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A decade ago I argued that radical Islam might horrify the West into submission through the mass sacrifice of Muslim lives. During the past two weeks Iran has virtually invited a nuclear exchange with the West, in a series of statements that blend a deranged sort of bluster with malevolent calculation.
Iran’s Kayhan press service warned last week, “If the US strikes Iran with nuclear weapons, there are elements which will respond with nuclear blasts in the centers of America’s main cities.” Meanwhile, Behzad Soltani, the number two man at Iran’s Atomic Commission, proclaimed last week, “Iran will join the world nuclear club within a month in a bid to deter possible attacks on the country,” adding, “No country would even think about attacking Iran once it is in the club.”
By the normal standards of diplomacy, these statements appear grotesquely false as well as self-defeating. If Iran brags openly that it has delivered nuclear weapons to terrorists – weapons that it does not yet possess – it invites a Western military response. The threat itself demonstrates that Iran is confident that the West is too supine to respond. Iran has taken our measure well: the theocratic regime evinced an unlimited appetite for sacrifice during its decade-long war with Iraq in the 1980s. It is persuaded, and with good reason, the prospective horror of a military confrontation is too terrible for the West to bear.
In effect, Iran has succeeded in horrifying the West into submission to its nuclear ambitions as well as its bid for regional hegemony. An attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Tehran has persuaded the West, would throw Central Asia into chaos. Pro-Iranian elements would precipitate a civil war in Iraq; Hezbollah in Lebanon would initiate a war on Israel’s northern border; the Shi’ite fifth of Pakistan would make the second-largest Muslim state ungovernable; American’s 200,000 soldiers in adjacent countries would suffer suicide attacks; and the hydra heads of Iranian-sponsored terrorists would strike at civilian targets through the West.
This is deplorable as it was foreseeable: on May 2, 2006 I warned (Why war comes when no one wants it : “If Washington waits too long to disarm Iran, the consequence will be a Thirty Years’ War in the Middle East quite as terrible as World War I. Harsh as it might seem, preemption – an aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities – is the most humane solution.”
Iranian officials seem intent on provoking American retaliation. General Hassan Firouzabadi boasted on April 8, “If America presents Iran with a serious threat and undertakes any measure against Iran, none of the American soldiers who are currently in the region would go back to America alive.” And Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed President Barack Obama with open contempt in a letter made public last week. “Once [the US was] at the height of glory,” Ahmadinejad wrote. “Now they are collapsing. They have many economic and cultural problems. They have security problems in the world and their influence in Iraq and Afghanistan is vanishing.”
Iran’s estimation of Western squeamishness is well founded. America’s military leaders have made no secret of their fear of the consequences of engaging Iran. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had this to say on March 16, 2009, in an interview with Charlie Rose: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”
In my estimation, this sort of paralysis is what radical Islam reckoned with from the outset. Mullen should be fired twice, once for thinking this way, and the second time for saying it in public. Obama set the same defeatist tone in a televised interview earlier this month with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, saying, “The history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime is that, you know, you apply international pressure on these countries, sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don’t.”
That is precisely what Tehran and al-Qaeda wish to hear. As I wrote on October 12, 2001, (Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win
Al-Qaeda wants no territory, no conversions, no loot, no slaves. It wishes to destroy the West and happily will sacrifice millions of Muslim lives in order to do so. Indeed, the mass sacrifice of Muslim lives may lie at the heart of its battle plan. It has more in common with the Dostoyevsky of The Possessed or the Wagner of Die Goetterdaemmerung than with the Muslim conquerors of the Middle Ages …
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause terror) and “Entsetzens” (horror, literally: dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
Getting down to tactics, how can al-Qaeda overcome the West with horror? Let us suppose that some state or state agency over which al-Qaeda wields influence possesses a weapon of mass destruction, with sufficient potency to cause a very large number of deaths in a Western country. If it deploys that weapon and causes a very large number of casualties, the West may have no choice but to bombard the offending country with nuclear weapons and destroy its capacity to make war. Given that al-Qaeda has tendrils deep in numerous governments, even a nuclear bombardment of one rogue state might not diminish its capacities. The West would be left with the horrific fact of mass destruction of civilians combined with continued insecurity.
With minor variations, that is Tehran’s intent. That is why the Iranian theocrats dare the West to bring on its worst, to attack Iran in such a way as to produce massive civilian casualties.
A decade of Western stupidity has let America to this pass. In a sense Iran is entirely correct that a last-minute effort to reverse its slow accumulation of military and terrorist capability would be a messy business at best. A decade ago I wrote (Geopolitics in the light of option theory Asia Times Online, January 26, 2002) that America was “long volatility,” in option-trading parlance; instability worked to its advantage by forcing the rest of the world to cling to America’s skirts for safety. After expending vast amounts of blood and treasure in the delusional pursuit of nation-building in the Middle East, Washington is “short volatility,” in precisely the sense that Mullen suggested. America no longer has the stomach for uncertainty.
America’s decade of dithering has led it into a diplomatic cul-de-sac. China recognizes America’s desultory pursuit of sanctions against Iran for the charade it is, and placidly continues to buy Iranian oil; Russia observes that Washington will concede Iran the status of regional hegemon, and offers it nuclear reactor technology, while discovering a new humanitarian concern for the possible suffering of the Iranian people under economic sanctions. India notes that Washington has frozen it out of Afghanistan in favor of one-sided reliance on Pakistan, and looks to Iran as a balancing force against Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. The rest of the world takes its cue from America, even or perhaps especially) when America abdicates leadership.
Russia, China and India have concluded that the probability of an American military strike against Iran is nil, and have made their own arrangements with the emerging Central Asian power. In Washington, the bureaucracy is making the usual sort of preparations for the inevitable moment when Tehran tests its first nuclear device: it is writing memos. Secretary Defense Robert Gates, the ultimate Washington survivor, leaked his memo to the New York Times on April 17, warning that America lacked an effective policy to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
Israel remains the only player that could kick over the chess-board before the Iranians march their pawns to the eighth rank and turn them into nuclear weapons. Endless speculation has been devoted to the likelihood, and the nature, of a prospective Israeli strike; without knowing what the Israeli military knows about its own capabilities, Iranian concealment and air defenses, I have no means of gaming the odds.
It seems clear, though, that Moscow considers such an action unlikely, given President Dmitry Medvedev’s overwrought warning of April 12. Speaking to ABC News, Medvedev characterized a prospective Israeli strike on Iran as “the worst possible scenario” in the Middle East, because “everyone is so close over there that nobody would be unaffected … And if conflict of that kind happens, and a strike is performed, then you can expect anything, including use of nuclear weapons. And nuclear strikes in the Middle East, this means a global catastrophe. Many deaths.”
There is no reason to believe that an Israeli strike on Iran – even if it involved the use of low-yield nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that some analysts mention – would lead to a general nuclear exchange. Medvedev’s remarks should be read as an echo of Iranian propaganda. Nonetheless, there is some truth to Medvedev’s warning. Cutting out the cancer at this late date would be a bloody mess. Hundreds of thousands might die as a result. On the other hand, if Iran does succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons, hundreds of millions probably will die. The choices now are grim. Don’t blame me: I told you so 10 years ago.