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Military Attack on Iran Will Set Reform Back 50 Years

Yesterday, I organized a series of media and public events on the Iranian nuclear crisis which featured Prof. Muhammad Sahimi, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program, Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist specializing in Israeli politics, and Keith Weissman, former AIPAC deputy director.  Sahimi and Lustick joined Steve Scher’s Weekday on KUOW (audio stream here) and KIRO talk show host, Dave Ross, interviewed Sahimi (audio stream here).

(L. to R.) Profs. Ellis Goldberg, Ian Lustick, Keith Weissman and Muhammad Sahimi, conference speakers (photo: Cliff Wells)

(L. to R.) Profs. Ellis Goldberg, Ian Lustick, Keith Weissman and Muhammad Sahimi, conference speakers (all photos: Cliff Wells)

Ed Mays will be posting video and I will also post audio of the evening event shortly.

125 people heard the above speakers discuss Iran, Israel, U.S.: Resolving the Nuclear Impasse at Town Hall.  What follows is an impressionistic summary of the most important ideas and information I gleaned yesterday.

Prof. Sahimi is a chemical engineer with special expertise in the world energy industry.  As a scientist he pays especially close attention to the Iranian nuclear program.

Just after the Islamic Revolution, when he was a young student, he told me that young people generally chose one of two political tendencies, the Mujahadeen al Khalq a moderate Islamist left group or the Communist Tudeh movement.  He supported the Mujahadeen as did some of his brothers and cousins.  Tragically, one of his brothers and several of his cousins were murdered.  One of the cousins who died was a doctor and his “crime” was tending to the wounds of fellow Mujahadeen members.

He told this story to establish his bona fides as a critic of the Iranian regime and as a supporter of some aspects of its nuclear program.  He does not accept Ahmadinejad’s victory in the June election and does not call him “president.”  The elections were a sham.  Nonetheless, he finds that some of the arguments raised by Iranian officials regarding the nuclear program are cogent.  First, both reformers and the current leaders support this program.  So if we are so naive as to believe that we will resolve our problem through regime change (short of installing a puppet regime), we are sorely mistaken.  Second, we are hypocritical to deny Iran the ability to do research that many other western nations are pursuing.  Third, there is no evidence so far that Iran is actively following a path that would lead to building a nuclear weapon, there is some evidence to support the idea that the country is pursuing research that would lead to its ability to create such a weapon if it decided to do so.

Introducing conference

Introducing conference

This is a path that Japan decided to follow in the 1960s.  It has not nuclear weapons.  But should it feel under attack from one of its neighbors and face a severe national security threat it could put into place an effort to create such a weapon in short order.  Yet you don’t hear the world complaining about this.

No matter how deranged Iran’s domestic politics seem under the clerical regime, its foreign policy is conducted under different and far more pragmatic terms.  Iran knows that should it go too far that Israel and the U.S. stand ready to vaporize it with their own arsenals.  They look around them and see their country surrounded on three sides by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf (the 5th fleet), and Iraq.  They understand the limitations of their power.  Despite the claims about “wild-eyed mullahs” they are anything but when it comes to relations with the outside world.

If Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is it to destroy Israel?  In a word, no.  Aside from the three-sided net the U.S. has sewn around Iran, several Iranian neighbors like Pakistan and Russia have nuclear weapons.  Not to mention Israel’s warheads which could strike it as well.  And one fact that is insufficiently understood is that Iran is deeply worried about the instability of the former.  Within Pakistan, there is deep hatred of Shiism, the dominant form of Iranian Islam.  Pakistan is rumored to have funded and founded an anti-Iranian terror group, Jundallah that is active inside Iran along their joint border.  Iranians worry that an unstable Pakistan could fall to the Taliban or other radical Islamist forces who will look to Iran as a mortal enemy and feel free to use its nuclear arsenal as political blackmail.  We must recognize that Iran does have legitimate national security concerns to preserve its territorial integrity and social stability.  If we address these concerns and treat them as legitimate then we may be able to resolve the impasse.

Prof. Ian Lustick

Prof. Ian Lustick

Prof.Lustick also says the Iranians have taken note of the fact that having a nuclear weapon has protected countries like North Korea from outside attack and regime change.  All they have to do is look next door to see what happens to a leader the U.S. doesn’t like who does NOT have a nuclear arsenal.  This lesson is not lost on Iran.

Sahimi argues that Iran itself has not pursued an offensive war in 275 years.  So the notion that it will take out Israel is far-fetched in the extreme.  Ian Lustick also argues that most Israeli security experts (as opposed to politicians) do not predict an Iranian attack on Israel.

