Arguing Iran: The Extremes

Posted on August 19, 2010

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I have wanted to write about Iran since I started the blog months ago, and now would seem appropriate with Jeffrey Goldberg reopening the debate on whether the United States should attack the country to stop its nuclear programme. He has examined in depth the anxiety felt by Israel about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and implies heavily that unless President Obama takes action then its government will. Some commentators see Goldberg’s article as the first stroke in a steady drumbeat to war by neoconservatives, given others followed with more explicit calls to arms. Those who object to using force have resubmitted their arguments against, and the two sides have resumed hostilities. This debate interests me particularly because few have taken it further than attacking Iran and not attacking, and offered to neutral observers like myself some plan that is at least credible, if not perfect in dealing with the fallout from either scenario. We get variable mixtures of narrow strategic judgements, ulterior motives and simple prejudices instead – a bad situation given the seriousness of the issue. It also makes one ask whither the strategists? I want to give a broad overview of the debate and its flaws, ask if there is a realist argument for military action and then try to ‘game’ it to explore possible strategies. To do this satisfactorily, I have decided to have a series of posts and will begin looking at the extremes of the debate; focusing particularly on the neoconservative case for action. My guess is that the post will contain the same flaws that I criticise in others, but I have tried to avoid them and hope to offer some clarity when it comes to arguing Iran.

There is a broad spectrum in the debate about Iran, but many commit the same mistakes from misusing history and information to myopic strategic assessments – all of which inform the analysis. If we look at the ends of the spectrum first, both extremes are most guilty. To neoconservatives, Iran is not only an incredibly powerful menace but also part of a wider conspiracy. Melanie Phillips places the country at the centre of ‘the war against the free world’, which is evident from its support for Hamas and Hizbullah. William Kristol agrees, citing its interference in Iraq and Afghanistan as further evidence. The goals of Iranian policy are obvious – the annihilation of Israel, to inflict terrible damage on the West, export fanaticism worldwide – and so it would be disastrous if the regime in Teheran acquired nuclear capabilities. Our only option is the military one. To those on the other end of the spectrum, the United States and Israel are warmongers that meddle in Iranian affairs and have steadily encircled the country, poised to invade. Yasin Akgun points to Obama’s hardening position on Iran and military deployments in neighbouring countries, as well as alleging heavy Western involvement in the protests against the regime last summer. It is obvious to him that we should all be expecting ‘yet another Iraq, yet another Afghanistan.’ With regard to factual evidence, though, both these narratives are discriminate.

It is true that Iran not only supports paramilitaries in Gaza and Lebanon but also elements of the Taliban, but Phillips and Kristol are wrong to inflate the threat. Figures from the IISS show that militarily, the United States is beyond Iran’s comprehension. The Israeli strategist Ron Tira has written that its weak military capabilities mean that they could not sustain a high-to-medium confrontation with America. This is the case when comparing Iran against Israel, and many Israelis question Binyamin Netanyahu and neoconservatives like Phillips and Kristol depicting the country as an existential threat because it makes Israel look weak. ‘We don’t want our neighbors to think that we are helpless against an Iran with a nuclear bomb,’ one Israeli general told Goldberg.

The other end of the spectrum also projects its Other onto a large screen, ignoring contrary facts. Akgun sees the United States circling Iran, but ignores numbers (nine active personnel in Azerbaijan and under three hundred in Saudi Arabia, as of March) and contexts (fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq). His assessment is more appropriate for Risk™ than reality, and buys into the boardgame worldview motivating Teheran and shared by conspiracists. But the strategic assessments of both extremes are not only informed by selected facts; there is a selective use of history and culture.

Knowing your enemy has become a hackneyed phrase, but it is easy to misunderstand history and culture and make bad calculations about your opponent as a result. Both extremes in the debate about Iran are influenced by selected historical analogies and cultural generalisations, which make any strategic assessments dodgy. Akgun is clear that American confrontation with Iran will be a rerun of its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, presumably the latter as wrong as the former given his use of the phrase ‘yet another’. This is a simplistic analogy. It ignores the contexts of those wars, policy and personnel changes in the last five years and American-Iranian relations today.

The use of history and culture by neoconservatives is more complex, however, and dangerously impacts their strategic assessment of Iran. First, there is the depiction of Shi’ia Islam as an irrational millenarian cult. This is touched on in the Goldberg article, and is the view of Netanyahu. ‘You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs’, the prime minister told Goldberg. The irrationality of Teheran necessitates the use of force, therefore, because the regime is not capable of understanding deterrence. But this is flawed in theory and in practice. Patrick Porter has written in depth about Westerners misunderstanding ‘exotic’ enemies and assuming that they are too irrational to be pragmatists. This assessment is often wrong because we almost always choose rational gains over beliefs and traditions. ‘When conflicts arise between culture and calculations about the utility of action, culture can be remade to serve utility.’ Historically, this has been the case with Iran since 1979. Trita Parsi, who has looked closely at cooperation between Israel and the Islamic Republic since the revolution, argues that the latter has sidelined its beliefs about the Jewish state many times if it was in its interests. Phillips and Kristol cite President Ahmadinejad’s infamous remark about wiping Israel ‘off the map’ as something new, but Parsi would point to Yitzhak Rabin calling Iran his country’s ‘best friend’ despite Ayatollah Khomeini describing it as a ‘tumour’ to be removed. These blindspots in thinking about contemporary Iran have a dangerous impact on neoconservative understanding of the threat the regime in Teheran poses.

