeli first strike even with conventional means is the very sort of danger that the constant drum-beating about the Iranian nuclear program only encourages. Some of the other consequences Makovsky and Misztal mention, such as driving up oil prices, would be far less likely a result of an Iranian nuclear weapon than of any use of military force to try to prevent one.

In the next column over is an op-ed by Ray Takeyh, under the title “Why Tehran seeks the bomb,” that speaks of a purported hope by Iranian leaders that a nuclear-weapons capability would insulate their regime against foreign efforts to undermine it, out of fear over what would happen to the nuclear weapons amid political instability. Takeyh does not make clear whether he believes this hope is well grounded, but he seems to believe it is. Some relevant history might suggest otherwise; this idea wasn't much of a factor in foreign perceptions of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the apartheid regime of South Africa or General Musharraf's rule in Pakistan.

With all the attention in the paper to the Iranian nuclear program, it should not be surprising that the weekly contribution at the bottom of the same page by the Post's ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, is about this subject as well. Specifically, it concerns some sloppy or tendentious writing of headlines, such as “Iran's quest to possess nuclear weapons.” Pexton correctly judges that this headline was misleading and did not belong atop a news story, given that Iran does not yet appear to have decided to build nuclear weapons.

By the way—and another reason Sunday breakfast had a robust Iranian (or anti-Iranian regime) flavor while having the newspaper open to this place—the facing page consists of a full-page advertisement placed by a front group for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian terrorist organization whose apologists overlap with those beating the drums about the Iranian nuclear program. Presumably carrying the ad was a decision of the Post's business office, taken in pursuit of much-needed advertising revenue, and not of the news or editorial staffs.

Go back to the opinion pages of the Post just a couple of days earlier, and one gets more of the same. The lead editorial, criticizing administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for spelling out the reasons a military attack on Iran would be a very bad idea, is mostly a replay of a piece written a few days earlier by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about which I had some observations at the time.  Then on the op-ed page is an item with the title “Iran's deadly ambitions” by former Bush-administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Thiessen portrays what is, if he were to be believed, a full-blown cooperative relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, dedicated to using terrorism to kill Americans.