Monday, November 20, 2006

Ray of Light

For those trying to find a competing rhythm to drown out the incessant beating of the war drums vis-a-vis Iran, Ray Takeyh makes like John Bonham for a day. He penned a trenchant editorial in the LA Times that punches holes in some of the most over-heated scaremongering emplyed by the faction clamoring for war with Iran. After placing some of Ahmadinejad's more hyperbolic comments in a historical context that makes them seem much more mundane and predictable - compared both to former leaders in Iran, and the rest of the world - Takeyh explains the proliferation rationale for the rational actor:

What's more, Iran's pursuit of the bomb has less to do with the destruction of Israel than with deterring a United States that has invaded two states that border Iran in the last five years. This is a moment of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran, with the Bush administration routinely calling for a change of regime in Tehran, so perhaps it's not so surprising that the Islamic Republic feels it requires a deterrent capability to ensure both regime survival and territorial integrity.

This is true, but it is also true that nuclear weapons would confer a certain level of prestige on Iran, increase its regional stature and influence and serve as a deterrent to potential regional adversaries beyond the United States (see, also, Saddam's nuclear ambitions). Combined with Takeyh's observations, all very good reasons for Iran to push for a nuclear weapon.

Yet, at the same time, all extremely bad reasons for Iran to promptly, upon attainment, use one against Israel, or, worse still, give one away to a terrorist group. Not only would Iran instantly lose all of the aforementioned gains (the deterrent factor would be reversed completely, replaced by certain annihilation - and annihilation has been known to interfere with one's level of prestige, or ability to project influence), but it would represent a most peculiar way to treat the culmination of an investment of countless amounts of time, money, diplomatic capital and other frictions and costs.

Playing the yin to Takeyh's yang is Joshua "There's No Such Thing As Leo Strauss" Muravchik, whose own LA Times editorial entitled, Bomb Iran, leaves little to the imagination. But just in case the reader failed to glean the essence of Muravchik's column from its blunt title, he offers a near eponymous repetition in a concise opening paragraph that reads, simply:

We must bomb Iran.

OK Josh, tell us what you really think. The rest of the piece reads like a standard issue parade of horribles that will, allegedly, flow from Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon: some real, some imagined and some just bizarre.

As an example of the latter, in making the case that Iran's sponsorship of terrorism poses a risk that Iran would perpetrate a nuclear attack against the US via one of its proxies, Muravchik cites Iran's support for Palestinian and Lebanese nationalist groups that employ terrorism against Israel. Perhaps sensing the lack of direct connection from Iran to the US in such a dynamic, Muravchik resorts to a spurious claim that that Iran is on the verge of taking over al-Qaeda.

I kid you not. Muravchik actually claims that the the rulers of the most prominent Shiite country in the world would become the putative head of the Salafist, Sunni al-Qaeda. The organization that rabid Shiite murder Abu Musab Zarqawi called home would be under the thrall of its new Shiite masters. Or something.

Not content with the fear factor quotient represented by the "Shiite control of al-Qaeda" fantasy, Muravchik presses it further: imagining the entire Muslim world under the control of Shiite Iran - a Muslim world whose unified power would parallel that of....Hitler's Germany. Sigh. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before:

If Iran's reach were limited to Shiites, it would be constrained by their minority status in the Muslim world as well as by the divisions between Persians and Arabs.

But such ethnic-based analysis fails to take into account Iran's charisma as the archenemy of the United States and Israel and the leverage it achieves as the patron of radicals and rejectionists. Given that, the old assumptions about Shiites and Sunnis may not hold any longer. Iran's closest ally today is Syria, which is mostly Sunni. The link between Tehran and Damascus is ideological, not theological. Similarly, Iran supports the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which are overwhelmingly Sunni (and as a result, Iran has grown popular in the eyes of Palestinians). [...]

Russia was poor and weak in 1917 when Lenin took power, as was Germany in 1933 when Hitler came in. Neither, in the end, was able to defeat the United States, but each of them unleashed unimaginable suffering before they succumbed. And despite its weakness, Iran commands an asset that neither of them had: a natural advantage in appealing to the world's billion-plus Muslims.

Where does one begin? Perhaps Iraq - that living testament to the stubborn resolve of those "old assumptions" about Shiite and Sunni animosity. In fact, there is a far greater risk of a massive, regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian war than that the entire Muslim world will soon organize, in common under Iran's banner.

Practically speaking, it should be noted that our policy of isolating and ostracizing Syria is pushing Syria (with few other places to turn) ever closer to Iran. If this marriage of convenience between two otherwise unlikely allies is a cause for concern, perhaps we should pursue a strategy of peeling Syria away from Iran instead. Further, as Takeyh notes, a general reconfiguration of our posture in the region could help to dissipate the unnaturally high levels of support that Shiite Iran currently receives from radicalized Sunnis in the region:

So then, why has Ahmadinejad persisted in his contemptible denials of the Holocaust and his repeated calls for the eradication of Israel if, in fact, they are more bluster than anything else? As a cagey politician, Ahmadinejad appreciates that his incendiary denunciations actually enhance his popularity in the Middle East. The carnage in Iraq, the failure to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab rulers' inability to stand up to Washington have generated a popular clamor for a politician willing to defy the U.S. and Israel.

This same combination of frustration and want of a champion also pushes Osama's approval ratings to artificial heights (many ostensible supporters applaud his defiance, but reject the underlying political vision).

While lacking in the "muscular" - if ephemeral - gratification of "shock and awe" bellicosity, a well crafted diplomatic entreaty with Syria and other regional players, combined with a strategic realignment, could, in the end, achieve the goal of removing a potential Iranian ally and weakening Iran's broader support (thus containing Iran's pan-Muslim appeal) with far less bloodshed, at a vastly cheaper cost, with less likelihood of disastrous retaliation and other negative repercussions.

At that point, I would be comfortable taking our chances with the prospect that Iran will come to rule al-Qaeda.

Or, on the other hand, bomb Iran.

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