The ‘historical’ narrative about Iran also draws heavily from the Second World War, but the lessons neoconservatives draw from it are bad ones and it makes poor strategy. Phillips views our policy through the prism of Appeasement, for example. ‘As in the 1930s, the West once again has failed to take the appropriate intermediate steps.’ Kristol also evokes appeasement, quoting Winston Churchill warning the House of Commons about approaching war. ‘We, too, are entering such a period’, he writes. The choice we face today is action or being a hapless victim to the choices of our enemies. Bill Whittle accuses the political elites in America of the same ‘moral cowardice’ from which the British suffered, psychologically scarred by the First World War. Again, this narrative buys into the belief that Iran is more powerful than in reality. ‘One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm…is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran’s actual capabilities,’ says Stephen Walt. ‘Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany’.

A corollary to this appeasement narrative in neoconservative thinking is Churchillism. George Wills talks about Netanyahu’s admiration for the war leader, because he ‘did not flinch from facts about gathering storms.’ This evocation of Churchill has both historical and strategic problems. First, when it comes to pre-emptive strikes to knock an enemy off balance, he is not the best person to go to (the Dardanelles; Norway, Greece). Second, in talking eloquently about the war leader standing alone against the odds, neoconservatives ignore the context and it accounts for their lack of foresight when it comes to strategy. Britain did not stand alone through choice in 1940, and Churchill made many compromises to build a broad coalition against Germany. Phillips and Kristol push the opposite way, alienating allies with uncompromising stances on issues like Palestine and making unnecessary enemies by viewing potential opponents as one present threat. ‘Great powers don’t get to avoid their urgent responsibilities because they’d prefer to deal with only one problem at a time’, Kristol has argued. To hazard an analogy, this is like fighting the Soviet Union and Josip Tito, as well as the Germans, because they ‘don’t share our values’.

The third analogy, and the most contentious, is the Holocaust, or the Shoah. It is a theme running through the Goldberg article, and he drops something of a historical clanger in an otherwise subtle piece:

‘If the Jewish physicists who created Israel’s nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability—a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force—during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust. It is fair to say, then, that the existence of the Israeli air force, and of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, means axiomatically that the Iranian nuclear program is not the equivalent of Auschwitz.’

The Holocaust has always had an important influence on Israeli strategic culture, but even senior Israelis criticise the heavy emphasis that Netanyahu and others place on it when talking about Iran. ‘We don’t want politicians to put us in a bad position because of the word Shoah’, the same Israeli general told Goldberg. It also buys into the belief than Iran has the capacity to destroy Israel. ‘At best it can cause Israel grievous damage’, the former head of Mossad has said. ‘I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.’ Like with contemporary Iran, neoconservatives draw bad lessons from all these analogies, making their assessments highly questionable.

As touched on at the start, neoconservatives do not move their argument beyond an attack and fail to offer a strategy to deal with Iran and the fallout from a strike. To Phillips, the military action is simple. ‘War need not mean carpet-bombing Tehran. It can and should mean targeted strikes on the regime and its principal interests.’ She does not furnish readers with a list, however. It is also unclear whether the nuclear programme is included under ‘principal interests’. Kristol includes it; as well as strikes on ‘sites used to train and equip militants killing American soldiers, and against certain targeted terror-supporting and nuclear-enabling regime elements’. Okay, what are they? The problem with the military strategy advocated by Phillips and Kristol is not simply that it is charmingly uninformed, but that it unclear about what will be achieved by strikes. We bomb Iran, then what? They assume that simply by blowing stuff up, Iran will stop its nuclear programme. It reflects a naïve understanding of force on their part, and is arguably informed by more analogies (Israeli strikes on Iraq and Syria) than with the situation today. The Iranian nuclear programme is not one reactor but many, with resources and expertise spread across the country. And given the regime in Teheran has invested considerable time and effort to achieve a nuclear capability, where is the guarantee that a few airstrikes will deter them? Phillips and Kristol have no political strategy to match their military one. There is also no plan on the grand strategic level. Tira explores in detail the viability of an Israeli strike on Iran, and argues that the importance of the attack is not the physical operation but manipulating the international response in its favour – or at least in Iran’s disfavour. Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership should be preparing now the ‘political reality’ it needs after the attack, which is to say a favourable climate regionally and internationally. But neither the Israeli prime minister nor neoconservatives have taken this into account. Israel is more isolated today than in the recent past, and it is a result of uncompromising stances on issues like Gaza, which has alienated key allies like Turkey. Phillips and other neoconservatives have supported these hardline positions but, in their eagerness to defend Israel in every possible circumstance, they have failed to prepare the ground for attacking the real threat: Iran. The blog began with making this point, and it is a consequence of not thinking strategically.