The Iranian Fallout

September 9, 2008 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Tags: Heads Of State

The Iranian Fallout

Mini Teaser: As Iran draws frighteningly close to a full-blown nuclear capability, a former weapons inspector gives a hardheaded analysis of Tehran's program.

by Author(s): David Kay

This dirty-laundry list is one reason why efforts to summarize and draw net assessments about where the program is and where it is going have proven so contentious. The last U.S.-government attempt in December 2007 to produce a National Intelligence Estimate ("Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities") led to a comedy that was remarkable even by Washington's relaxed standards. The director of national intelligence, in whose name all NIEs should be issued, disassociated himself from its conclusion that Iran did not have an ongoing nuclear-weapons program. He was joined in this view by the president, most proliferation analysts and experts outside of government, and the secretary of defense who, in a speech at West Point, declared that Iran was "hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons."

In reality, all this amounts to a country with known nuclear ambitions, a track record of violating international obligations in pursuit of those goals and lots of unanswered questions.


SO, WE ARE left with some pretty-frightening knowledge about their nuclear-weapons program. Still to decipher: their intentions.

In light of what we know about Iranian capabilities, the big unanswered question is whether they have the intention to take it to the next level and actually build a weapon. Plus, in such a volatile region, there is always the question of spillover-whether others in the neighborhood will respond to that intent, be it real or perceived.

On the one hand, if we look at Iranian rhetoric, Tehran claims to only want to pursue a civilian nuclear program. On the other hand, they say they want to wipe Israel off the map. It's difficult to know what to believe. Couple this with an indecipherable weapons program, and matters only get worse.

What truly gets tensions running high, though, is that Iran views the world with an understandable and realpolitik skepticism and fear. Iran's history is filled with eras of unbelievable glory almost always followed by invasions and subjugation. At times the light of the Persian nation has been so dimmed as to almost fade into the fog of mythology. Its neighbors and various "great powers" have tried to conquer or convert it to something more to their liking. In the modern age, it has endured British colonial superiority, American political subversion to remove a democratically elected government, and constant Saudi efforts to subvert and eliminate the Shia variant of Islam practiced in Iran. The result is a political culture that is, outside of Israel, the most cosmopolitan in the Middle East, but also deeply suspicious of all outsiders, and in many ways even other Iranians. Daily interactions, as well as all diplomacy, seem to be duplicitous and truth is infinitely pliable. Pride in the past, incessant fear of the power of others and a determination to prevail and preserve the nation and regime mark the bedrock of the Iranian strategic view. Iranians have learned to fear the power of others and to believe that they must ultimately organize their world in a way that lessens the power of more muscular nations, the states that must pose the greatest threat.

For Iran, the essential national-security threat has never been Israel. Israel does not pose an ideological alternative to the Shia country, either within Iran's borders or within those of its neighbors-Zionist ideology, of course, holds little appeal for the Persian or Arab masses. Iran recognizes the limitations of Israeli military power as the ability to wreak terrible destruction, but only in the final act of its own self-destruction. Most importantly, Iran does not worry that Israel can organize and build a regional coalition that will limit the power of Iran or might even topple the regime. Only one state has that power in the eyes of Tehran-the United States.

For the Iranian regime, therefore, there can be no greater threat than the United States. Proof lies not in secret intelligence of U.S. war plans, but in seventy years of U.S. alliance building to surround Iran, a web of American military bases, forward deployments of military forces, rash acts by the United States (such as shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner) and Iran's belief in a multitude of acts of U.S. political subversion-some observed, others suspected and a great many more imagined.

All of this helps us make a best guess at Iranian intentions.

Iran may decide to react to the growing volume of evidence that some type of military action is looming by temporizing and negotiating to let the immediate storm clouds dissipate. Or it may decide that this evidence of military preparations is all an elaborate psychological-warfare exercise filled with sound and fury but without any real threat. Bottom line, it looks like they will likely try to appear accommodating to further negotiations. At the same time, they will not too subtly remind other states of the consequences to the world economy that would arise if there were any disruption in the flow of oil from the Middle East and the serious problems that Iran could cause for the United States in Iraq. My humble best guess is that Iran is pushing ahead toward a nuclear-weapons capability as rapidly as it can. But, if Tehran believes that American-not Israeli-military action is imminent, it may well slow work on the elements of its program that it thinks the world can observe. Such temporizing would only be tactical. Its strategic goal is to maintain nuclear weapons as a counter to what it views as the U.S. threat. And, as of now, that threat is real in Tehran's eyes. Iran appears not to see or believe that the United States is willing to accept the validity and survival of the Iranian revolutionary state.


BUT OF course Iran does not live in a strategic vacuum. How Israel and the United States decide to perceive the threat based on their own historical memories and strategic priorities is a large part of just how messy this may get. Iranian history is in many ways an eerie echo of Jewish history. At times they seem like twins separated at birth that, regardless of the distance of separation in time and space, seem to share many of the same traits and attitudes. For Israel, the struggle of several thousand years of the Jewish people after expulsion from their historic homeland ending in the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust followed by the redemptive act of the founding of the Zionist state is not history but the bedrock of their strategic view. Never again must the very survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish state rest upon the goodwill and support of other states. Israel knows that it lives in a tough neighborhood and is surrounded by states that at one time or another have all attempted to end its existence. The memories of how the states that now say Iran must not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons looked the other way as Hitler attempted to eliminate the Jews of Europe are burned forever into the nation's consciousness. Israel's strategic vision requires that it always be able to meet any threat to its existence with its own resources and that it must not turn away from such threats out of fear of the costs of action. It has paid the price of inaction within the living memory of the nation, and it is determined to never pay that price again.

For Israel, an Iranian nuclear capability is seen as an existential threat to its survival as a nation. For Israel, words have meaning and Israelis remember the price Jews paid for ignoring the words of Hitler as he rose to power. When the president of Iran speaks of wishing for the destruction of Israel in a sea of fire, it cannot be dismissed as political pandering to the souk. Self-delusion with regard to those who say they want to kill Jews is not an admired political trait in Israel.

Israel may well decide then that the last of the many red lines laid down during the past five years has been crossed and that it does indeed face the existential threat to the Jewish homeland that all Israeli governments since its founding have said they will not let prevail. Or Israel, faced with yet another domestic political crisis that threatens to expel its political leadership and throw the country into confusion yet again, may decide that it actually risks little by letting Iran have some extra time to alienate even more of the international community with its defiant behavior-and that maybe Washington will use its abundant military might rather than having to spend scarce Jewish blood on a military action that can only, even if successful, buy but a little time.


PERHAPS THE biggest agitator of all in this is the United States, with its abbreviated historical memory and a sort of diplomatic ADD. America views itself as a homogeneous nation of shared values. Problems must be met head-on and dealt with on their individual merits and then we move on to the next task. In the Middle East the agenda began with gaining oil concessions, followed by meeting the Nazi challenge, rebuffing the Communist threat, dealing with the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and WMD programs, and now Iran's nuclear program. These all take place against a background of U.S. actions-or lack thereof-in other regions. As the Iranians are fond of pointing out, America's commitment to countering nuclear proliferation took a distinct holiday when it came to the nuclear programs of Israel and Pakistan and even the grandiose nuclear ambitions of the shah, not to mention how the United States looked the other way as long as Saddam was using WMD on the Iranians, Kurds or Shia.

Essay Types: Essay