Sunday, January 22, 2006

Iranian mullahs are not fools

What is the primary evidence for the assertion that Iran will have a bomb soon if not already? The words of the Iranian President, for one, and the deliberate kabuki dance of the Iranian government with the IAEA. An analysis by STRATFOR (which it must be noted in all fairness has a better track record than Wretchard or Winds of Change) argues that both of these can be interpreted in a strategic sense:

By the end of 2005, Iran had secured its western frontier as well as it could, had achieved what influence it could in Baghdad, had seen al Qaeda weakened.It was time for the next phase. It had to reclaim its position as the leader of the Islamic revolutionary movement for itself and for Shi'ism.

Thus, the selection of the new president was, in retrospect, carefully engineered. After President Mohammed Khatami's term, all moderates were excluded from the electoral process by decree, and the election came down to a struggle between former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - an heir to Khomeini's tradition, but also an heir to the tactical pragmatism of the 1980s and 1990s - and Ahmadinejad, the clearest descendent of the Khomeini revolution that there was in Iran, and someone who in many ways had avoided the worst taints of compromise.

Ahmadinejad was set loose to reclaim Iran's position in the Muslim world. Since Iran had collaborated with Israel during the 1980s, and since Iranian money in Lebanon had mingled with Israeli money, the first thing he had to do was to reassert Iran's anti-Zionist credentials. He did that by threatening Israel's existence and denying the Holocaust. Whether he believed what he was saying is immaterial. Ahmadinejad used the Holocaust issue to do two things: First, he established himself as intellectually both anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish, taking the far flank among Islamic leaders; and second, he signaled a massive breach with Khatami's approach.
The second phase was for Iran to very publicly resume - or very publicly claim to be resuming - development of a nuclear weapon. This signaled three things:

1. Iran's policy of accommodation with the West was over.
2. Iran intended to get a nuclear weapon in order to become the only real challenge to Israel and, not incidentally, a regional power that Sunni states would have to deal with.
3. Iran was prepared to take risks that no other Muslim actor was prepared to take. Al Qaeda was a piker.

(NOTE: I've used some of the excerpt from WoC as I am not a STRATFOR subscriber)

Note that this is in effect a continuation of the original Islamic Revolution that put the mullahs in power. Phase one was Iran; that took twenty years. Phase two is the Ummah; that may well take another twenty, or fifty.

Much the "three conjectures" analysis that is so breathlessly quoted by the pro-Iran war camp (summarized as: preemptive genocide) hinges on the basic assumption that the Iranian regime and leadership is utterly unhinged. Yes, the Iranian president has made references to the 12th Imam; but these references fit perfectly into the STRATFOR analysis above in terms of establishing legitimacy - as one commenter at WoC said, this is theater for the audiences of Dar ul Islam, not Dar ul Harb.

And if the Iranians genuinely believe the return of the Mahdi is imminent, then they would be obligated to prepare their nation for the Mahdi to lead. It is the sole prerogative of the Mahdi to make holy war on behalf of Islam. If the Iranian mullahs want to retain the power and prestige they have grown fat upon, the return of the Mahdi would be a disaster; if they genuinely want the Mahdi to return, they cannot expect His pleasure at starting the war without him. I claim more authority in discussing spiritual motivations on this score than Joe Katzman, student of Islam though he is.

Ultimately, the most insightful comment I've seen is by Porphyrogenitus, presently serving in the armed forces but who did manage to leave a comment at WoC to the effect:

Really it is a race to the finish line between two possible endings.

Yes. Iran is universally acknowledged to be in a pre-revolutionary state. The internal demographics alone point to inevitable social disruption. Even Joe's "moderate" prescription would utterly negate those forces of democratization and set the cause of freedom - which is the ultimate goal of the war on terror, after all - significantly backwards, perhaps fatally.

And the evidence suggests that in this race between possible endings, the "bad" ending isn't as swift of foot as the doomsayers (whose credibility, it must be noted, is tarnished, after Iraq) presuppose:

Overall, Iran is probably a little less than a decade away from developing a nuclear weapon. The key question here is how long it will take Iran to enrich a few tens of kilograms of uranium to more than 90 percent U-235.

Dafna Linzer reported that the US Intelligence Community does not believe that Iran could do so before “early to mid next decade”—a revision of previous assessments that Iran would “have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade.”

Why so long? The answer is that Iran still has to build, install and operate its centrifuges to enrich uranium.

David Albright and Corey Hinderstein at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released an estimate that breaks down the steps for Iran to make fissile material for a bomb, along with a nifty satellite image (at right) of Iran’s Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz.

Most references to Iran being “months” away from a bomb are really statements about how close Iran will be once it completes the FEP—something, as you will soon see, that will take a few years.

The analysis by ArmsControlWonk is thorough and detailed and goes into the specifics of nuclear production - including a very relevant discussion of lead. I urge everyone to read the full post. The bottom line: Iran is at least three years away from the bomb, even with the unrealistic assumption that the engineering is flawless enough to avoid even a single technical problem.

It is deeply troubling that instead of discussing how we might facilitate the birth of a new Iran, we are instead talking about "Hobbesian choices" and hinting darkly at 100 million potential dead in the middle east - by our hands. How noble of us! How monstrous. Preemptive war is one thing; preemptive genocide another.

"It's not enough to survive - one has to be worthy of surviving." -- Commander Adama

Does all the rhetoric of freedom fall by the wayside, and we reach for our nukes, that easily? I am deeply disappointed - especially in those who have argued consistently for years that there are winds of change blowing throughout the middle east.

Let us pose an alternative. I pose to you here the question: starting with the assumption that our end goal is to enable the Iranian people to effect their own Mahogany Revolution, what can we do? And let us take as our budget one trillion dollars. Let us explore the possibilities of what changes our multi-pole superpower can effect. Discuss.

UPDATE: Dave Schuler just posted a great response to a great comment by Jeff Medcalf on a great post by Armed Liberal at WoC. All of these posts (er, read in reverse order of course) provide a much more rigorous and stable extension of the discussion and are *highly* recommended.


  1. I am not really that knowledgable in Islamic theology. What conditions to Shi'a believe is necessary for the return of the Mahdi?

  2. Oops, I should have proofread.

    I mean to type "They wrote series of articles claiming that President Johnson and co did not intend to win the Vietnam war..."

    Perhaps I messed up a tag.