Thursday, September 15, 2005

Iran safer without nuclear weapons

Amir Taheri, Morocco Times:
At a recent Friday prayer session in a mosque in London the “imam” delivering the sermon went through a list of things for which the faithful were invited to pray. There were the absolute musts, notably Palestine, along with optionals such as world peace and harmony.

One item on the list, however, was new. The believers were asked to pray that “no harm comes to Iran's nuclear bomb.” READ MORE

The London “imam” is not alone in assuming that Iran does, or will soon have, a nuclear arsenal. A Parisian daily has published a dozen articles in the past few weeks making the same assumption, inviting the rest of the world to accept Iran's right to have its nuclear bombs. A London daily sees Iran's quest for the bomb as a challenge to American “neocons”.

The Arab media, too, have touched the issue. A Beirut columnist claims that it is a matter of “honor” for Iran to have the bomb. After all, when poverty-stricken Pakistan has a bomb why should Iran, now taking a golden shower thanks to rising oil prices, be denied the deadly toy? Another columnist defends Iran's “legitimate right” to have “whatever weapons it wants.”

The problem is that we don't know whether Iran does have any nuclear weapons. The leadership in Tehran insists that it will never develop nuclear weapons. Are the believers being asked to pray for a chimera?

If the “imam” and the columnists are right the inescapable conclusion is that the ranian leaders have been lying all the time.

But have they?

The truth is that we cannot know.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is supposed to keep an eye on the Iranian nuclear project would never be able to decide one way or another with certainty. Remember that the IAEA and its Director-General Muhammad El-Baradaei played a similar game in the case of Iraq in 2001 when they kept saying: We need a few more months to tell you that we don't know whether Saddam Hussein has a nuclear project or not!

Since the issue is likely to be with us for some time it is important to know exactly what we are talking about.

One point to remember is that this is not a fight between a plucky Islamic Republic, representing the underdog, and the United States that leads the camp of “the powerful and the arrogant.” Dislike of America should not prompt anyone to cheer the mullas toward a deadly adventure.

Even if Iran were to develop a nuclear arsenal this would be no threat to the US. For at least the next 10 years any nuclear weapons that Iran might deploy would be of concern to nations in its own region that is to say the Middle East, the Gulf and the Caspian Basin. If Tehran's current missile development projects prove successful the Islamic Republic would have the capability also to strike targets in Western Europe and North Africa sometime around 2015.

Russia, which is helping Iran with its nuclear project, should be more concerned than the US. By 2020 Iran would have a larger population than Russia. If it also has a nuclear arsenal it would be in a stronger position to project power in Russia's traditional backyard.

Theoretically, the Islamic Republic might want nuclear weapons for tactical use against US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Transcaucasus.

Such a strategy, however, could be suicidal for the Islamic Republic.

For it would mobilize US public opinion behind massive retaliation as we saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

The 9/11 attack was a fatal mistake by Osama Bin Laden because it pushed the American threshold of pain higher than the level that the US was prepared to tolerate.

Bin Laden and his cohorts had been attacking US targets and killing Americans for more than a decade. And yet no US administration could mobilize the domestic support needed for taking decisive military action against them. When Bill Clinton launched a few Cruise missiles against empty cowsheds in Afghanistan in retaliation for the first Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, the East Coast establishment castigated him for overreacting and adventurism. The message was that one could kill Americans in small numbers and fear no retaliation.

Thus the best strategy for the Islamic Republic in what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described as his “clash of civilizations” is to wage a proxy war against the US, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, bleeding the Americans at low but steady levels so as to allow the East Coast establishment to continue arguing against any military retaliation.

The best allies of the Islamic Republic are those inside the United States who are already arguing that the US should cut and run, allowing the Islamic Republic to fill the vacuum in both Iraq and Afghanistan and then claim supremacy in the entire Middle East. The “cut-and-run” party would not be able to do its work if Iran begins threatening the US or its regional allies with nuclear weapons.

The US is unbeatable in any short war in which it can use its overwhelming technological superiority. But when it comes to long wars in which some GIs inevitably get killed it soon faces the Cyndi Sheehan phenomenon. Then, Joan Baez returns from retirement to sing about roses and Gary Hart reappears to sign anti-war op-eds. And the man who heated George McGovern's soup on the campaign trail re-emerges to cry about “the new Vietnam” as Edward Kennedy and Jimmy Carter applaud.

So, if the mullas are worried that the US might hit them the last thing they should do is to create a situation in which Washington can use its tactical nuclear weapons against them with support from the American people.

The Islamic Republic's greatest insurance policy against American military action is precisely not to have a nuclear arsenal. Iran does not need nuclear weapons and is, in fact, safer without them.

It is not hard to see why. The mullas have a high threshold of pain and can sustain huge human losses in a conventional conflict against the US. In the eight-year war against Iraq they showed that as long as their regime was not in danger they couldn't care less how many Iranians died. That war could have ended in 1983 at the latest.

Instead it lasted for five more years because the mullas could afford to lose more men than Saddam Hussein ever could.

The US, on the other hand, has been experiencing a lowering of its pain threshold for decades. To create a situation in which the US can justifiably use tactical nuclear weapons against targets in Iran would be a fatal error on the part of the Tehran leadership.

Those who have any sympathy for Iran should ignore the “imam” of the London mosque, and pray that the Tehran leadership does not embark on an adventure that it might not be able to control.