Ahmadinejad Iran Israel

What are Iran’s motives?: A guest column

Tom Mitchell sent me the following, cogent analysis of Iran’s nuclear weapons program –assuming it exists. I would very much like to believe that what he writes is true. The money quote:

“For understandable historical reasons, Israelis take any threats made against them literally. They should keep in mind that Mao spoke with the same reckless abandon that Ahmadinejad does about war. Yet Mao’s China, after testing nuclear weapons in 1964, let the potential go largely undeveloped with a few nuclear bombers hidden away in caves to deter the Soviets from about 15 years. It was the more pragmatic Deng who developed China’s nuclear capacity in the 1980s. Iran’s mullahs have profited well from the revolution by their appropriation of properties and their control over trade licenses. Would they really want to risk this comfortable arrangement in a nuclear war for the pleasure of knowing that they had damaged Israel for twenty minutes before they are wiped out?”

That assumes, of course, that we are dealing with rational actors in Iran, or at least it diminishes the possible role of irrationality in foreign policy. Isn’t that assumption a gigantic leap of faith?

I have met a former CIA analyst who monitored Iran’s weapons systems in, I think, the early 1990s. He might be one of the 50 people in the world with enough information about Iran to be credible. He said that other Iranian presidents and leaders have also threatened Israel’s destruction or at least, as in Ahmadinejad’s case, publicly relished the possibility of Israel’s destruction. He never took their threats very seriously, considered them to be political posturing…until recently. This time, with this president, he’s not sure. He’s not certain that Ahmadinejad, whose imman in Qum apparently believes a major war will pave the way for the appearance of the ‘hidden imman” (the Sh’ite messiah), would be averse to triggering a catastrophe. And those who say this president has no power might be right, but his following is with the Revolutionary Guards, and there is no telling what they are capable of, or where they will fit into the Iranian power structure next month or next year or ten years from now…

Again, I am not one of those 50 people with enough knowledge to venture more than an educated guess about Iran…But what if this guy is correct?

Here is Tom’s piece in its entirety.

IRANIAN NUCLEAR POLICY AND MOTIVES

Before we should contemplate any action against Iran over its nuclear policy we should attempt to ascertain its motives. I see how the following possible motives for the development of nuclear weapons or a potential for nuclear weapons by Teheran:

1) Iran wants to fulfill its destiny and sacrifice itself in order to destroy the Zionist state. This is what most Israelis and their American supporters impute to Tehran based on statements by President Muhammed Ahmedinajad. It should be noted that in Iran the president has little more power than does the Israeli president. The real executive position is held by the unelected Supreme Leader chosen by the pro-regime mullahs.

2) Iran fears regime change by the United States as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It figures that a nuclear deterrent in the form of at least one deliverable weapon may make it immune from regime change.

3) The nuclear weapons program was started as a reaction to the danger from the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and has been maintained as a result of bureaucratic inertia.

4) The nuclear weapons program is seen as a cover to allow Tehran to subvert its neighbors and spread its ideology and influence in the Middle East and Muslim world without fear of regime change.

5) Tehran wants to provoke a confrontation from the West—especially the Great Satan in Washington or the Little Satan in Jerusalem—on an issue that it assumes that most of its population will support it on.

I would argue that Tehran’s motives are a combination of motives 2 though 5. The fact that the only member of the “Axis of Evil” to be attacked by the United States was the weakest regime, the one with the weakest conventional army and little air force or navy and with no nuclear potential, has been noted by Tehran. We negotiate with Pyongyang out of fear and a healthy respect for the power of nuclear weapons rather than out of any respect for its sovereign rights.

The Manhattan Project in the United States was begun out of fear of a non-existent Nazi nuclear weapons program and then the A-bomb was used against Japan after Germany’s surrender. Tehran’s nuclear effort was actually begun under the Shah with American support. Tehran developed a weapon’s program in reaction to Saddam Hussein’s attack against Iran in September 1980. This occurred partly in reaction to Tehran’s efforts to spread its revolution to Iraq.

