by Michael Rubin
1st part of 3
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that if the Iranian nuclear program continues apace, the Islamic Republic can become a nuclear weapons-capable state. While Bush remains enigmatic on how far he will go to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail, top administration officials hint that the Pentagon is not prepared to use military force, even as a last resort. Though strategic bombing of Iranian nuclear targets is off the table in the waning weeks of the Bush presidency, top U.S. military officials like General John Abizaid, former commander of Central Command, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue that the United States can contain or deter a nuclear Iran. On July 21, 2008, for example, Abizaid explained, "I don't believe
Use Nuclear Weapons? Iran
Should the Islamic Republic possess nuclear weapons, the nightmare scenario is that it would use them in a first strike, most likely against
There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously. While giving the official state sermon at
On February 14, 2005, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary general of the Iranian Hezbollah, declared, "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn't be afraid of anyone. The
Not every Iranian religious figure has been so bellicose. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said, "We do not need a nuclear bomb. We do not have any objectives or aspirations for which we will need to use a nuclear bomb. We consider using nuclear weapons against Islamic rules." His statements, especially in the context of evidence of Iranian nuclear developments, should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, not only spoke repeatedly of the necessity to engage in taqiya, but he also practiced it, telling the Western audience in the weeks before his return to Iran, for example, "I don't want to be the leader of the Islamic Republic; I don't want to have the government or power in my hands."
Of course, Western policymakers should not take bellicose statements as fact and dismiss automatically more conciliatory approaches. As long as the messages remain mixed and covert nuclear activities unexplained, however, realists must treat Iranian intentions with suspicion. At the very least, Western policymakers should not base their approach to Iran on a single statement by the supreme leader, contradicted as it is by evidence of a sometimes covert and continuing nuclear program.
Be Deterred? Iran
Should achievement of nuclear weapons capability make such debates moot, then what policy options short of military strikes would the West have? Alongside any diplomatic or economic strategy, the
At its heart, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime. Many visitors to the Islamic Republic may be rightly impressed by
Is Abizaid correct when he argues that the Islamic Republic is not suicidal? It is a crucial question. During the Cold War and after the Soviet Union's nuclear breakout, the
The Soviet leadership was not suicidal, but how does the Iranian leadership approach questions of mass death? If Western politicians project their own value system onto their foes when calculating opponent decision-making, then they would assume that their Iranian counterparts would not be willing to absorb a nuclear attack. Such reasoning, however, ignores the role of ideology in the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of what most Iranians think, the Islamic Republic ascribes to a set of values far different from our own. Ahmadinejad shocked the West when, soon after taking office, he called for Israel's destruction; dismissed the Holocaust as a fabrication; and hinted that he channeled the Hidden Imam, also known as the Mahdi, Shia Islam's messianic figure.
Mahdism is not new to the Islamic Republic. After the first parliamentary elections in May 1980, Khomeini instructed the victors to offer their "services to the Lord of the Age, May God speed his blessed appearance." Nevertheless, most parliamentarians at the time rooted themselves in the more pragmatic policy debates swirling around construction of the new system. Ahmadinejad, however, heightened emphasis on apocalyptic thought when he argued that Mahdism is "the defining strategy of the Islamic Republic" and that human action could hasten the Mahdi's return. Indeed, it is this aspect of Ahmadinejad's thought that is especially dangerous because it suggests that Ahmadinejad believes that he and his fellow travelers could perhaps hasten the Mahdi's return by precipitating violence, setting the stage for the return as prophesied in some readings of Islamic texts.
Ahmadinejad is not alone in such beliefs. Mesbah-Yazdi, his religious mentor, argues that the "superiority of Islam over other religions is stressed in Qur'an, which calls on believers to wage war against unbelievers and prepare the way for the advent of the Mahdi and conquering the world." In his study of apocalyptic thought in Iran, Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who trained for fourteen years in the seminaries of Qom, noted, "Ahmadinejad appears to be influenced by a trend in contemporary apocalyptic thought in which the killing of Jews will be one of the most significant accomplishments of the Mahdi's government." Certainly it is plausible that Ahmadinejad might, like Rafsanjani, believe Islamic interests make
Within the convoluted power structure of the Islamic Republic, however, the presidency is more about style than substance. Ahmadinejad may embody a heterodox ideology, but would he control nuclear weapons? Herein lies the difficulty with assessing a nuclear
What is known about
For Western advocates of a deterrence strategy, chain of command and control over weaponry should not simply be a theoretical concern. Indeed, there has already been a close call caused by a rogue commander within the Revolutionary Guards. In 1991, as the Pentagon amassed forces in