Has Ahamadinejad Miscalculated?

The Iranian president better sober up and do some cool reckoning.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

We are now acquainted with the familiar scenario: Iran is supposedly poised to become another disaster like Iraq. The United States, bruised in Iraq, needs redemption, and so will either press onto Teheran in its vainglorious imperial ambitions, or seek to direct attention away from Iraq by conjuring up another dragon to slay.

The Left further alleges that, once more, we favor preemption, wish to attack an Islamic country, will act unilaterally, and will sex up the intelligence to construct a casus belli about mythical “weapons of mass destruction.” The result is that the mere idea of preemption in Iran is just too messy even to contemplate, so we may end up timidly “outsourcing” the problem to others. That is the general critique of our Iranian policy.

Meanwhile, amid that conundrum, the Iranians are engaged in a three-part strategy to obtain nuclear weapons. First, they conduct military exercises, showing off novel weapons systems with purportedly exotic capabilities, while threatening to unleash terror against global commerce and the United States. It may be a pathetic and circus-like exercise born of desperation, but the point of such military antics is to show the West there will be some real costs to taking out Iranian nuclear installations.

Second, Iranians simultaneously send out their Westernized diplomats to the U.N. and the international media to sound sober, judicious, and aggrieved — pleading that a victimized Iran only wants peaceful nuclear energy and has been unfairly demonized by an imperialistic United States. The well-spoken professionals usually lay out all sorts of protocols and talking-points, all of which they will eventually subvert — except the vacuous ones which lead nowhere, but nevertheless appeal to useful Western idiots of the stripe that say “Israel has a bomb, so let’s be fair.”

Third, they talk, talk, talk — with the Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Hugo Chavez, anyone and everyone, and as long as possible — in order to draw out the peace-process and buy time in the manner of the Japanese militarists of the late 1930s, who were still jawing about reconciliation on December 7, 1941, in Washington.

During this tripartite approach, the Iranians take three steps forward, then one back, and end up well on their way to acquiring nuclear weapons. Despite all the passive-aggressive noisemaking, they push insidiously onward with development, then pause when they have gone too far, allow some negotiations, then are right back at it. And we know why: nuclear acquisition for Iran is a win-win proposition.

If they obtain an Achaemenid bomb and restore lost Persian grandeur, it will remind a restless population that the theocrats are nationalists after all, not just pan-Islamic provocateurs. A nuclear Iran can create all sorts of mini-crises in the Gulf — on a far smaller scale than Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait — which could spike oil prices, given the omnipresence of the Iranian atomic genie. The Persian Gulf, given world demand for oil, is a far more fragile landscape than in 1991.

The Islamic world lost their Middle Eastern nuclear deterrent with the collapse of the Soviet Union — no surprise, then, that we have not seen a multilateral conventional attack on Israel ever since. But with a nuclear Islamic Iran, the mullahs can claim that a new coalition against Israel would not be humiliated — or at least not annihilated when it lost — since the Iranians could always, Soviet-like, threaten to go nuclear. There are surely enough madmen in Arab capitals who imagine that, at last, the combined armies of the Middle East could defeat Israel, with the guarantee that a failed gambit could recede safely back under an Islamic nuclear umbrella.

Lastly, Iran can threaten Israel and U.S. bases at will, in hopes of getting the same sort of attention and blackmail subsidies it will shortly obtain from the Europeans, who likewise are in missile range. All failed states want attention — who, after all, would be talking about North Korea if it didn’t have nukes? So, in terms of national self-interest, it is a wise move on the theocracy’s part to acquire nuclear weapons, especially when there is no India on the border to play a deterrent role to an Iran in the place of Pakistan.

There are only two slight problems with this otherwise brilliant maneuvering: George Bush and the government of Israel. Conventional wisdom might suggest a chastised president is only showing the preemption card to play the “bad cop” alternative to the Europeans. Pundits also point to George Bush’s low polls to illustrate how straitjacketed the president is in his options, as Iraq, Katrina, and illegal immigration sap away his strength.

Again, I’m not so sure. Low polls work both ways. Is an advisor likely to whisper to a second-term Mr. Bush, “Be careful about preemption in Iran, or your approval rating polls might sink from 40 to 35?”