He also notes the similarities between Israel’s early nuclear program and the current Iranian posture.  Israel maintains studied ambiguity regarding its nuclear capability.  It has always refused to acknowledge that it has such weapons, though experts generally concede it currently has about 400 warheads.  It has always said it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East, though it immediately contradicts that statement by adding it won’t be the second either.  More studied ambiguity.

Lustick also notes another historical parallel between Israel and the U.S.’ deep-seated fear of a nuclear Iran and the Soviet Union’s similar response in 1965, when they learned from an Israeli spy that his country was a few years away from developing a nuclear weapon.  The Soviets were so hysterically opposed to this that they did their best to provoke the 1967 war.  They even basing their most sophisticated Foxbat MIG fighter-bombers there in preparation for an all out assault on Israel’s Dimona facility.   They felt they needed the cover of a war in order to launch such an attack.

The point he makes is that we should learn from the mistake that the Soviets almost made in 1967 and not repeat it through the same overreaction.

Lustick argues that the reason Israel is so vehement about stopping an Iranian weapon is NOT because it fears being attacked, but rather it fears losing nuclear hegemony and the constrictions on its own behavior which would result.  Israel has always followed the dictum of Jacobtinsky’s Iron Wall, which argued that Israel need to use massive, overpowering force to defeat the Arabs so they would eventually see reason and accept Israel on its own terms.  This explains the “madman” strategy of the Lebanon and Gaza wars.  If Iran gets the bomb, then Israel can no longer muster that overwhelming firepower to intimidate the Arab enemy.  This will mean that it is that much more likely Israel will have to accomodate to its opponents than the other way around.  This constraint upon its courses of action is unacceptable and “sends shivers down the spines of Israeli leaders.”

Lustick and Sahimi both argue that the fear of Israeli military vulnerability will also encourage a net migration outflow from Israel to the Diaspora.  In such an event, the first to go would be the best educated, wealthiest, and those with intellectual, scientific and technical backgrounds which Israel can ill afford to lose.  Those who choose to remain will be the poor, elderly and those with the least likelihood of succeeding outside Israel.  So the real threat from an Iranian bomb is the debilitating psychological impact and instability it will instill.

This also plays into the deep trauma instilled in Israel by the Holocaust.  Which means that when the Iranians speak in terms that resonate with the Nazis in Israeli minds, it also provokes an atavistic survival mode response.  While some Israelis will dig in their heels and say they’ll fight till the end, many others will say they refuse to live under the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear attack since it brings to mind memories of the Holocaust.  They will not want their children to face such a fight and may choose to emigrate.  In fact, in the past seven years there has been significant emigration and a net outflow of population.

Lustick calls for patience in dealing with Iran and recognition of the fact that the mixed messages emanating from there about various nuclear approaches and compromises offered and then rescinded indicate an internal political situation in a state of flux.  Instead of posing parnoiac theories about Iran seeking regional dominance and mistrusting every statement made by the Iranians, we should take a step back and view developments in pure internal political terms.  The reformers are vying for power with the hardliners.  Neither is in complete control.

In fact, the reformers are the ones who are taking a harder line than Ahmadinejad regarding the nuclear talks with the west.  So if we really support the former and want them to succeed, we have to recognize the possibility that the nuclear debate is a secondary issue to the more important question of who will control Iran in the long-term.  If we shrei about the axis of evil and use other hyperbolic phrasing, we only stand to make things worse.

The current crisis also enables one to broach the idea that all nuclear states should be on the same terms, and the same demands should be made of all of them.  They all should join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Israel is not a member).  They all should offer inspections by the IAEA.  They should all follow the same standards and sign the same agreements.  There needs to be transparency in nuclear affairs and not the current state of opacity represented by Israel’s approach.

Israel’s supporters point out Iran’s support for neighboring forces like Hezbollah and Hamas who wreak havoc on Israel’s northern and southern flank.  They use this as evidence that that country harbors expansionist motives and seeks to sow seeds of discord into regional politics.  Lustick argues that the best way to defang this issue is a comprehensive peace agreement among Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.  In fact, one Iranian president said: “It’s not up to us to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.”  If they accept an agreement, Iran will as well.  That is the best way to end these proxy battles.

