Monday, March 05, 2012

Netanyahu Goes to Washington

Assessing a nuclear Iran

The polyphony of punditry about Netanyahu’s visit to the White House shows that the debate about a nuclear Iran remains flawed. I’ll try to correct what I think are the two main problems with it, but even after calibrating our instruments the problem stays out of focus. Perhaps that’s because the exigency of Iranian nukes is underscored by our lack of good military options to prevent them.

The case against using force to prevent a nuclear Iran settles on the alternative policy of containment. For reasons that will become clear, I think doves conjure the "containment" of today’s illiberal regimes with the same carelessness as hawks speak of "appeasement". We know what they mean. In a "don’t take my word for it" rhetorical tic, war opponents adduce Ehud Barak’s opinion that, "[the Iranians] are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality." We find these critics confident in the rationality of the Mullahcracy, which they think is comparable to that of the Soviets, the original nuclear bête noire. Robert Wright says Iran simply won’t attack, because "Iranian leaders have no desire to be annihilated along with their families, friends, and Persian civilization."

Here’s the first flaw in the debate. The Iranian government is not a uniform and single -- rational or irrational -- actor. It doesn't work that way. All organizations have what Thucydides called a "war party" and a "peace party". Complex factors, including historical and economic context, culture and national values, and systems of law and politics, decide the relative power and influence of each group. Iraq war opponents, who have monitored the fates of war and peace parties in Muslim states in relation to Bush and Obama, understand this. Iran’s government has both rational actors, like Khatami, the reformist, and irrational actors, like Ahmadinejad, the Jew-hating millenarian conspiracy theorist. I don't have to spell out why a nuclear Iran is a worse place than a non-nuclear Iran for the war party to find itself in the ascendant.

I agree that doesn’t mean the war party is suicidal, and here let me join Wright in opposing an attack on Iran. For questionable tactical gain, it will visit destruction and humiliation on a society with a significant demographic for which Persian history and culture are paramount. Theirs is a proud, pre-Islamic, pluralist tradition that stands out regionally by not being absolutely infested by victimology, irredentism, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. We make a big mistake effacing these Persians -- the peace party’s constituency -- by exaggerated focus on the war party and its constituency, the hezbollahi. However, Wright makes the opposite mistake: he claims “Iranian leaders have no desire to be annihilated.. along with Persian civilization.” This is wrong: Iran’s highest leaders and its war party are committed to the Iranian Revolution, which considers “Persian civilization” to be its antagonist.

I get what Wright means, but his language shows there is a fog on the lens he is looking through. I don’t mean to say that Iranian Islamists seek to anneal the Revolution of its Persian impurities in a nuclear inferno. I mean they consider Persian civilization separate and undesirable, to be assimilated or discarded. The Mullahs have a self-preservation instinct, but that is not the same as a regard for Persian civilization. These Shia zealots are violent, paranoid conspiracists triply encircled: they are Muslims beset by Crusaders and Zionists; they are Shia beset by other Muslims; and they are revolutionaries beset by Persian reactionaries. Attached to the body, Persian civilization is both a stabilizing and destabilizing element, something to protect and fear, especially in times of duress.

Iran has a war party and a peace party, divided along these lines. Remember the images of the Green Revolution to learn what Iran’s leaders think of Persian civilization. But bombing or invading Iran would send secular Persians running into the arms of raging Shia millenarians.

Bringing focus back to us, Peter Beinart asks, "Are Palestinians worried about being nuked by Iran? In a small country, they're at much at risk as Jews. If not, why not?"

Weigh the apparent answer against your sense of the US and Israeli perspectives. A companion exercise is to consider the unconcern for Palestinian well-being among liberators who wish to visit destruction on the Zionist entity. Palestinian perspective, other than that which is projected onto them, is so often superfluous.