Wherever there are sizeable Shi’ite populations in the Middle East Tehran is active attempting to either subvert the ruling Sunni or Christian (Lebanon) regime or support the Shi’ite regime (Iraq). Tehran views Shi’ite Muslims the way the Bolsheviks viewed industrial workers in Europe in the early 1920s—as potential allies and revolutionaries to spread the revolution.

Iran has the only population of pro-American Muslims in the Middle East. This must be viewed as both a great insult and frustration and a great danger by the ruling theocracy. It needs to find a way of changing the popular opinion of America before the regime is overthrown. Most rulers tend to look at adversaries as mirror images: Western liberals see their opponents as liberals and subversives see their opponents as attempting to subvert them. The fact that the U.S. partially aligned itself with Iraq in the 1980s Gulf War is seen as justification and proof of the validity of these fears, as are statements by American conservatives and Israelis. The United States has had a policy of regime change in Iran as it had one in Iraq. Thus, there is some validity for these fears. Plus, revolutionaries by their nature tend to be paranoid, as they fear their opponents doing to them what they accomplished earlier to the ancien regime.

Ordinary Iranians consider themselves as entitled to possess nuclear weapons as Pakistan or India and probably more so than Israel. And as long as Tehran remains ambiguous about its nuclear intentions, it will retain widespread internal and international support for its stand. Any military action by either Israel or the United States against Iran will rally the population around the regime. It would also likely cause a split in the West similar to that which occurred in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Tehran may be looking to split Washington from Europe or Israel from the U.S.

The best thing to do is to continue to operate multilaterally with Europe while gradually ramping up sanctions. Sanctions can be seen as aggressive but not an act of war—they may cause many Iranians to rethink their stance on nuclear power.

For understandable historical reasons, Israelis take any threats made against them literally. They should keep in mind that Mao spoke with the same reckless abandon that Ahmadinejad does about war. Yet Mao’s China, after testing nuclear weapons in 1964, let the potential go largely undeveloped with a few nuclear bombers hidden away in caves to deter the Soviets from about 15 years. It was the more pragmatic Deng who developed China’s nuclear capacity in the 1980s. Iran’s mullahs have profited well from the revolution by their appropriation of properties and their control over trade licenses. Would they really want to risk this comfortable arrangement in a nuclear war for the pleasure of knowing that they had damaged Israel for twenty minutes before they are wiped out?

So, Israel, if it has not already done so, should develop a secure second-strike capability through the development of nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missiles. If Washington wants to help Israel, this is how it can help. Israel can then live with the same threat that the West lived with for some forty years during the Cold War.

9 thoughts on “What are Iran’s motives?: A guest column

  1. “So, Israel, if it has not already done so, should develop a secure second-strike capability through the development of nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missiles. ”

    Later in the game. Its in the “how do we live with a nuclear Iran” scenario, which is NOT a foregone conclusion yet.

    The left will likely attempt to ring your neck for suggesting additional deadly military aid for Israel.

    I’ve never heard that there is a significant pro-American population in Iran. I knew a couple of Shia Iranians (American husband, Iranian wife) who migrated to the US. They seemed to appreciate the US. The Iranian woman was not harrassed, and was not reticent about befriending American Jews.

    They definitely regarded Iran as home, and were homesick to return.

    Diplomatic relations changes the whole game. Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran.

  2. Israel already has a second strike capability. They’ve had it for some time. It could be made more “secure.”

    But one argument made by the international left that resonates with me is that the development of new nuclear weaponry –whether offensive or defensive– just encourages a dangerous arms race. Side A develops missiles from nuclear submarines, then Side B develops a way of counteracting them, then Side A develops… etc. etc. That was the argument used against “Star Wars” in the 1990s (Note to “neoconned,” that was a Richard Perle special).