The University of Pennsylvania professor invoked a new book, Iranophobia, which argues for deep parallels between the Israeli Zionist historical narrative and the Shah’s tale of an ancient Persian empire revived via his Peacock Throne.  In each mythology an ancient people was returning to its ancient home to claim its historical birthright.  The goal of both Zionism and the Shah was to turn this ancient regime into a modern, western one which was an important political, economic and military state.  In this way, Israel and Iran saw each other as kindred spirits in this project.  So when the Shah was toppled and was replaced by what some Israelis called a “Levantine dunghill,” it shattered Israel and made it realize in some deep way if it could happen to the Pahlevis it could happen to it as well.

Keith Weissman, as former deputy director of Aipac, spoke about the ineffectiveness of sanctions.  He said he wrote the first set of legislative sanctions for Congress in 1995 and experience has shown that they have failed.  Unilateral sanctions don’t work.  The only instance in which sanctions have ever worked was South Africa and the circumstances there were much different from what we face today.  In fact, sanctions are a “placeholder” policy because they stave off a cry for military attack, which no one in the Obama administration wants to face.

The problem is that sanctions are not a policy in and of themselves.  They don’t advance an agenda, they merely prevent a worse outcome.  They cannot replace the need for a comprehensive settlement of the outstanding issues with each party’s needs and interests being considered as legitimate.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Rafi December 18, 2009, 5:15 AM

    1. so what is their solution? a comprehensive peace? very original, comparing Japan and Iran is more nonsense.

    2. do you support Iran getting nukes? you think that it will bring the peace? the disolution of Israel? why the ambiguity? or maybe youre still in denial about that prospect.

    3. Israel will not sign the NPT, talk about “if wishing had it so” policy, Obama promised Bibi, that’s not changing, even if Haaretz has a article today that also wish it, including giving Iran the subs from germany that carry second-strike-nukes for the sake of “stabilty”.

    4. Ynet published a 1980 interview of Sadat by Rabin this week, he called the ousted Shah “a good friend of Israel”, Carter, another leftists hero also praised the King of Kings, but somehow you still admire them.

    5. the reform of Iran and the nukes are distinct issues, even the reformers want the nukes, or “the program”, for Israel this is casus belli just like for the U.S. if AQ-Taliban gets them by a Pakistani coupe.

    6. sanctions are a in-between move, especially if Russia and China are out, there are no good options, an attack on Iran, or a nuclear Persia, i prefer the the former.

    • Warren December 18, 2009, 3:10 PM

      Rafi, your chest-thumping and wish for war on Iran is sure sweet, but could you please do it on your own dime? Your attitude exemplifies why the US needs to part ways with Israel, we need a full-blown divorce, and without alimony. The thing is, for a country with such deep-seated hostility (and apparent hatred) toward the surrounding region and world, Israel is an awfully dependent little state, what was the old expression, “welfare queen”? The Jewish state receives at least 3 billion (heavily gentile-tainted) dollars a year and a plethora of free military hardware from the United States of America, and the warmongering of your country implicates all of us Americans, very much including the vast majority Gentile population, since we financially and materially underwrite you to such an extent.

      You see, when you rain down death on Palestinian civilians and other nations like Lebanon, which seems to be a regular habit of your country, the helicopters you use have a nifty Made in America sticker on them, so all Americans end up being complicit in Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. Israeli potential aggression against Iran carries along with it that same financial/military dependency you have on us.

      So, if you’re gonna be John Wayne, then be a man and do it on your own, rather than being so woefully dependent on the non-Jewish world (as well as your fellow diaspora Jews), more and more Americans are getting sick of facilitating your barbarism. We have our own disastrously off-base nation with its destructive foreign policy to deal with and reform (with no help from the Israel lobby and its notable influence on our own foreign policy behavior, I might add).

      One encouraging sign is that much of the world sees your leaders as war criminals, Rafi. What was it? Tzipi Livni put off traveling to Merry ‘Ol England for fear of being arrested as a war criminal. Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. Why don’t you let the reality of that really sink in. Look in the mirror, you’ve been meting out much more death and destruction to helpless innocents than Iran has. I think most of the world would take a nuclear Iran over an Israeli attack on Iran (I’ll go with the world community on that one…)

      • Mary December 18, 2009, 4:04 PM

        Indeed, when was the last time Iran attacked another country?

        • Rafi December 18, 2009, 11:36 PM

          didn’t they attack Iraq yesterday? at least that’s what Iraqi gov is saying, i’m sure you’ll excuse it.

          • Mary December 19, 2009, 6:36 AM

            That wasn’t an attack in the true sense. Iran has done the same thing in the past. There was an incident in 2006 involving Iraqi Kurds. Cross-border skirmishes are not the same as air strikes or ground invasions.

            I’m not “excusing it,” just clarifying.

      • Rafi December 19, 2009, 12:37 AM

        but who will get the kids?