Beinart's question is thought-provoking, but in the confines of the debate's second flaw. It's natural for both those who support and oppose attacking Iran to dwell on the "wipe Israel off the map" scenario -- Iran firing nukes into Tel Aviv. But Iran won’t do that, except possibly, if it can, in retaliation for an invasion or first strike. Much more realistic, and challenging, is the danger of a nuclear Iran pursuing its aims via terror proxies. Bruce Hoffman, the eminent terrorism scholar and Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, observes that the Iranian Revolution is defined in part by terrorism as foreign policy. Revolutionary Iran sired modern religious terrorism with an "Islamic terrorist campaign" seeking to spread:
... the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law espoused in Iran to other Muslim countries. "We must strive to export our Revolution throughout the world," the Ayatollah Khomeini declared on the occasion of the Iranian new year in March 1980, just over a year after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, "and must abandon all idea of not doing so, for not only does Islam refuse to recognize any difference between Muslim countries, it is the champion of all oppressed people..."

This is especially salient to Iran's indirect war against Israel. It seems the logic of containment is not dispositive in the quasi-military realm of terrorism. Israel has had nukes for about four decades and Iran has supported hostilities against Israel for about half that long (and also Jews, if we join the Argentine government in blaming Iran and Hezbollah for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people). While Hezbollah and Hamas take cues from Iran, they are also independent actors, which is to say Iran can't precisely tune their aggression. Effective missiles are much easier to obtain than nukes. If Hezbollah, Hamas, or a group like them pulls off a large-scale attack on Israel -- say, rocketing a hospital and killing ~300 doctors, staffers and patients -- the situation could devolve very quickly into a devastating exchange between Israel and Iran. Look at how we’ve reacted to the terrorist murder of ~3000 Americans, then consider what Israel has done in response to ineffectual rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. Israeli policy has a consistent flavor of machtpolitik. Wright, and many like him, say the US is confronting Iran "on Israel’s behalf," hoping to taint the hawks’ position by distilling it to a war for Israel. Do they believe a 9/11 in Israel backed by a nuclear Iran will remain a regional affair?

To get an idea what an Iranian war party under siege might do, review the following statistics, enumerated in Hoffman's Inside Terrorism.
Although religious terrorists committed only 6 percent of recorded terrorist incidents between 1998 and 2004, their acts were responsible for 30 percent of the total number of fatalities recorded during that time period... Although Shia groups committed only 8 percent of all international terrorist incidents between 1982 and 1989, they nonetheless were responsible for 30 percent of the total number of fatalities arising from those incidents. And while al Qaeda perpetrated only 0.1 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1998 and 2004, it was responsible for nearly 19 percent of total fatalities from terrorist attacks during that time period.

There are three main flavors of terrorist: the national-separatist, or right-wing secular terrorist; the Marxist-Leninist, or left-wing secular terrorist; and the religious, or millenarian, terrorist. (The latter doesn't refer only to Islamic terrorists; also think Timothy McVeigh and Baruch Goldstein.) Hoffman shows that religious terrorists take a far greater toll than their secular counterparts, and that among them, Shia terrorists are the most lethal. That makes sense given the Iranian provenance of modern religious terrorism.

Hoffman also notes that in recent times, the ratio of non-religious to religious terrorists has skewed steadily in favor of the latter.
In 1994, for example, a third (sixteen) of the forty-nine identifiable international terrorist groups active that year could be classified as religious in character and or motivation; and in 1995, their number grew yet again, to account for nearly half (twenty-six, or 46 percent) of the fifty-six known active international terrorist groups. A decade later, it is perhaps not surprising to find that this trend not only continued but solidified. In 2004, for instance, nearly half (fifty-two, or 46 percent) of the terrorist groups active that year were religious, while thirty-two (28 percent) were left-wing groups, and twenty-four (21 percent) were ethno-nationalist/separatist organizations.

It's hard to account for the escalation in brutality, because explanatory models seek to be rational, but these phenomena are quintessentially irrational. A clue may be found in the distinct way in which each type of violent extremist seeks to stop history. As I’ve written, left-wing extremists wish to harness and drive history toward a future utopia. Right-wing extremists wish to harness and drive it back to a glorious past. And religious millenarians wish to destroy us and themselves to create paradise in place of the worldly purgatory. In this they are more dangerous than their totalitarian antecedents.

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