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I have been thinking about how to explain the current crisis in Iran for more than a week now. As usual, when mundane minds hesitate, we are passed by our superiors, and so I see that Victor Davis Hanson has put up his own well-done article. Yet for all the salient points he makes in his column, titled “The not-so-mad mind of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, I find I must disagree with the Stanford historian on certain important points. Certainly I agree that Ahmadinejad is a very dangerous man, and the threat from Iran must be taken as a grave danger. However, I do not agree that Ahmadinejad is not mad; he certainly is separated from a functional perception of Reality. Where Dr. Hanson contends that Ahmadinejad is not mad but is dangerous, I submit that the President of Iran is quite mad by any reasonable standard, but he is not stupid or foolish. That is to say, Ahmadinejad has been fully briefed on the various nations’ capabilities, he is experienced in the region’s politics, and he understands the difference between what his rhetoric promises and his regime can deliver. The difference between these perspectives is critical to the decision of the best response America can make.
One thing which must be understood is the reason for Ahmadinejad’s threats and prophecies. There are two errors which must be avoided by the West. One mistake would be to class Ahmadinejad’s noise as mere bluster, typical of the “Death To America” screeds which followed the 1979 Revolution. Iran had actually toned down its speeches and denouncements after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, especially after the fall of Baghdad, but has renewed hostility in recent months, especially with regard to its nuclear program. Also, Ahmadinejad’s election as President signals the regime’s determination to pursue a course not only opposed to the United States, but quite likely one to lead to conflict in force. Too many people forget that Iran was willing to attack U.S. Navy vessels when they escorted Kuwaiti tankers during the late 1980s, and too many people fail to understand the financing and support systems Iran created to enable and deploy terrorist organizations. Americans may not be impressed with Iran’s relative success at low-intensity warfare, but Iran believes it can fight the United States and win, provided it dictates the terrain, context, and scale. A pistol aimed at the head of a helpless hostage is more than a fond memory for Ahmadinejad; it neatly describes the Foreign Policy of the Revolutionary Jihadists in Teheran.
The second error however, would be to allow Ahmadinejad victory by granting him too much credence in his fantasies. Iran has made some serious mistakes in its policies since the Revolution, not least because Sharia does not fare well in real-world conditions. One significant reason for the radical shift in Iran’s public pronouncements is the growing momentum for Democracy in the Middle East. Free elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, women actually voting, public schools teaching Science and History apart from the supervision of Mullahs, the growth of private businesses, public demonstrations against oppression in Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia, are all seen as signs of a tide moving against the will of Jihad. The anger from Ahmadinejad and his government is as much from desperation as from confidence; he sees the work of a generation slipping away, the dream of Jihadist Triumph paid by the blood of infidels lost to the vision of Arab Democracy, compulsory prayer five times a day defeated by the ideal of people choosing how to believe and how to practice their personal belief. The Reformation of Islam, so long overdue, is seen by Ahmadinejad and his regime as a fatal threat to the Prophet. The best strategy against Ahmadinejad therefore, includes keeping the pressure of such a Reformation fresh and strong before him, attacking him where he is weakest and where the best hope for the Muslim world may be found.
Before going further, it would also be worthwhile to examine the scale and feasibility of the Iranian threat. The problems for Iran are rather significant, if their stated desire to destroy Israel and the United States are to be accomplished. For one thing, it appears reasonable at this time to say that Iran does not yet have a nuclear bomb. This is a very big point in the matter, in part because making a nuke is not so simple as some would have you believe, nor is having a nuclear bomb quite the advancement some thought. Or to put it another way, one should ask just why Ahmadinejad thinks having a nuclear weapon will make a difference. And to do that, we need to consider the limited perspective of History as Ahmadinejad sees it.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sees his opportunity through the malaise of the West shown during the 1970s and 1990s. That much is clear. The rise of OPEC and the growth of small terrorist bands into global organizations are much-cherished glories in the mind of the radical Muslim, and give hope for greater victories to come, in the mold of Iran, Somalia, and naturally Vietnam. In a way, it is fascinating to see how much of the old Soviet dialectic finds its way into the thinking of the Jihadist – ‘wait long enough, and our enemy will grow weak’ seems to be the motto of their strategy. To move this process along, the Jihadist chooses only to strike soft targets, to try to weaken Western resolve, and to deny all evidence of the evil of Jihadist actions and intentions. And in the face of Television and the Press, the Jihadists come to believe they are winning the war. It’s only a matter of time, they assure each other.