        “The Jewish state receives at least 3 billion (heavily gentile-tainted) dollars a year and a plethora of free military hardware ”

        wrong, the 3 billion are used to buy that military hardware from American companies, not in addition to it.

        when the U.S. decides to turn on an ally, like South Vietnam or Saddam, it does, that is why we have a bomb in the basement.

        Israel caused more barbarism than Iran, but we’re still way behind Merry ‘Ol England or the United States of America, past and present, keep blaming the Lobby.

        “I think most of the world would take a nuclear Iran over an Israeli attack on Iran (I’ll go with the world community on that one…)”


        • Mary December 19, 2009, 6:38 AM

          I would say that for a country with only a 61 year history, Israel can’t be compared to “merry ol’ England” whose history goes back about 1,000 years or so.

          I myself would rather see Iran with a nuke keeping Israel in check, than to see an Israeli attack on Iran which would cause the entire region to explode into World War III.

    • Richard Silverstein December 18, 2009, 4:44 PM

      a comprehensive peace? very original,

      Sometimes the most logical, most obvious approaches are the right one. In this case a comprehensive peace in which every issue is on the table is the right one. Your approach I suppose of regime change or military attack is “original?”

      do you support Iran getting nukes?

      I’d prefer Iran not get nukes. But the diff. bet. you & me is that I’m not a hypocrite. If Israel won’t bargain in good faith, join the NPT, etc. then why should Iran be expected to behave differently than Israel?

      Israel will not sign the NPT

      I beg to differ. It will. Perhaps you’ll be dragged screaming & kicking along. But it will happen eventually.

      Ynet published a 1980 interview of Sadat

      And 30 yr old interviews are relevant precisely how??

      the reform of Iran and the nukes are distinct issues

      Not at all. Of course, they’re interconnected.

      for Israel this is casus belli

      The rest of the world will not accept it. If it did, then why shouldn’t India have wiped out Pakistan before it got nukes? Why shouldn’t S. Korea wipe out No. Korea for the same reason? Why shouldn’t the U.S. have bombed China back to the Stone Age before it got nukes? And when Kruschev said “We will bury you” at the UN why didn’t he literally do it since we had nukes & he could’ve done so. Why does Israel get to act differently than every other nation in the world whose worst enemy has gotten a nuclear weapon without wiping that enemy out?

      an attack on Iran, or a nuclear Persia, i prefer the the former.

      Thanks for being honest & laying yr cards on the table. They show your true pro war colors.

      • Rafi December 18, 2009, 11:56 PM

        “I’m not a hypocrite”

        for me an hipocrite is the one who is saying he doesn’t want Iran getting nukes while not going the distance to stop it.

        “And 30 yr old interviews are relevant precisely how”

        you wrote about the relationship between Israel and the Peacock Throne, lighten up, it also goes to show the hipocrites in the Left who admire Rabin/Carter/Obama while demonizing Reagen/Bibi/Bush, the Oslo speech is case in point.

        “Why does Israel get to act differently ”

        because it can.

        “Thanks for being honest ”

        you too, you are willing to live with a nuclear Iran, that is what i wanted to know.

        “your true pro war colors”

        i am not against all wars, just the dumb ones.

        • Richard Silverstein December 19, 2009, 12:56 AM

          Spellcheck is yr friend btw. W/o it you either appear dyslexic or illiterate.

          you wrote about the relationship between Israel and the Peacock Throne

          Do you understand the diff. bet. rolling out a 30 yr old interview with long dead political figures & making a historical analogy bet. a seminal event of one historical era and an event happening today??

          you too, you are willing to live with a nuclear Iran, that is what i wanted to know.

          There are many states that have nuclear weapons, some much more unstable than Iran. Why aren’t you complaining about Pakistan, far more unstable than Iran with far more radical Islamist forces threatening to topple the gov’t.

          i am not against all wars, just the dumb ones.

          Than you should be against a war against Iran as it will be one of the dumbest of the new century.

          • Rafi December 19, 2009, 5:11 AM

            The point is not the stability of the regime that have nukes, it is their intention, that is why if the reformers take over and turn Iran internally to a beacon of democracy and human rights but continue the same foreign policy it won’t change my view.

            You really can’t see the difference between Iran and Pakistan? Iran and NK? i need to spell it for you? ridiculous but here goes, a nuclear Iran changes the balance of power in the middle east, i don’t support the status quo but it will be too much to the other side, a slim chance of nukes on Tel Aviv and a bigger chance of nuclearisation of all the region and in the long term the disolution of Israel.

