The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime has unequivocally mitigated one of Iran’s most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate US capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam’s rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US statements on regime change, rogue states and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a “strategic weapon.”

Whether or not Gates actually believes that the United States is to blame for Iran’s nuclear ambitions is beside the point (although in the interests of mental health at the Pentagon one hopes that this was a diplomatic euphemism). Gates and Brzezinski were determined “deterrence” is the operative word in the Gates-Brzezinski report. As I wrote in the cited 2005 essay,

In this exchange, Iran gives up nothing of importance, for the rage of the Iraqi Shi’ites will only wax over time. Tehran retains the option to stir things up in Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. Its capacity to do so will increase with time as Iraq grows less stable. Time is on the side of Tehran. Only with great difficulty could the US employ military means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; once Iran has acquired them, the military balance will shift decisively in favor of the Iranians.

Gates certainly believes that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons through what he deemed a “not wholly irrational set of strategic calculations”, deterrence – the threat of a nuclear counterstrike – will prevent Iran from using them. Anthony Cordesman of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies last month circulated rough estimates of what would happen to Iran if Israel were to attack with its full nuclear capability. Eighteen to 28 million Iranians would die, and the result would be “the end of Persian civilization.” Perhaps 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis also would perish, but Israel would recover. “The only way to win,” Cordesman concluded, “is not to play.” [2]

It is unlikely that the Bush administration has reconciled itself to the idea that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, Washington is hoping to get through the 2008 elections with some reason to claim success in Iraq, which it cannot do without Iranian forbearance. In effect, Bush is gambling that postponing a reckoning with Iran will not put nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands prior to the election, and that Bush’s successor in office will have sufficient time to prevent an actual deployment.

Deterrence works only if the nuclear tripwire is a bright line, and the parties who possess nuclear weapons can control the approach to it. That is a dangerously wrong presumption. An old traders’ adage states that the market always does what hurts the most people (because most people bet with the trend, and find themselves on the wrong side of the trade when the trend reverses). The same logic applies to the breakdown of deterrence: war always breaks out when the contending parties have the most to lose from it.

Iran has invested heavily in paramilitary (Hezbollah, Hamas) as well as terrorist capabilities. If terrorists were to provoke an eventual nuclear exchange in the Middle East, for example, it would be the second time in roughly a century that a few extremists with unofficial state sponsorship set the world aflame. The first, of course, was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

Both the “realists” and the neo-conservative “idealists” are right about each other: it is as foolish to attempt to stabilize the Middle East by moving the existing pieces about on the chessboard as it is to export democracy. But there is something especially distasteful about the re-emergence of Gates, who as a CIA official in the 1980s bitterly opposed the initiatives with which president Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. I told this story a year ago [3], but it bears recollection. The US intelligence establishment as well as the academic consensus projected their own desire for stability – the stability of career and social status – onto the world around them. Reagan correctly saw an unstable Soviet Union at the brink of economic ruin and capable of desperate military adventures. Gates and the “realists” lived on the small change of diplomatic tradeoffs.

“Why can’t the ‘realists’ make sense of reality, even when it clamps its jaws firmly upon their posteriors?” I asked in the same essay. “Why is it that the king’s magicians never seem to be able to read the fiery script on the wall? Belshazzar’s magi could not read the words Mene, mene, tekel, uparsin; the king of Babylon had to call in an outside consultant, namely Daniel. By then it was too late.”

The long, slow, sickening disintegration of the Muslim Middle East requires a doggedness, detachment and appreciation for tragedy that no leader in Washington presently possesses. The scriptwriters at the Pentagon debate two versions of a prospective happy ending, but the ending will not be happy; it will not even be an ending, for there is no remedy against civilizational failure. As usual, Americans will have to learn the hard way.

1. A Syriajevo in the making? Asia Times Online, October 25, 2005.
2. See Iran, Israel and nuclear war CSIS.
3. Halloween came late in Washington Asia Times Online, November 14, 2006.