Explaining Iran

Unlike NIE, Israeli version, at least, does not try to obscure the obvious.

ahmadinejad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Following the style, if not the conclusions, of the infamous US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, Israel's intelligence community gave its assessment on Sunday for the coming year. Like the NIE, the Israeli version was couched in probabilities, which allows intelligence agencies to cover nearly every eventuality and claim they had it right no matter what happens. Unlike the NIE, the Israeli version, at least, does not attempt to obscure the obvious: that Iran is desperately seeking nuclear weapons. It is this conclusion, rather than correct but somewhat fatuous assessments - such as the "low probability" of a general regional war - that matters. What would have been even more helpful would be to spell out the policy implications for Israeli and Western decision-makers of this conclusion on the strategic level. For example, the report apparently did not assert forthrightly what should be the two most salient points for Western policy: 1) that the future of any diplomatic process depends completely on whether Iran is allowed to go nuclear and 2) that applying the deterrence model to Iran will fail to prevent Iran from advancing its agenda at the expense of international security, freedom, and prosperity. The first conclusion, based on events of the last few weeks, should be banal, but seems not to have fully sunken in. While it is fine to pursue a diplomatic process as a sort of hopeful alternative to the status quo, it is foolish to expect this exercise to overcome the forces that have been allowed to gather and strengthen to foil it. Peace cannot be pursued as if Hamas and the missiles it is firing at Israeli cities do not exist. Nor can peace be pursued as if Iran were not becoming increasingly bolder in its support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Perhaps most importantly, peace cannot be pursued when every US-aligned Arab state is already thinking ahead to a day when Iran has nuclear weapons and can undermine their regimes with impunity. This brings us to the problem of deterrence and containment, which have quietly become the consensus approach within the West's foreign and defense establishment with respect to Iran. While only rarely expressed in public, the common establishment view is that a nuclear Iran is not fundamentally different than a nuclear Soviet Union was, or a nuclear China and nuclear Pakistan are today - that is, a problem, but one that can be lived with. What this approach misses is that the Iran regime is different, and not just, or even mainly, because it glorifies martyrdom. The Iranian regime may indeed be the national equivalent of a suicide bomber, but even if it is not, and is susceptible to classic theories of deterrence, the Iranian problem is different. It is different because deterrence, at its best, can only prevent a nation from firing a nuclear-tipped missile. It might, but certainly cannot be guaranteed, to prevent a regime from deploying nuclear weapons through terrorist groups not identified with the source state. And it cannot, even in theory, prevent a regime from using its newfound nuclear immunity to greatly increase its support for "conventional" terrorism to destabilize neighboring regimes, destroy a diplomatic process, create crises to pump up the price of oil, or spark a nuclear arms race. If there is an apt historical analogy to the Iranian situation, it is not the Cold War, but the period that Winston Churchill dubbed "The Gathering Storm" before World War II, during which the Nazis were still weak but gaining power. This analogy holds because the Iranian regime will seek to expand totalitarian Islamism as far and as fast as it can until it is stopped. This is what our intelligence community should be saying on the analytic level and our political leaders should be saying on the international stage. Nor should we be shy about doing so, out of fear of transforming an international problem into an "Israeli" issue. Israel needs to be at the forefront of explaining the international implications of a nuclear Iran. We have not done this urgently or clearly enough. Now we have the worst of both worlds - Iran is thought of as mainly a threat to Israel, but Israel does not seem especially alarmed, so, by this measure, there is no reason for other nations to be. While we are right to treat the Iranian threat as an international problem, there is no escaping our own role in puncturing the delusions that are lulling the West into collective inaction. Our message should be, and not just in private meetings between heads of state, that the US and Europe together still can and still must prevent Iran from becoming the first nuclear-armed terrorist regime.