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).
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.
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.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.