Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iranian Nukes: A Boxer Doesn't Need a Gun If His Opponent Is Too Afraid To Punch Back

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By Barry Rubin

Would the Iranian government hand nuclear weapons to a terrorist group or fire off nuclear-tipped missiles itself?

It is easy for many experts and “experts” to answer this question ”No.” Their reasoning is that Iran has proven itself cautious historically and knows it would be held responsible and punished for doing so. The responder could add that the Islamic regime has not been adventurous or crazy in its actual policy (as opposed to its words) during the last thirty years.

I’d agree with that response as far as it goes. But it misses some very key points that might end up getting a huge number of people killed.

Iran has not been adventurous or crazy in the manner that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in 1979 and 1990, that is, Iran has not sent its military forces across the border to invade another country. Instead, Tehran has used subversion as its technique, backing and helping groups undermining other countries with terrorist attacks and a longer-term attempt to build a popular base in order to seize state power.

Thus, to say that Iran has not attacked a neighbor with conventional military forces is quite true, yet this may not tell us how Iran will behave regarding terrorist groups. Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran may feel a little more confident than the pre-nuclear version.

Having said that I would correct the original response to be this: Iran will probably neither give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups nor fire them at Israel or anyone else.

Probably means that the odds are higher—let’s say far higher—than 50 percent that they won’t do so. The problem here is that even if there is a 10, 20. pr 30 percent chance of that happening, that’s not the kind of risk one wants to take.

But there are other, even more likely, scenarios that are never discussed but are quite important. Here are the two I think most important:

First, what I will call “Private Donations.” I don't think the "Iranian government" would give Hizballah, Iraqi Shia groups, or Hamas nuclear weapons. That is, I don't think there will be a top-level meeting where such a decision would be made officially.

I do think that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will be responsible for both the weapons and for liaison with terrorist groups, or other officials, might give them nuclear weapons. Iran is not a tightly disciplined bureaucracy and the security of these arms—especially if some hot factional dispute breaks out or the regime is in danger of falling—is not going to be so tight. These officers and officials might not make rational calculations, are more likely to be swayed by ideology (Allah is on our side), and could well discount the likelihood of U.S. retaliation.

In short, the chance of an Iranian Dr. Strangelove pushing a button or handing over some weapons--a mad ideologist rather than a mad scientist--is higher than the possibility of this happening with any of the other countries that have had such weapons over many decades.

I have never seen someone from the complacent Conventional Wisdom containment-is-no-problem mainstream deal with any of the above issues.

Second, there is what I call “The Defensive Umbrella for Aggression” If groups like Hizballah or others get their members to believe they have access to nuclear weapons, either through a transfer or a clear Iranian guarantee to use such weapons in their cause, wars could be set off by their over-confident calculations.

As I have noted before (see HERE), Iran’s main purpose in getting nuclear weapons is probably not to fire them off but to use them to protect its indirect aggression, encourage appeasement, and persuade millions of Muslims to join pro-Tehran revolutionary Islamist groups.

Thus, the situation with a nuclear-armed Iran would resemble the analogy used to explain Soviet behavior during the Cold War. It is like a burglar who goes door to door looking for one that is unlocked or is easy to break down. Tehran looks for targets of opportunity to subvert and add to its sphere of influence.

But no matter what Iran will do—for example, establish hegemony in Iraq by bringing its Shia clients to full power; helping Hamas seize the West Bank; making Hizballah and other forces the sole ruling group in Lebanon—nobody (including the United States) would respond very toughly from fear of Iran’s nuclear arsenal.

Consider, and this is not far-fetched, that Hizballah concludes that if it attacks Israel, Israel would be deterred from retaliation out of fear that Iran would launch nuclear missiles. From what Syrian leaders say, it seems they already believe that Iran shields them from paying a price for any indirect aggression, which makes them far more daring in their hardline policies and encouragement for Hizballah and Hamas.

A related scenario is that while U.S. promises might make Arabs feel a bit more secure, in practice that factor is meaningless. They would still be afraid to do anything Iran doesn’t like, not only because they didn’t have full trust in the Obama Administration (for a good reason why, see HERE) but also because even if the United States did keep its pledge and retaliate they would already all be dead any way.

Consider also this true story told by Haim Saban, the Power Rangers multimillionaire and donor to Democratic campaigns. In considering who he would support, Saban met during the 2008 campaign separately with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He asked each of them the same question: "If Iran nukes Israel, what would be your reaction?’ Clinton answered: "We will obliterate them." Obama's response? "We will take appropriate action."

Since Obama’s reaction was off-the-record and before the election it response cannot be attributed to presidential caution. Saban interpreted it as something along the lines of (my words, not his): I’ll think about it. This reflects a state of mind and way of thinking.

That anecdote should be far more frightening to most Arab countries than it is to Israel, which has its own ability to respond to any such threat.

Look at the overall situation of a nuclear Iran this way: If a boxer knows he can punch his opponent but his opponent is afraid to hit him back, the boxer doesn’t have to pull out a gun to shoot his enemy, he can knock him out by conventional means.

Of course, to extend the analogy, the boxer might miscalculate, get hit back hard and then pull out the gun.

And once again: I have never seen someone from the complacent Conventional Wisdom containment-is-no-problem mainstream deal with any of the above issues.

It would be far lower-risk and simpler to stop Iran from getting nuclear arms in the first place but that option seems to be very close to non-existent. Let's face it: the campaign to convince the Western world to make a really serious effort to take up this challenge has failed.

Whatever half-hearted sanctions are passed after whatever number of months we better start directing our attention to a world in which Iran has deliverable nuclear weapons.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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