Moreover, who knows what a successful strike against Iranian nuclear facilities might portend? We rightly are warned of all the negatives — further Shiite madness in Iraq, an Iranian land invasion into Basra, dirty bombs going off in the U.S., smoking tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, Hezbollah on the move in Lebanon, etc. — but rarely of a less probable but still possible scenario: a humiliated Iran is defanged; the Arab world sighs relief, albeit in private; the Europeans chide us publicly but pat us on the back privately; and Iranian dissidents are energized, while theocratic militarists, like the Argentine dictators who were crushed in the Falklands War, lose face. Nothing is worse for the lunatic than when his cheap rhetoric earns abject humiliation for others.

Finally, in a post-September 11 world, no American president wants to leave a nuclear Iran for his successor to deal with — especially when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the one in control of the nukes and promising a jihad if confronted, is probably a former American hostage taker and terrorist.

The president still believes, as do many others, that the removal of Saddam was necessary, and that Iraq will still emerge as a consensual society. If he leaves office after birthing democracies in lieu of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and establishing that the region is free of nuclear weapons, despite the worst Iranian bullying, his presidency, for all the current hysteria, will be seen by history as a remarkable success.

And then there is Israel. All sane observers hope it is not drawn into this crisis, and for a variety of reasons. The emboldened Iranians count on this. Yet they do not realize the extent of the dilemma that their rhetoric and nuclear brinkmanship force on an Israeli president. To do nothing, a mere 60 years after the Holocaust, would imply three assumption on the part of an Israeli leadership — “wiping us off the map” is just theocratic rhetoric; if the Iranians ever do get the bomb, they won’t use it; and if they use it, it won’t be against us.

Those are, in fact, three big “ifs” — and no responsible Israeli can take the chance that he presided over a second holocaust and the destruction of half the world’s surviving Jewry residing in what the radical Islamic world calls a “one-bomb state.”

History would not see such restraint as sobriety, but rather as criminal neglect tantamount to collective suicide, and would reason: “An Israeli prime minister was warned by the president of Iran that he wished to wipe Israel off the map. He was then informed that Iran was close to getting nuclear weapons. And then he did nothing, allowing a radical Islamic regime to gain the means to destroy the Jewish state.”

So for all the lunacy of Mr. Ahmadinejad, it is time for him to sober up and do some cool reckoning. He thinks appearing unhinged offers advantages in nuclear poker. And he preens that unpredictability is the private domain of the fanatical believer, who talks into empty wells and uses his powers of hypnosis to ensure his listeners cannot blink.

Iran, of course, is still an underdeveloped country. It seems to profess that it is willing to lose even its poverty in order to take out one wealthy Western city in the exchange. But emotion works both ways, and the Iranians must now be careful. Mr. Bush is capable of anger and impatience as well. Of all recent American presidents, he seems the least likely to make decisions about risky foreign initiatives on the basis of unfavorable polls.

Israel is not free from its passions either — for there will be no second Holocaust. It is time for the Iranian leaders to snap out of their pseudo-trances and hocus-pocus, and accept that some Western countries are not merely far more powerful than Iran, but in certain situations and under particular circumstances, can be just as driven by memory, history, and, yes, a certain craziness as well.

Ever since September 11, the subtext of this war could be summed up as something like, “Suburban Jason, with his iPod, godlessness, and earring, loves to live too much to die, while Ali, raised as the 11th son of an impoverished but devout street-sweeper in Damascus, loves death too much to live.” The Iranians, like bin Laden, promulgate this mythical antithesis, which, like all caricatures, has elements of truth in it. But what the Iranians, like the al Qaedists, do not fully fathom, is that Jason, upon concluding that he would lose not only his iPod and earring, but his entire family and suburb as well, is capable of conjuring up things far more frightening than anything in the 8th-century brain of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately, the barbarity of the nightmares at Antietam, Verdun, Dresden, and Hiroshima prove that well enough.

So far the Iranian president has posed as someone 90-percent crazy and 10-percent sane, hoping we would fear his overt madness and delicately appeal to his small reservoirs of reason. But he should understand that if his Western enemies appear 90-percent children of the Enlightenment, they are still effused with vestigial traces of the emotional and unpredictable. And military history shows that the irrational 10 percent of the Western mind is a lot scarier than anything Islamic fanaticism has to offer.

So, please, Mr. Ahmadinejad, cool the rhetoric fast — before you needlessly push once reasonable people against the wall, and thus talk your way into a sky full of very angry and righteous jets.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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