But Ahmadinejad has problems in his plan, demonstrated by the periodic revival of Western resolve, and the undeniable superiority of American might. He shows no sign of acknowledging what a Reagan, a Thatcher, or a Dubya could mean to upsetting his plans. He could and should consider how previous high-profile troublemakers, like Qaddafi, Hussein, or even bin Laden fared once the U.S. decided to face them down. For all his annoying taped messages, after all, exactly what has Osama bin Hiding accomplished since 9/11? A reasonable person might warn Ahmadinedjad that calling out the West can sometimes be like waving a steak at a Rottweiler.
But even more to the point, it appears that Ahmadinejad wants to be yet another leader in the ‘Mahdi’ mold. He has not, however, considered the fate of all the prior would-be Mahdis. Instead, Ahmadinejad continues to ignore the inconvenient, and assume the best-case scenario will play out. That’s probably because Ahmadinejad’s plans have three stages, and he doesn’t believe he needs much luck to make them work.
Step one for Ahmadinejad is simple but difficult – get a nuclear bomb. The reason he wants one, is not because he plans to nuke Israel. Oh yes, he would love to do it, but it would take a stockpile to do the job, along with missiles that could reach the targets, and never mind the question of accuracy. Iran does not have missiles with the range or accuracy they would need, and as for bombers, the situation is even weaker. Iran does not have an air force worthy of the name; any attempt to attack Israel by bomber will only lead to the loss of every Iranian bomber. This means that in addition to developing the weapon, Iran must develop a delivery system, as well as a stockpile sufficient to the campaign along with the security needed to protect each part of the system. Knowing this, Ahmadinejad must be planning something other than an immediate immolation of Tel Aviv.
The obvious thought pops up, that Ahmadinejad could simply smuggle a nuke into Israel and detonate it via a suicide bomber. The problem there, is that such an attack could not reasonably coordinated in such a way as to destroy more than 3 or 4 locations, and probably nothing in a way which could disrupt the IDF’s own nuclear threat. And Ahmadinejad is not stupid enough to forget the Samson Option – the well-known threat by Israel that a nuclear attack on Israel would result in the use of Israeli nuclear missiles on every Arab capital or holy city. No matter how much the Jihadists would like to destroy Israel, they would not be willing to destroy themselves, especially their holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to do so. For all their bluster, the leaders of the Jihad are seldom willing to die for their cause. Kill yes, torture certainly, but they themselves are unlikely to accept their own death as the cost of victory.
Another point most people forget, is that Iran has Chemical and Biological WMD. It would be easy for Iran to attack Israel with the WMD already on hand, to say nothing of not bothering neighboring countries with the dangers of fallout from a nuclear volley. That has not happened either, possibly for reason of that same retaliatory threat from Israel, but also because attempting to out-and-out destroy a country by killing everyone in it is not only very difficult from a pragmatic perspective, but it also is all but impossible to justify. Such an attempt, Ahmadinejad knows, could easily create a global backlash against the Arab world and in support of Israel.
Consequently, Ahmadinejad has a longer plan, if also a slower one. By declaring that the Iranian Nuclear reactors are peaceful, Ahmadinajad hopes to generate sympathy for Iran among other nations excluded from the “Nuclear Club”, and so build a coalition of his own to stand against the greater powers. Trade agreements with China not only provide revenue for Iran and encourage China to support Iran in the United Nations, but also help Iran grow closer in its plans to foment insurrection along the China border later on. Most people are unaware of the growing Jihadist threat along China’s Southwest flank, which also could act against India if needed. The Jihadist threat against Russia can be demonstrated by a look at the difficulty posed by Chechnya, which now suffers from a number of active Al Qaeda cells. Add to that the unrest in France and Germany, and it is not difficult to see why Ahmadinejad believes that Iran’s long term strategy will work, keeping Europe and Asia out of the matter when Iran chooses to attack Israel. For now, it seems a simple measure for Iran to demand Europe and Asia not block its access to “peaceful” nuclear power, even though this means a bomb in a matter of two or three years. Also during this time, terrorist action may be expected to try to destabilize Saudi Arabia, either to crate an additional Jihadist regime or to force financial backing for an expanded Jihad.
