Thursday, April 06, 2006

Nuclear Jihad

David Frum, Il Foglio:
Suppose, reader, that you were a mad Iranian mullah determined to obtain nuclear weapons at the earliest opportunity.

Would you brag and boast and taunt the West--before you had actually finished your work?

Or would you keep very still and quiet, denying everything until you had the bomb safely in your clutches?

The choice seems obvious, right? And yet the Iranian mullahs consistently choose option 1--with all the risk of provoking an air war against a nuclear program they must certainly greatly value. Why?

Three possibilities present themselves. READ MORE

FIRST: The Iranians are so confident in their own defenses that they think they can defeat or deter an allied air strike.

This very week for example they announced that they had obtained a powerful new torpedo from an unnamed second country, presumably Russia--implying that Iran might try to close the Straits of Hormuz if attacked from the air.

But can the Iranians really believe that their capacity to inflict pain on the United States is greater than America’s capacity to inflict pain on them? Their boasts about their torpedo (for example) are hollow, even absurd. They say their torpedo can attack “groups of warships”--but only a nuclear-tipped weapon could do that, and not even the Russians would sell the Iranians such a thing.

More generally, the more violent any US-Iran conflict becomes, the more certain Iran is to lose. Perhaps Iran can cause even more trouble in Iraq than it is causing now (although it may already have reached its limits). Perhaps it can push up the price of oil. But the US can smash the foundations of Iranian military power and the repressive capacity of the Iranian state. It hardly seems a trade even the most apocalyptic mullah would wish to make.

SECOND: The Iranians believe that American willpower has been so weakened by Iraq that the United States will not dare to attack them, despite American military superiority.

And certainly the Iranians have often professed to believe this. In August 2005, newly elected Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent the Iranian parliament a policy document that declared Iran a “sunrise” power and America a “sunset” power, “in its last throes.”

But even still--even if the mullahs do believe this--why hasten to a confrontation with the declining power before you can face it on equal terms? Whatever fantasies Ahmadinejad may delude himself with about the world of 10, 20, or 30 years from now, surely even he understands that if conflict erupts tomorrow, the result would be unfavorable to Iran, to put it mildly?

Which leaves this THIRD possibility: The mullahs do not want war--but they do want this confrontation. For some reason of their own, they believe they profit from prolonged, bitter, fruitless negotiations with the West.

If so, we have to wonder--are these endless negotiations truly in the interests of the West. Are we not giving the Iranian rulers all the internal political benefits of intransigence and extremism--without any of the costs?

Is there any reason to think that the Iranian population would welcome a true crisis, with all its attendant hardship and danger? We are often told that in such a crisis, the Iranian people would rally to their corrupt and oppressive leaders--but there is little evidence for such assertions, and much evidence against it.

What we do know is that the current path is working very well for the rulers of Iran. They are moving steadily toward a bomb while impressing the most radical constituencies within their own society.

The present path, however, is signally failing to work for the West.

We are watching Iran move closer to nuclearization--and our restraint is making us no new friends.

Is it not past time to try something new?

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

Il Foglio (Italy)