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Distinguishing Impatience from Urgency

By Steve Schippert | May 22, 2006

Paul Starobin of National Journal has written an article arguing the ability to deter nuclear-armed Iranian mullahs titled Of Mullahs And MADness. In it, the persistent theme is that deterrence is purely logical and historically proven. Through incomplete considerations, the confident conclusion offers that MAD will therefore work with Iran as well.

The unfortunate precipice we find ourselves currently standing upon is seemingly the product of over exuberant imagination or simply poor judgment. However, what is not explored or even mentioned in Of Mullahs And MADness is the messianic nature of some within the regime.

In his argumentative article, Mr. Starobin makes some very good points and quotes respected experts and analysts extensively in so doing. One of the most important paragraphs, via Michael Eisenstadt, correctly draws the distinction between the commonly perceived power of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the very real power wielded by the mullahs of the Guardian Council.

[Michael] Eisenstadt went on to caution that the emergence of "a new generation of Iranian politicians," a group of "assertive nationalists" embodied by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, needs to be "better understood." Ahmadinejad has intensified the regime's anti-Israel, anti-American rhetoric -- in one speech, he said of Israel, "The Islamic people cannot allow this historical enemy to exist in the heart of the Islamic world." And in a recent letter to President Bush, he tried to position himself as a grandiose oracle on behalf of Islamic civilization, asserting that "liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity." Still, as Eisenstadt testified, "all signs point to the fact that real power in Iran remains largely in the hands of the same old familiar cast of 'unelected' leaders," the mullahs.

This is certainly an underappreciated fact regarding the Iranian power structure that deserves more attention than it gets (including in this space).

Yet, while there are several arguments that can be made to counter some of the notions that Paul Starobin has chosen to rest upon, one such argument stands out like a powerful beacon shut away in a closet for all its inconveniences.

Any contemplation concerning the ability to deter a nuclear Iran cannot possibly be complete in thought without at least considering the messianic nature of the regime, chiefly Ahmadinejad and some of his appointed ministerial leaders, many of them fellow former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders.

To come to such a confident conclusion so forthrightly, as Mr. Starobin has, without weaving into the process a single thread of contemplation of the effect or consequences of the banned-but-not-vanished Hojjetieh leaves any resultant conclusion hollow, as this aspect represents the greatest single element of unpredictability and volatility.

Without this consideration he concludes that, just as was with the godless communist states of nuclear China and nuclear Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran can also be so deterred.

But deterrence as a concept is not invalidated because nonstate [sic] actors, in some cases, may be outside its boundaries. In the case of Iran's mullahs, the question of whether deterrence could work might come down to whether America's leaders resolve to make it so. Deterrence is for long haulers -- to "deter and contain" the mullahs could be a 10-year, 20-year, or even longer proposition. Military strikes, with their tantalizing promise of tidily resolving a nettlesome problem, tend to beguile the impatient. Deterrence isn't tidy, but history has shown its effectiveness. MAD, anyone?

Deterrence is certainly not tidy, as he rightly states. And military strikes can certainly beguile the impatient. But it would be incorrect to say that a case for military strikes is de facto borne of impatience, regardless of who it may beguile. With prudence being the better part of valor, it is nonetheless critical to distinguish between impatience and urgency.

While Ahmadinejad does not wield the power of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, or the unelected mullahs’ Guardian Council, he is not without influence. Not the least of that influence is a certain degree of loyalty shown him by the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, his former brothers-in-arms, creators of Hizballah and the true epicenter of global terrorism.

The author and those he cites seem confident that the mullahs would not transfer nuclear weapons or technology to terrorist organizations, such as the Hizballah, to act as surrogates. Are they then equally confident that Ahmadinejad and a small and powerful circle of loyal IRGC commanders would not and absolutely could not independently and clandestinely achieve the same in seeking to ‘pave the way for the return of the 12th Imam’?

Are they then also equally confident that Ahmadinejad and a small and powerful circle of loyal IRGC commanders would not and absolutely could not independently and clandestinely launch a single nuclear missile toward Israel or any other destination, needing only achieve it once in order to bring about the cataclysmic events that, in their messianic fanaticism, would usher in the return of the Mehdi?

Either of the two scenarios would be immensely difficult to execute, to be sure.

Furthermore, the mullahs themselves, regularly professing the Holy virtues of piety, are supremely wealthy far beyond their 1979 revolutionary origins. This has certainly made them, as a group, far more comfortable than they would have their citizens – or the world – perceive. To that extent, the mullahs therefore are to a reasonable degree self-preservationists who act relatively pragmatically, logically and are thus subject to deterrence.

But are the scenarios above – and the apparent apocalyptic fanaticism in some that give rise to the question – so impossible as to be dismissed out of hand and without a single mention in an apparently otherwise thoughtful analysis?

The complete omission of the Hojjetieh and messianic aspect of portions of the Iranian regime’s psyche is to dismiss the single most dangerous and frightening aspect of a revolutionary fundamentalist adversary - and unquestionably the epicenter of global terrorism - currently on a collision course with nuclear weaponry.

It should be considered that without openly contemplating this horrifying mindset – be it held by few in power or many – it is simply not possible to distinguish between impatience and urgency.

The world should hope that, at the end of the day, Paul Starobin and his notable array of cited experts are correct. This writer most certainly does.

But to rest comfortably upon the deterrent power of MAD without that careful consideration might well be mad.


The danse macabre continues...

The Iranian regieme continues its little game, practically daring the West (specifically Israel or the USA) to premptively strike against their nuclear weapons program. Like the schoolyard game, where the kid keeps daring you to knock the chip off his shoulder, and when you finally do you get sucker punched with a roll of coins hidden in his fist. Just what nasty little surprise do they have waiting for us? And to what ends will they go to get us to take the first swing? If my worst fears about Iran are right, they already have several nukes. Probably just gun-type weapons, not particularly efficient, but very reliable. And they may very well have other deliverable WMDs. What they are doing now is just building a bigger and better arsenal.

And their apocolyptic views play to this scenario... The end of the world, and the return of the Mahdi would fit nicely into a scenario of mutual world destruction. But why do the Iranians not simply lash out with the weapons they have to initiate this (what we would call) madness? My only take on a possible rationale for their forbearance is that somehow, in their beliefs, they cannot possibly get their ticket to paradise punched if they are overt agressors. That it is the infidels who must initiate the final battle. And so they continue to prod and provoke until someone does something that the Iranians can call an overt attack upon the Islamic Republic. And then the hellfire will be unleashed.

The entire MAD doctrine is a very Western thing. For it to work, you must depend on your opponent being unwilling to lose everything they hold dear in this material world. But if your opponent truly believes that the destruction of the world as we know it is just a small step towards paradise, then MAD really does become madness for the West.

In other words, like the danse macabre, we are caught in the dance, and it may be impossible to stop the enevitable disaster from coming to pass.

I pray that I am very wrong about all of this.

Just my $.02

I would have to agree with you Steve - and with DaveK's comments. This is NOT a cold war scenario, as we remember the cold war. The Soviets and Korea have no desire to lose it all on a first strike. There are, in fact, several incidents we can point to that did NOT cause a war - but would certainly ignite Ahmediwhacker to justify a launch. The USS Pueblo and the U2 Gary Powers incident would certainly have been enough for the Messianics to say "First Strike!" and claim they were only "defending aggression".

Where do they find these nuts? I'll bet he has a tin hat as well...