Rav Shalom Yosef Elyashiv recently told Rabbi Noach Weinberg of Aish HaTorah that world Jewry faces a threat as great as that it confronted in the midst of the Holocaust. (That widespread report was confirmed to me by senior officials at Aish HaTorah.) Rav Elyashiv was referring preeminently to the threat of a nuclear Iran, though no doubt the simultaneous threat to the citadels of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael and abroad as a consequence of the world financial crisis only magnifies the concerns about Iran.
I doubt Rav Elyashiv read an AP story this week about a study being prepared for President-elect Barack Obama by a group of former State Department diplomats and academic “experts” on Iran. Had he done so, however, his fears for the future would likely have been ratcheted up a notch or two. Among the conclusions of the report: (1) any military attack on Iran would almost certainly fail in its goal of significantly setting back Iran’s nuclear weapons program; (2) economic sanctions have very little chance of success; (3) American threats to date are “not cowing Iran and the current regime is not in imminent peril.” Taken together those three points basically amount to a declaration that the United States can do nothing to keep Iran from going nuclear.
In addition, the report states that it is wrong to focus on Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, as he is not the one calling the shots on Iran’s nuclear policy. That would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who the report describes as a “cautious decision maker who acts after consulting advisors holding a wide range of views, including those highly critical of Ahmadinejad,” despite his admitted proclivity for “frequent and hostile rhetoric directed at the West.” In other words, the authors of the report first counsel passivity towards the threat of nuclear Iran, and then wish to tell President Obama that it won’t be so bad, as Khamanei does not appear to be a complete nutcase, and therefore will not expose his country to nuclear destruction.
That counsel of passivity is hardly surprising given its source – the State Department and denizens of the Middle East Studies departments pilloried by Professor Martin Kramer in Ivory Towers on Sand: the Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, for their complete failure to provide American policymakers with any remotely useful information on the Middle East, including prior warning of the threat of Al Qaeda, in particular, and Islamic jihadism, in general. (Far from emphasizing the danger posed by Islamic jihad, American Middle East scholars were busy developing elaborate theories about why Islam constitutes a modernizing force in the Arab world.)
The Middle East scholars are close cousins of the academic Sovietologists of the 1980’s, who, almost to a man, failed to see the vulnerability of the Soviet Union and who counseled against confronting it. Not one anticipated the impact of President Reagan’s arms buildup on the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The report’s conclusion that economic sanctions are doomed to fail seems unduly pessimistic in light of Iran’s economic vulnerability, and prior to the implementation of any truly biting sanctions. Iran’s Achilles heel is its need to import refined petroleum products, despite being the world’s fourth largest oil producer. A serious effort to block the import of refined petroleum products would bring the country to a virtual standstill. The question, then, is not so much whether sanctions might work, but whether the political will can be found.
Iran’s economy was in shambles even before the global economic meltdown, and is far worse shape today in the wake of a more than 65% drop in oil prices from their high last summer. Even the government admits to 30% inflation, and the actual figure is much higher. Rather than build up cash reserves when oil prices were sky high, Ahmadinejad constantly raided Iran’s foreign reserves in an attempt to mollify the population fed up with the skyrocketing prices, widespread unemployment, and unaffordable housing.
While the regime may be in no imminent peril, as the study states, that is more a function of the ruthlessness of the Revolutionary Guard than any popular support. And it certainly does not mean that the regime could not find itself subject to much greater internal pressure than at present, if a serious sanctions regime were put in place.
The report’s authors state, “[the Iranian people] have seen the outcome of U.S.-sponsored regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. They want no part of it.” Since no one is suggesting U.S. military action to overthrow the mullahs, that statement is, on its face, irrelevant. But it also reflects the consistent devaluation of political freedom by Western academics. I do not know of a single study to suggest that the Iraqi people regret the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime or the Afghanistani people the overthrow of the Taliban, despite all that they have suffered as a consequence. Indeed the evidence is very much to the contrary.