    Does Israel really need to make Iran even more fearful by developing another means of obliterating Tehran? I think not, Tom (and Dan, if he agrees with Tom).

  3. An interesting take on the situation. I think no matter where one stands politically, the violent rhetoric coming from the Iranian regime is disturbing, let’s just hope there’s a peaceful way to resolve this situation.

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  4. Teddy,
    A secure second-strike capability is one that can absorb a nuclear attack and still be assured of the ability to retaliate. It is necessary for stable deterrence. It can be achieved by either submarine launched missiles in quiet submarines, ICBMs/IRBMs in hardened silos, or a bomber force that can constantly maintain bombers on alert. The easiest of these for a medium nuclear power like Israel is probably a submarine force with cruise missiles. I don’t know if Israel has SLCMs or not on its diesel subs. If it does then it should be secure and can stop worrying.

    Having an assured second-strike capability should be less worrying to Tehran than not having one as this would mean that Israel would not be tempted to mount a preemptive attack in a crisis–like Israel did with conventional weapons in June 1967.

    I don’t think any of the Arab regimes are really scared about Israel launching a nuclear attack on them except in the event that it would be overrun by Arab armies–something that the Arabs haven’t been capable of doing any potentially for about 30 years. I don’t really expect that the military leadership in Tehran feels any differently. They probably are worried about Israel or the U.S. bombing their nuclear facilities with blockbuster bombs.

  5. Richard,
    In the mid-1990s a former CIA covert officer who specialized in Iran had himself smuggled into Iran by truck after he had resigned from the CIA. He later wrote a memoir about his experience. He was warmly received wherever he went (he didn’t say he was a former CIA officer)and the people he met expressed pro-American opinions. Journalists regularly report the same thing. When Muhammed Khatami was president of Iran from 1997-2004 (?)there were student demonstrations throughout Iran in which the protesters expressed pro-American sentiments.

    I studied Farsi for the Army in 2003 and knew instructors who traveled back to Iran to visit relatives and a female instructor who was newly arrived in the U.S. They reported the same thing.

  6. Why do you think that was?

    Was it a long-held trust in America as a political entity? An acceptance of humans as humans (ignoring politics)? Thanks for taking out their long-standing enemy Iraq?

  7. Richard,
    I think its more a matter of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As all the regimes in the ME are nonelected except those in Israel and Turkey, the population tends to dislike the foreign patron of the ruling regime. This combined with our support for Israel is the factor in the Arab world–it is an intensifying factor in “pro-American countries” like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and a mitigating factor in “anti-American countries” like Syria.

    Many older Iranians may also have pleasant memories of Americans from the 1970s.

    But as we have seen in Iraq, decades of anti-American propaganda can have a corrosive effect on this process. Many Iraqis probably had ambigious feelings about America. They were positive during the initial invasion but quickly turned sour as soon as any problems arose such as a lack of electricity. And all of this in most ME countries has to be sorted through the filter of ethnic politics.

  8. “Many older Iranians may also have pleasant memories of Americans from the 1970s. ”

    If I may be a bit cynical, yes some of them really loved Savak.

    But basically I think you are correct. They would be even more pro-US, if they weren’t eyed as the next target to be bombed into surrender. And that is a rather good basis for the regime’s propaganda. Irani people, are quite able to read the main US propagandist, my neighbors tell me, who just returned from there.

    I am firmly with Teddy on the larger scenario, but then, I found Condi’s argument over here in the post 911 world slightly perplexing. After 1989, she told the German readers of DER SPIEGEL in an interview, everybody looked around and wondered: “Who would be our next enemy now?” Than 911 happened and everybody knew. It sounded almost pleased.

    What I find even more strange s the argument that the US protective shields for Europe are against the Iranian atom bomb. As the Iranians I know laugh about both a Muslim take over of Europe and/ or the relevance of the “hidden immam” which seems to be hobby horse of Bernard Lewis.

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