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The Inflated Terms of the Iran Debate

March 29, 2012 by  


By Roger Cohen

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has been perhaps the most vigorous, influential and informed voice relaying the view that Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sees the Iranian leadership as a “messianic apocalyptic cult” and will bomb Iran to stop its nuclear programme. He predicted Israel would attack Iran in the spring of 2011. This month, he wrote for Bloomberg that Obama’s words — “I have Israel’s back” — meant something but not “enough to stop Netanyahu.” Then came the shift. Goldberg wrote a follow-up Bloomberg piece arguing that “Netanyahu could be bluffing.” All the Israel prime minister was really deploying was “huge gusts of words infused with drama and portents of catastrophe.” The Goldberg variations, coming from a journalist who has interviewed both Netanyahu and Obama on Iran, are worthy of serious note.

I’ve never believed Netanyahu, going it alone without US support, would attack an Iran whose stop-go nuclear programme still stands some distance from the capacity to make — let alone actually produce — a bomb. The cost-benefit analysis does not add up: you don’t have to be the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan to see that. Ignite a regional conflict, infuriate the United States, lock in the Islamic Republic for a generation, and take the modern state of Israel to war against Persia for the first time in order to set back a weakened Iran’s nuclear zigzag by a couple of years at best?

Israelis are not crazy, any more than the Iranians.

On the other hand, it seems to me evident that if Iran ever did move out of its comfort zone (which is dilatory opacity), throw out the IAEA inspectors monitoring its uranium enrichment, combine the elements of its nuclear and ballistic research, and rush for a bomb, it would face assault from Israel and the US together. Neither can permit such a decisive shift in the Middle East strategic equation.

In this sense, the whole Iran debate — with its receding “red lines,” its shifting “zones of immunity,” its threats and counter-threats, its bad metaphors and worse similes — is false. We know what will trigger a war and what won’t. At least we should.

Now, after a buildup in Western sanctions, and after Arabs have done more than the West to undermine the Islamic Republic by demanding that democracy and faith go together, talks are to begin again April 13 between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

My sense of Iran’s psychology includes these elements. The nuclear programme is the modern-day equivalent of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s nationalisation of the oil industry — an affirmation of Persian pride against the tutelage of the West and one it is determined will not end with a humiliation.

It is a push for regional influence, a protest against double standards (nuclear-armed Israel, Pakistan and India), a nationalist cornerstone for a tired revolutionary regime and a calculated hedge — the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is “the guardian of the Revolution” and so must balance assertion with preservation, hence the brinkmanship that keeps Iran just short of steps that would trigger war.

You don’t spend long in Tehran without someone rolling up a sleeve, pointing to a horrific scar and saying “America.” The wound is from gassing during the Iran-Iraq conflict in which the West provided Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons. The generation of young officers who fought that 1980-88 war now runs Iran. As John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran, has observed, Iran sees America as “belligerent, sanctimonious, godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating, bullying, exploitive, arrogant and meddling.” America, in turn, sees Iran as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.”

This is Ground Zero of the negotiations about to begin. It’s what you get after 30 years of dangerous non-communication. Is there a way out of the impasse? Perhaps not: Khamenei is a Brezhnevian figure with a locked-in world-view of America as Great Satan. But perhaps yes, if real concessions are made by both sides and the nuclear issue is not taken in isolation.
The fundamental question the West must answer is how to satisfy Iran’s pride and usher it from historical grievance while capping its enrichment at a low, vigorously inspected level far from weapons grade (I can see no solution that does not allow some enrichment.) The fundamental question for the Islamic Republic is whether it can open itself to the West while preserving its system, a risk China took 40 years ago and won.

All the rest is no more than “huge gusts of words.”

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