            NK is SK’s problem, not mine, and if a Pakistani coupe happened then it really depends who are the new bosses, if it’s U.S. allies (like today) that it is Iran’s problem, if it is the Taliban it is both Iran’s and Israel’s, and America’s.

          • Shirin December 20, 2009, 12:30 AM

            Rafi, in regards to the intention of the regime, what part of “there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or intends to produce one in the foreseeable future” is not clear to you? And how does the fact that Iran has not waged an aggressive war in nearly 300 years, and the present regime has been in power for decades without changing that behaviour indicate to you that the Iranian regime intends to initiate an aggressive war against Israel or anyone else?

  • Saint Michael Traveler December 18, 2009, 11:35 AM

    The past political mistakes and financial burdens USA has placed on the Iranian people will not advance the long term American interests. To assist the Progressive movement in Iran, allow a greater exchange between the two societies, remove the burdens placed on the Iranian people by economic sanctions and restrictions. By removing the burden, we allow change in demographics of Iran toward a larger middle class; thus, it will shift the internal Iranian policy from Traditionalists toward the Progressives. We must support the Iranian Progressives. The Progressives are young, better educated and often the middle class segment of the Iranian population. Iranian Traditionalist (religious, very nationalistic, often poor, and under educated) voted for re-election of Ahmadinejad.

    We will not advance our American interests, or the Progressive Iranian movement, by listening to those who advocate a more aggressive policy toward Iran. Only Iranian people will decide the new course of action for their country. The evolution of the Iranian society toward a secular state will require time and external security. The over aggressive posturing by Israel and supported by the Congress will only strengthen the hands of the traditionalist segment of the Iranian society. The best course of action for President Obama, I suggest, is to allow Iranian people to settle their own internal political conflicts.

    In response to the Question: Iran and Nuclear Bomb, please read my take on this issue:
    Israel and Iran: Nuclear Disarmament and Foreign Policy

    MyAmerica Journal

    • paniz December 19, 2009, 3:58 PM

      you are absolutely right

    • Shirin December 20, 2009, 12:41 AM

      The best course of action for President Obama, I suggest, is to allow Iranian people to settle their own internal political conflicts.

      That is not only the best course of action, it is the only rational course. It is not the job of the United States government to determine how Iran is governed, or the shape of Iranian society. It is the job of the Iranian people to determine those things, and the responsibility of the United States government to stay the hell out of the way and allow natural evolution to take place. It is not Obama’s business to try to force his will on Iran, and doing so will never have a desirable result for the Iranians, or for the U.S.

  • cborg December 18, 2009, 12:45 PM

    Perhaps we should encourage relations with Iran by supplying them with enriched uranium. A nuclear armed Iran would force Isarel to obey UN resolutions. If Iran nuked Israel, it would be due to a) unbearable provocations on the part of Israel and b) at least Israel would reclaim the moral high ground, which it lost in 1948

  • Mary December 18, 2009, 1:13 PM

    I am tired of Israel and the US trying to jam the “Iran is an evil entity, we need to go to war with them” kool-aid down our throats. Anyone who looks at both the US and Israel clearly can see the agenda here.

    Israel’s agenda is to push the US hegemony and war-on-terror buttons, along with yammering on and on, miquoting Ahmadinejhad and insisting that Iran is going to destroy Israel. In fact, Israel wants to be the de facto power in the middle east, and Iran’s nuclear program threatens the balance of power in the region and may tip it towards Iran.

    The US loves and needs war to sustain its political and economic systems. It has been almost continuously at war since the beginning of the 20th century, always with enemies who have no chance of winning. I don’t remember who it was who said it, but America needs to pick up some little country of brown-skinned people and throw it against a wall every few years. The Iraq war is winding down, supposedly; Afghanistan is going to be the mother of quagmires. America does not need to get into it with Iran, no matter how “special” its relationship is with Israel.

    They all need to back off from each other, stop the saber rattling and act like adults. It is that simple. I am fed up with all this ridiculous analysis and speculation when it is all so transparent.

    • Shirin December 20, 2009, 12:45 AM

      The best way to make certain that Iran does at some point find it necessary to develop nuclear weapons is to continue to threaten it with military action. And Iran would not be wrong to react to threats in that way. Iran has as much right to self-defense as anyone else, and that includes developing a deterrent in the form of a nuclear threat.

  • Gene Schulman December 18, 2009, 11:34 PM

    I thank Warren for preempting my aging, arthritic fingers from having to reply to Rafi. Well done!

    The same for Mary and Richard. Bravo!

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