Iran - all that we don't know

Beware of people who speak knowledgeably about Iran, particularly big-time pundits and eminent academics.

iran silkworm missile 88 (photo credit: )
iran silkworm missile 88
(photo credit: )
The more you reflect on the coming showdown with Iran, the more you wonder why anyone would want to be the next prime minister of Israel. My advice to Ehud Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz is: Beware of people who speak knowledgeably about Iran, particularly men with epaulets, big-time pundits and eminent academics. What they don't know about Iran could fill an encyclopedia. And please don't tell me what the newspapers are saying based on the prognostications of intelligence experts. If the analysts were so wide off the mark on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," who's to say they have a better handle on the situation in Iran? Oil-rich Iran denies having spent the past 18 years in clandestine efforts aimed at building an atomic bomb; it claims to need nuclear know-how in order to generate electricity. But the belligerent character of the Islamist regime makes it impossible to look the other way. Why, for instance, does Teheran need the Shihab-3 ballistic missile, capable of striking Europe? Charged with violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Teheran originally agreed to suspend nuclear activity during negotiations with Germany, France, and Britain (the EU-3). Now, however, it has announced plans to resume converting raw uranium into gas, a key step ahead of enrichment that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Last week Teheran upped the ante by breaking seals placed by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at its Natanz facility. So we know Iran is developing the capability to make nuclear weapons. We can only guess to what extent it intends to use such power. Not only are Iran's goals murky. No one really understands how critical decisions inside Teheran are made. The best guess is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not calling the shots, that critical decisions are reached by consensus within the ruling clique headed by "Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei. WE ALSO don't know who has the power to order a nuclear attack against Israel if Teheran gets The Bomb. We don't even know the names, much less the relative influences, of the players in Khamenei's decision-making circle. In other words, we know less about Iranian decision making than the US thought it knew about the Soviet Union's politburo during the Cold War. Another thing we don't know is whether efforts by EU-3 to haul Iran to the UN Security Council will succeed. We do know getting to this point has taken them three long years. China, a permanent Security Council member, has already signaled that it's not keen on UN involvement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says responsibly: "Most important for us... [are] not our bilateral relations, our investments in the Iranian economy or our economic profit from cooperation with Iran. [Our] highest priority... is the prevention of the violation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime." This laudable stance notwithstanding, on the same day Mother Russia announced plans to sell $1 billion worth of short-range missiles to Iran. A MEETING on what the world powers will do next is set for London this week. Let's say the crisis comes to the UN Security Council. No one - including the EU-3, or even the US - is talking about imposing genuinely draconian sanctions on Iran, the kind that would keep its oil and gas out of world markets; only, initially, a statement of criticism from the council. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tremble! It's easy to understand why the kind of trading ban that would get the attention of the mullahs is a long way off. Heavy-duty sanctions would likely have a devastating impact on the global economy, where a barrel of oil already costs more than $60. But let's, for argument's sake, imagine that painful sanctions are imposed - toward what end? The Iranians, who are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, say they will stop cooperating voluntarily with the International Atomic Energy Agency if pushed into the corner. And if the sanctions' goal is "regime change," might not a global embargo actually bolster popular domestic support for the mullahs? IN THIS array of the unknown, here's what we do know: The US is tied down in Iraq. Large tracts of Afghanistan remain outside the central government in Kabul's control. Both Ayman al-Zawahri (who some think is the real brains behind Osama bin Laden) and OBL himself remain at large. America's military capabilities are stretched beyond capacity. The Bush administration is hardly in a position to rally American public opinion to confront the presumed Iranian threat. In a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday, Bush - using Iraq-talk - said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a grave threat to the security of the world." He specifically mentioned Iran's threats against Israel. But a short while later White House press secretary Scott McClellan clarified that "Iraq and Iran are not the same situations." Over in London, asked if force against Iran was a possibility, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said: "No one is talking about using force against Iran." He added: "Iran is not Iraq." The Iranians themselves are unhelpfully muddying the waters. Elaine Sciolino aptly summarized the state of play in The New York Times: "But along with the threat [to halt intrusive voluntary inspections] came explanations, offers to continue negotiating, expressions of defiance and even pleas for sympathy." Back to what we know: We know the Iranians aim to destroy Israel because they say so at every opportunity. We think we know that in about six months to a year they will have the know-how to make fissile material for a weapon. Once this point of "no return" is reached, the Iranians could have several atomic bombs as early 2009. There's no assurance - this we know - that a series of conventional Israel Air Force strikes against Iran's multitude of nuclear facilities would deliver a knock-out blow to Teheran's atomic ambitions. If we try and fail (or even if, incredibly, we succeed) a lethal conventional Iranian - or Iranian-proxy - response could nonetheless be forthcoming. Iran has said publicly that if it even suspects an imminent strike from the US or Israel, it will launch a preemptive attack against American forces in Iraq, and against Israel. Still there's no doubt that if the US and EU do what needs to be done, they will not face the logistical nightmare a similar campaign by the IAF would encounter. WE DON'T know, assuming Iran obtains atomic bombs, whether the mullahs can be persuaded that the cost of using them (the destruction of Teheran, say) outweighs the "benefits" (wiping the Zionist entity off the face of the earth). Simply put, we don't know whether the kind of mutual deterrence that kept the US and USSR from launching ballistic missiles against each another would work in our setting. Would rational self-interest trump Islamist apocalyptic thinking? Could even rational mullahs, leading a country of 69 million people spread over 1.6 million square kilometers, resist a nuclear swing against their No. 1 enemy, whose tiny population is concentrated along a narrow coastal plan? We know that during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war both Persians and Arabs showed no compunction about targeting each other's (Muslim) population centers, and that the number of soldiers and non-combatants killed reached 1.5 million. So here we are - in the dark, and under threat of extinction. At the end of the day, after the men with epaulets, the big-time pundits and the academics have had their say, Israel's next prime minister will have a finite interlude and a dearth of unassailable intelligence upon which to base this decision: What to do about Iran.