The suggestion that the West can live with a nuclear Iran flies in the face of most expert opinion. Former senators Daniel Coats and Charles Robb, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security task force, wrote in the Washington Post last month, “an Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable. It would threaten U.S. national security, regional peace and stability, energy security, the efficacy of multilateralism, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.” And as Coats and Robb stress, those consequences will follow even absent a worse-case scenario in which Iran deploys nuclear weapons.
Nor can the latter possibility be dismissed out of hand. True, the Supreme Leader may be a perfectly rational fellow, with little inclination for self-immmolation, but the question remains: Is that supposition, enough for Israel and the West to rely upon? Can Western and Israeli leaders responsibly place the lives of millions at risk on the same kinds of odds one could get for betting all one’s life savings on black at the roulette wheel in Monte Carlo.
Westerners have great difficulty grasping that highly ideological regimes are usually dead serious about their proclaimed goals, and willing to embark upon suicidal policies in pursuit of those goals. Recent history is replete with examples of dictators adopting a course of action that proved suicidal for them and their regimes. Saddam Hussein did so twice – first, when he refused to withdraw from Kuwait, in defiance of a U.S.-led military alliance gathered to force him to do so, and the second time, when he refused to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq, and thereby convinced every security service in the world that he had amassed large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The refusal of the Taliban in Afghanistan to evict Al Qaeda after 9/11, despite Western demands that it do so, also turned out to spell the end of Taliban rule.
Numerous Iranian leaders have expressed their willingness to sacrifice millions of Iranian citizens to the cause. One of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors Akbar Rafsanjani, considered the leading candidate to replace ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is on record as declaring it “not irrational to contemplate a nuclear exchange with Israel” on the grounds that even one nuclear bomb would devastate Israel. A 2006 fatwa issued by clerics in the Shiite holy city of Qom provides religious sanction for nuclear war. Already in 1980, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, stressed that the mullahs do not worship Iran but only Al-lah, and that the destruction of Iran would not be too great a price to pay for the triumph of Islam over the infidels.
More telling, the mullahs have followed the logic of their own rhetoric. During the Iraq-Iran war, they sacrificed hundreds of thousands of unarmed child soldiers in mass attacks against Iraqi tanks. Against this evidence, one would need something more than assurances that the current Iranian Supreme Leader seems like a cautious enough fellow to conclude that Iran will never initiate a nuclear conflagration.
The idea that the United States can (or should) make an offer to the mullahs so sweet – particularly in the absence of a credible threat of greatly intensified sanctions and/or military action – that they might willingly forego their nuclear ambitions strikes me as one of those ideas so silly that only an academic could possibly believe it. Iranian journalist Amir Taheri points out that for the past 30 years every U.S. administration has tried to engage in dialogue with Teheran only to end up with spit on its face.
As Supreme Leader Khameini has said, “You have nothing to say to us. . . . We do not agree to a relationship with you! We are not prepared to establish relations with powerful world devourers like you! The Iranian nation has not need of the United States, nor is the Iranian nations afraid of the United States. We . . . reject your behavior, your oppression, and intervention in various parts of the world.” Over the last six years of fruitless negotiations, the Europeans have offered Iran immunity from sanctions, membership in the World Trade Organization, an energy partnership with Europe to modernize its oil industry, and fully-fueled nuclear reactor for peaceful domestic needs, and membership in the Persian Gulf security forum – all without budging the Iranians one iota.
Former Ambassador James Dobbins, one of the leading figures in the preparation of the report on relations with Iran, described the approach advocated as one “focused on communication and with a view to making progress over time on a range of issues.” But, of course, time is precisely what the Iranians want in order to complete the enrichment of the enough fissile fuel for one or more bombs and what the West cannot grant them.
Growing hysterical about every academic folly is not a recipe for sound mental health. But what makes this one so frightening is that it is being specifically prepared for President-elect Obama’s edification, and perhaps at his invitation. And it is carefully designed to resonate with his own preferred approach to foreign policy – one that eschews the use of American military power or the threat thereof and is enchanted with the potential of “direct diplomacy.”
The report can be read as the first salvo of a campaign to prepare the American people for acquiescence in Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. If that is the case, Rav Elyashiv’s terrible fears are readily understood even by those of us who lack his sources of information.
This article appeared in the Yated on 19 November, 2008