In the last half-year, the public chatter about the Iranian nuclear program has grown to a daily splurge of articles worldwide. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times crowd their reports with this or that pundit’s speculations based on declarations by a variety of sources in Tehran, Washington, and Jerusalem. Much heat is generated, but unfortunately, very little light is brought forth.
In truth, Iran is a hard place to decipher; it is a nation of many contradictions, and even in the best of times, its culture is exotically foreign and mysterious to the Western observer. Add to that the overlay of mystical Shia millennialism espoused by the current Islamist theocratic leadership, and the fog becomes almost impenetrable.
Yet, with a modicum of research into Persian history, and more importantly into the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its leaders, it is possible to penetrate the fog and get a reasonable idea of what the terrain looks like politically. Once one does enough homework, the outlines become relatively easy to perceive, even if all the details are not completely discernible.
Let’s start with what used to be the $64,000 question — is Iran seeking to acquire nuclear arms? Only the most naïve would continue to believe the Iranian government’s claim that it is pursuing a strictly civilian nuclear program for the purpose of energy production. Like its rival, Saudi Arabia, Iran sits on some of the biggest known oil and gas fields in the world. Iran needing cheap energy sources is truly a case of the proverbial “carrying coal to Newcastle.”
Already eight years ago, American diplomats noted that nuclear-produced electricity would be several times more expensive than that produced using Iran’s known extensive oil and gas sources. Bushehr, Natanz, Arak, and Isfahan are not engaged in producing cheap electricity for the Iranian economy. When one adds the intelligence pulled from sites like Parchin and Tehran’s Research Reactor, Lavizan 1 and 2, as well as Ardekan, Fordow, and Lashkar Abad, and listens with even half an ear to the daily rhetoric of the regime, it is abundantly clear that civilian energy production is not the motivating factor driving the Iranian program. Nuclear weaponry, just as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani stated in 2001, is the goal sought eagerly by the ayatollahs. Alleged pious fatwas against the use of atomic armaments notwithstanding, the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks nuclear weaponry.
Next, we should ask whether the ayatollah regime can be persuaded to relinquish its military nuclear program. If the answer is in any way positive, we then must ask what the conditions are — if any — under which the regime would agree to forgo its atomic arsenal.
Were these questions being asked seriously a decade ago, there might have been a solution to the problem, especially if addressed properly in the context of maintaining the careful balance established in Anthony Cordesman’s “Dual Containment Policy” regarding the balance of power and the mutual containment of both Iran and Iraq. A three-way non-aggression treaty might have assured both Iraq and Iran that a repeat of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War was out of the question and obviated Iran’s need for an atomic weapons program. Once the balance of power was shifted to Iran (following the 2003 U.S.-led Multi-National Force invasion of Iraq and the subsequent defeat and capture of Saddam Hussein), all normal motivation for Iran to forgo the pursuit of atomic weaponry disappeared. North Korea’s successful production of a nuclear weapon reinforced the Iranian stance, and the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya and subsequent overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi — who acquiesced to Western pressure to end his nuclear aspirations — all served to nail the engine-door shut on the mullahs’ runaway atomic train.
Today, the Iranian regime knows that its one chance to withstand the common fate of Middle Eastern dictatorships, be they in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Syria, is to follow the path of North Korea and attain atomic capabilities. The regime is under absolutely no illusions that it is popular with its citizenry — the draconian internal security services forces make all ordinary Iranians aware that they have very little privacy, especially in the public arena. If Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei had any illusions that his government was popular and that Iranians held him personally in admiration, the popularity of the “Green Revolution” anti-regime protests of June-July 2009 exploded any such myths forever.
Ali Khamenei looks at atomic weapons and sees the following benefits: 1. An atomic Iran — like an atomic North Korea — is unlikely to be invaded by a U.S.-led coalition seeking regime change. 2. Possession of nuclear arms gives the regime a tighter grip on power, enabling it to resist internal opposition and to terrorize its opponents both in and outside the co
untry. 3. Atomic weaponry permits those who seek the imminent return of Imam Mahdi (the Shia Muslim messiah) to initiate cataclysmic warfare with the enemies of Islam that will hasten his arrival and the day of final redemption.
For these three reasons, Iran’s current leadership is willing to impoverish the Iranian people and risk war with America and/or Israel. From Khamenei’s standpoint, the continued pursuit of nuclear weaponry is a win-win situation: if he gets the weapons, he has immeasurably strengthened his hand and the hand of the radical Islamist “rejectionist” camp in its anti-West, anti-Zionism campaign. If on the other hand Iran is attacked, he has a holy war that guarantees him martyrdom and instant Jannah — entrance to Islamic heaven, with all the trimmings. For Ali Khamenei, the only thing better than possessing a key to fire nuclear-armed missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States would be the keys to the Grand Mosque, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the White House.
Only when leaders in the West — starting with the occupant of the White House — recognize what has been stated above as reality will we have a proper response to Iran. For those who naïvely hope and believe that Iran might negotiate in good faith, I hasten to remind that Iran assisted al-Qaeda in preparing for the 2001 attacks on America; turned around and shed crocodile tears, offering the United States condolences on 9-11; and then secretly sheltered al-Qaeda leaders, including members of the bin Laden family, in eastern Iran after the American assault on Tora Bora.
It should not be forgotten that chess was invented in Iran, and Iranians continue to be chess masters. They also are very good at playing poker. But the current game actually seems to be Russian roulette. That being the case, the bottom line here is that playing with an atomic Iran is akin to playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the revolver. This writer’s advice: defang the snake decisively now, before it turns around and strikes.