Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 May 2006

Iran: the Real Paper Tiger


Lest paranoia about Iran’s incipient nuclear program blind us to reason, we should remind ourselves that Iran is not al-Qaeda.  It is just another badly run state.

Al-Qaeda is uniquely dangerous because it is not a state.  It has no centralized location to attack.  Aside from Bin Laden, who is now just a figurehead, it has no visible leaders to hold accountable.  It governs no civilians whose everyday human needs might moderate its extremism.  It is a dispersed army of angry young fanatics, without family, without country, and with no hope but dreams of paradise through martyrdom.

From a social and psychological point of view, al-Qaeda is therefore civilization’s worst nightmare.  That’s why the civilized world must destroy or neutralize it before it gets weapons of mass destruction.  There is no other option.

But Iran is different.  It may support al-Qaeda and other terrorists, but it is not al-Qaeda.  It is a state.  It has a seat of government, in Tehran and Qom.  It has cities, an army and military installations that are subject to threat and to attack.  It has visible leaders to be held accountable for their actions under international law, just like the Nazis, Milosevic, and Saddam.  It has millions of people—many well educated—who chafe under its current rigid regime.  Its youth abhor the current theocracy and want something better.  It has no nuclear weapons now and only rudimentary means to deliver them even if it had them.

So why are we so afraid of Iran?  For decades we faced an enemy with enough existing thermonuclear weapons not only to devastate our country but to destroy the world.  The Soviet Union had highly sophisticated means to deliver those weapons, quickly and in large numbers, to our own cities.  And the Soviets had much more fearsome goals.  They aimed to convert the entire world to their twisted economic and social system, by revolution where possible and by force where necessary.  At times, in the darkest hours of the Cold War, we feared they might succeed.

Even at their worst, Iran’s mullahs have much more modest goals: to destroy Israel and restore the old Persian Empire under a new Caliphate.  They don’t seem to want to conquer the world.  Next to the Soviet Union at the height of its braggadocio and military power, Iran is a midget with small dreams.

Yet despite the Soviet Union’s might and much more realistic dreams of conquest, we won the Cold War with deterrence and patience.  Why wouldn’t the same strategy work with Iran?

Deterring Iran should be much easier.  A single nuclear submarine, hiding in the ocean, could vaporize all of Iran’s cites in fifteen minutes, with little immediate consequence to us.  Surely Iran’s mullahs, if not its loopy president, understand this.  They rely on our history of beneficence and restraint, which they scorn as “weakness.” But rational men consider capabilities, not intentions.  These so-called theocrats, who stole, own and run Iran’s economy for their own benefit, are rational, practical men.

Like the Soviet leaders after Stalin, Iran’s’ mullahs are quintessentially conservative.  They run the economy to provide for their families.  They know the real cost of war on their own soil.  Just as the Soviets saw the devastation of World War II, Iran’s mullahs lived through Iran’s bloody eight-year war with Iraq.  Their bluster rings no truer than Khruschev’s. 

Take away the religious veil, and Iran’s system looks a lot like the old Soviet Union’s.  Soviet thugs ran the economy (badly) and lined their pockets under the pretext of inventing a new “Soviet man.”  Islamist thugs run the Iranian economy (badly) and line their pockets while falsely promising to bring heaven to earth and install a new Islamic Caliphate.  Like the Soviet system, Iran’s theocracy is cynical, unrealistic, and doomed to failure.

Ahmadinejad is Iran’s president precisely because its people know this.  They didn’t elect him for his bizarre visions of conquest or an apocalypse upon the Mahdi’s return (which he kept largely to himself during the campaign).  They voted for him because he drove a jalopy and promised to end the corruption that had turned the “Islamic Republic” into just another oppressive kleptocracy.  Now he rants like a madman to divert attention from his own failure: he can’t deliver what he promised because the corrupt mullahs who pull his strings won’t let him.

What Iranians really wanted was a reformer.  What they got was a bizarre puppet of the mullahs.  Next time they won’t be fooled so easily.

We, too, should not be duped by Ahmadinejad’s empty threats.  Surely no serious person in the West believes he calls the shots in Iran.  The mullahs who do call the shots are probably snickering in their beards over the diplomatic havoc that his ranting has caused.

Like Saddam, the mullahs know how to bargain and how to bluff.  But Iran is not a military power.  It has not been expansionist in a long, long time.  As recently as the 1980s, Saddam attacked Iran, not vice versa.  Iran was the victim, not the aggressor.

We should never forget what won the Cold War.  First was our strategic deterrent, which prevented Soviet leaders from acting out their fantasies.  Second was the Russian people and their own leaders.  They eventually recognized what their system had become and junked it without a shot being fired.

In Iran’s case, the same results are infinitely more likely.  The Soviet Union could have destroyed us; Iran cannot do so now or in the foreseeable future.  On the contrary, we could obliterate it in fifteen minutes.  So, probably, could the Israelis, if it came to that.

Deterrence, therefore, is plentiful.  It should work unless the mullahs go as berserk as they are encouraging Ahmadinejad to seem.  But there is not the slightest hint of that.

Now consider Iran’s people.  In Soviet times, we had to establish and maintain radio stations all over Europe just to give ordinary Russians a taste of the truth.  The Soviets tried to jam those stations and sometimes succeeded.  Today’s Iranians have access to al-Jazeera, CNN and the Internet, as well as a vibrant and only lightly controlled domestic press.

Just as Iran is not al-Qaeda, it is not North Korea.  It is far from a closed society.  It lacks the strict control and discipline that somehow survive in North Korea despite mass starvation and abysmal living conditions.  Iran’s people are acquainted with dispute and commerce and exposed to the outside world.  Most have a reasonable standard of living and want more.  Many have a Western education.  In worldliness and the ability to travel, they are far ahead of the Russians when Gorbachev came to power.

All that Iran now lacks to begin moving toward something better is a Gorbachev in the Supreme Council.  A future Gorbachev may be studying in Qom today.

Therefore paranoia and talk of military action are a failure of nerve on our part.  Iran is no real threat to us, at least not in the near future.  Israel can take care of itself.  “Regime change” in Iran is inevitable; it is just a matter of time.

We waited decades for the Soviet Union to fall.  We did so under credible threat of worldwide annihilation.  Paradoxically, our response to the far smaller threat from Iran looks at lot like panic.  We have lost our perspective.

The proper strategy is to keep cool.  All we have to do is maintain our deterrent, make sure the mullahs are aware of it, and wait.  The Iranian people will do the rest, perhaps sooner than we expect.

While waiting, we should avoid a war of words.  Instead, we should focus on a much more difficult and subtle task.  We should help Iran’s democrats and reformers, of whom there are many, without tainting them by our connection.

As for Ahmadinejad, we should ignore him utterly.  Every response of ours, diplomatic or otherwise, gives this powerless buffoon a bigger megaphone and a dash of credibility.  We should state often and openly that Iran is not really a democracy and that he controls nothing.  We should insist that any talks, whether open or secret, be with the mullahs who hold real power.  And if they refuse to talk, we should remain conspicuously silent.

If we do that, the whole Mideast will understand as we do how much Iran’s last election deceived its people.  Coupled with covert assistance to reformers, that knowledge might hasten the inevitable a bit.  Shouting at a moronic figurehead accomplishes nothing.


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