View from America: The next catastrophe waiting

Let's put 9/11 recriminations behind us, and get serious about Iran.

sept wtc 911 memorial 88 (photo credit: )
sept wtc 911 memorial 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, many in the chattering classes in the United States devoted their energy to the controversy about ABC's television film The Path to 9/11. Partisanship seems to dominate virtually every discussion these days. So it was no surprise that just as Republicans have sought to minimize the lack of attention paid to the terror threat by the Bush administration, so, too, have Democrats resisted the notion that the failures of the Clinton administration be highlighted, as the film did in some respects. With so much attention devoted to wacko conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks available on the Internet, and with seemingly more respectable conversations conducted by our political elites devoted to assigning blame to their foes and absolving their friends, intelligent discussions of the issue have been largely crowded out by the din of nonsense. That makes for good shouting matches on the all-news cable stations, but like many Americans, my tolerance for the genre is limited. The painful truth about 9/11 is that outside of a few experts on the issue - such as scholar Daniel Pipes or journalist Steven Emerson - there were precious few writing and speaking about the danger of Islamic terrorism before September 11, 2001. And these men were routinely ignored or derided by more influential figures in the media, academia and halls of power. If the FBI and CIA operatives failed to gain the attention of their political masters for an all-out commitment to resist the murderers before that date (a sore point for some viewers of the ABC film), it was because so few were prepared to speak out about the danger at that time. Hence, the political support necessary for the drastic increase in intelligence and military resources devoted to the fight was simply lacking. If extraordinary measures such as federal forces' eavesdropping on suspected terrorists are still considered controversial by some today, even more limited measures aimed at rooting out terror front groups were unthinkable prior to 9/11. AND THAT should lead us all directly to the present day issue of Iran. Just like al-Qaida, which, as many have observed, "hid in plain sight" from the view of the West, Iran's drive to produce nuclear weapons has been anything but a secret. When not denying the Holocaust or threatening to destroy Israel, its loopy leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has openly bragged about the possibility. The Teheran regime even held a bizarre public ceremony back in April replete with costumed dancers to commemorate its latest step toward processing uranium in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. And Iran is not only working on a nuclear capability, it is also striving for the acquisition of missiles that will deliver such weapons not only to Israeli targets (the Iranians' presumed first target) but to Western capitals, too. As former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in speeches at several stops in Philadelphia last week, there is no comparison between the Iranian situation and that which confronted the West prior to the invasion of Iraq. Unlike then, "we're not guessing" about what they've got, "we know." The prospect of a regime run by Islamist fundamentalist Shi'ites gaining such a weapon and its ability to use it is one that ought to scare every sensible person in the West. Some experts tell us that we must learn to live with a nuclear Iran. They have a point because unless the United States and its allies start acting as if this really matters, it's only a matter of time before Teheran succeeds in its quest. But the problem with the notion that this prospect can be lived with lies in the difference between past nuclear threats and this one. A nuclear Soviet Union was certainly a dangerous foe. But as Netanyahu pointed out, the Soviets would never do anything that endangered their own survival. Thus, whenever disputes between the Soviet Union and the West went to the brink, Moscow was generally as interested as Washington in edging away from the precipice. But the notion that we can be just as confident about deterring the mullahs of Teheran is highly dubious. Unlike the masters of the "evil empire," Ahmadinejad and his religious mentors buy into a theology that prizes celestial martyrdom, not terrestrial conquest. In addition to hoping to generate the return of a "12th Imam" - a Shi'ite messiah - some in his circle have already made plain that even if Iran were to suffer a nuclear response from Israel after a strike on the Jewish state, it would still "win" since more of them would be left, and those who died would be happy martyrs. While such Dr. Strangelove scenarios seem to be more science fiction than realpolitik to us, to the Islamist mindset the prospect of the hedonist rewards of martyrdom is not the stuff of satire. It is real, and the prospect of it coming to pass is no longer theoretical. WHAT CAN America do about it? There are no easy answers. A UN resolution on the issue (if indeed such a resolution can be passed) is a must, but anyone waiting for our allies to enact tough sanctions on Teheran and making them stick is kidding himself. Relying on Israel to take out Iranian nuclear facilities as it did with Iraq in 1981 is also a nonstarter. So at some point, whether in the last years of the George W. Bush administration or in the term of his successor, an American president is going to have to face his people with the distasteful proposition of either letting the lunatics go nuclear or taking drastic action that might include military force. Unless the Iranians have a very unlikely change of heart, the United States - whether it is led by Republicans or a Democrat - will have to swallow hard and act to prevent an event that has the capability of making 9/11 look as insignificant in scale to us as the then-shocking 1915 sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat does now. That president's ability to face up to that challenge will depend on how ready the American public and its leaders have made themselves for the prospect. If a "failure of imagination" was one of the prime causes of the lack of prevention of 9/11, as the federal commission appointed to probe the issue ascertained, then let there be no doubt that a similar inability to imagine the consequences of a nuclear Iran will be far more serious. So rather than worrying about whether George W. Bush or Bill Clinton - along with their respective wise men and flunkies - is more to blame for 9/11, it would behoove us all to think about the next catastrophe waiting down the road. Now is exactly the time to start imagining it. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.