'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ahmedinjad, the Madman 

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute rattles the saber at Iran in a predictable response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent violent and stupid threats to Israel and dabblings in Holocaust denial. Rubin urges us to "take ideology seriously" arguing that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons it will immediately use them to attack Israel. He supports this claim by citing various anti-Israel statements made by Iranian officials over the years.

It's a silly position -- when you strip away its highbrow pretensions Rubin's article is much like something one might read in the comments of a post on Little Green Footballs. The belief that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons so that it can preemptively strike Israel neglects one crucial point: Israel is a nuclear power backed by the most powerful state in the world. The real danger neoconservatives see in a nuclear Iran is that such a turn of affairs would end Israel's hegemony over the Mideast. Israel would be forced to maintain its military superiority by investing heavily in conventional weapons and forces -- an expensive proposition.

In boilerplate diatribes such as Rubin's, the threats of the hated enemy always occur in a vacuum. Ahmedinjad calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map" but Sharon never told the Times UK that the US should "attack Iran" on "the day after" it was through with Iraq. Iran was involved in a terrorist atrocity in Buenos Aires but the US navy did not shoot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing 290 civilians including 66 children. Iran meddles in Iraq but Israel is not meddling among the Kurds.

Rubin also likes to read ambiguous statements in ways that suit his purposes. He reads the following statement made by former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani half a decade ago as straight-forwardly promising an Iranian first-strike:

If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. . . . It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

The text is ambiguous but makes more sense in context. Rafsanjani is speaking hypothetically about the way in which a nuclear-enabled Iran would change the dynamic of power in the Mideast. Here's the whole quote: (from here)

If one day ... Of course, that is very important. If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality. Of course, you can see that the Americans have kept their eyes peeled and they are carefully looking for even the slightest hint that technological advances are being made by an independent Islamic country. If an independent Islamic country is thinking about acquiring other kinds of weaponry, then they will do their utmost to prevent it from acquiring them. Well, that is something that almost the entire world is discussing right now.

Rubin notably leaves out that bit about "it only harm[ing] the Islamic world." In context, Rafsanjani is discussing Israel as a colonial outpost of American power, concluding a little later in the same speech:

Therefore, in the future, the interests of colonialism and imperialism dictate whether Israel will survive or not. Moreover, it is the resistance put up by Muslims and Iraq and the Palestinians themselves that matters.

Clearly what Rafsanjani is saying is that since it costs blood and treasure for the US to prop up Israel, if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon it would be so costly that Israel's special relationship with the US might become untenable. In other words, Rafsanjani and presumably Ahmedinjad would like to establish a dynamic of mutually assured destruction, to engage Israel in a cold war.

Given the position that it is in -- named an "evil state" by the most powerful nation in the world etc. -- it is hard to imagine Iran not pursuing nuclear weapons.

As for what to make of the recent high-profile saber-rattling of Ahmedinjad, I found Kaveh L Afrasiabi's analysis from October to be informative:

The timing of Ahmadinejad's comment, which coincides with the new Washington-led campaign against Syria over the UN report on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, should not be overlooked, for it may have been calculated to offset any undue pressure, or even strike, against Syria, on which Iran counts as a backbone of support in the Arab world. [ ... ]

Similarly, one wonders if Ahmadinejad's comments were not deliberately calculated to solicit a more negotiated response from Israel and the US down the road, with Iran willing to discuss the terms of adopting a less militant posture towards Israel. For the moment, it is fair to conclude, albeit provisionally, that the president's comments were not coordinated aspects of a carefully-planned approach, but rather a personal statement of ideological preference.

But personally I think Ahmadinejad is calling plays from America and Israel's playbook. I think he is implementing Nixon's so-called Madman strategy

"I CALL IT the madman theory, Bob," Richard Nixon said to Robert Haldeman. [... ] Nixon is remembered as having threatened the US Constitution, but his presidency represented a far graver threat than that. Various published tapes have put on display his vulgarity, pettiness, and prejudice and his regular drunkenness. But what has generated insufficient alarm is Nixon's insane flirtation with the actual use of nuclear weapons.

"I want the North Vietnamese to believe," he went on, "that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace." Six months into his presidency, Nixon's frustration with Hanoi's refusal to budge in its demands at the Paris peace talks was extreme, and he put his madman ploy into gear. For this account, I depend on the political scientists Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suir, whose 2003 article in the journal International Security brought the incident to light.

Or perhaps Ahmadinejad is "going crazy" like former Isreali Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon:

The threatening of wild, irrational violence, in response to political pressure, has been an Israeli impulse from the very earliest days. It was first authoritatively documented, in the 1950s, by Moshe Sharett, the dovish prime minister, who wrote of his Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon that he "constantly preached for acts of madness" or "going crazy" if ever Israel were crossed.

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