Once Iran has the bomb, Ahmadinejad will test it, as a warning sign to the Unted States, and a ballistic missile capable of reaching the Gulf or the Mediterranean will be the next order or business. At some point, the missile will be test-fired into waters where U.S. aircraft carriers often travel, and the U.S. will be warned that Iran will not allow trespass. This does not mean that Ahmadinejad will seek direct confrontation with a carrier group, but he will hope to intimidate the United States, especially if this occurs after Bush leaves office. In similar fashion, Iran will make a number of statements forcing regional governments to choose a side, with the implication that anyone opposing Iran will stand alone and at significant danger. The deployment of terrorist cells may be expected to be timed to these announcements. Also, a regional alliance consisting of Iran, Syria, and at least one more Middle East power may be announced at this time. A strong effort will likely be made to create a military alliance on the order of OPEC. Provocations against Israel will also occur.
Essentially, the first two steps require finding a way to force the United States and Israel to back off pressure on Iran, while the Jihad builds regional support. The third step begins when Iran believes it has the means to invade a major regional power, such as Turkey or Egypt. When this happens, the Iran-led alliance will find a pretext to invade Israel, ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinians but actually to fulfill Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the map. The eventual war against the United States will depend on the acquisition of WMD sufficient to destroy a number of critical junctures, though in actual fact victory conditions for the Iranians would simply be to force de facto recognition of an Arab superstate in the Middle East, the long-awaited Caliphate.
Intimidating as this sounds, it has a rather large number of weak points and assumptions, and failure at any of several critical points would collapse the whole plan. The obvious problems for Ahmadinejad begin with the fact that Iran is not behind him on this plan. The average Iranian couldn’t care less whether Israel is destroyed or not, and he has little interest in fighting in a war that doesn’t have to happen. The young are demanding political reform, the women are demanding the vote, and the veterans from the old Iran-Iraq war are demanding a better sense of how to avoid killing off an entire generation of men. And that doesn’t include the people who could be interested in a counter-revolution against the Mullahs. One of the more ironic dangers for Iran in trying to develop a nuclear bomb, is the possibility that rebels could seize the weapon and use it against the regime.
And then there is Iraq. A rebuilt Iraq with a sense of its new independence is not likely to smile on a Jihadist neighbor, especially one with a violent history and threatening words. The war between Khomeini and Hussein was a very bad thing for both countries, but a new war between the two could be much bloodier. During the first Gulf War, there was fear that a weakened Iraq might be invaded by Iran. The possibility that Iraq, with or even without U.S. backing, might invade Iran must also be considered. There are real reasons why this would make sense to Iraq, and Iran has to plan how to prevent this possibility.
Also in play is Afghanistan. President Bush understood the Afghans in a way the British and Russians never did, and ironically the Iranians also have failed to grasp. In some ways the Afghans are very much like the Turks, absolutely relentless as an enemy, but absolutely trustworthy as a friend. The United States could not convince Afghanistan to attack Iran, but at the same time Afghanistan is highly unlikely to support an Iran-led alliance. This is a real problem for Iran’s long-term plans in the region, especially if Afghanistan sends an ultimatum of its own to Teheran, which is not as unlikely as some people think. The Afghans play Chess the old-school way: Shah Mat.
All this may help to explain why the United States is taking the tack it has. In the first place, Iran has a longer road than it pretends. Also, the U.S. sees no advantage in doing what Iran expects it to do, especially since the U.S. has options that Iran cannot prevent. Third, the U.S. has long-term goals of its own in play, and if these succeed, Iran will be in a bad way to prevent the dissolution of the Mullahs’ control. It’s a very dangerous business, but for more than one side.