In a recent column for Canada’s major newspaper, the National Post, entitled “The case against bombing Iran,” editor Jonathan Kay reports on the FDD (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) conference held in Washington D.C., which addressed the vexed question of Iran’s nuclear ambition and what should be done about it. Should Iran’s nuclear sites be bombed or not? Kay cites at length the so-called “Iran expert” Kenneth Pollack, author of The Persian Puzzle, who argues against a military strike, which he considers would be both rash and ultimately useless.
Pollack begins by referring to the Israeli air strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981 which, he contends, only motivated Saddam “to redouble his efforts…going from a single track to six different tracks across the country.” According to this expert, what put a stop to Saddam’s nuclear intentions was not the vaporizing of Osirak but Desert Storm ten years later. “This,” says Kay, “was a sobering insight.” In Pollack’s estimation, it would appear that the Israeli demolition of Osirak was a strategic blunder of monumental proportions.
Oddly enough, the great Osirak failure did not prevent Israel from launching Operation Orchard, attacking Syria’s nuclear al-Kibar facility in 2007 and dealing a crippling blow to its North Korean-enabled nuclear program. It seems the Israelis are incapable of learning from experience or of profiting from the vast store of Pollack’s undeniable wisdom, but insist on pursuing a reckless and counter-productive policy of armed pre-emption.
And yet there is ample room for skepticism. Pollack, as we have seen, claims that a targeted country can always begin to rebuild its nuclear capacity, thus merely delaying the inevitable. But there are certain obvious considerations he makes no allowance for: once a site has been destroyed, the reconstruction lag gives time to reformulate policy, if necessary; circumstances may change for the better; and, if worse comes to worse, the operation can be repeated. Moreover, if Saddam had been allowed to have his nuclear way in 1981 and to spend the next decade advancing his nuclear option, it is moot whether Desert Storm would even have been possible in 1991. For by that time Saddam might conceivably have developed a ballistic deterrent that would have effectively disarmed the multi-nation coalition from moving against him.
Nor does Pollack consider the basic and indefeasible nature of the Iranian regime, its patently unhinged mullocracy, its frequent threats to wipe Israel off the map and its Twelver Shi’ite theology which awaits the arrival of the messiah or Mahdi, the Hidden Imam who comes to cleanse mankind with fire and the sword, and whose parousia can be hastened by unleashing violence on the world. Pollack should perhaps have consulted Kenneth Timmerman, Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, who cites Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s announcement that his government’s main mission was to “pave the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi.” Indeed, according to Reza Khalili, author of _A Time To Betray_ and a former CIA agent who penetrated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei “has private prayers with the Mahdi. It’s all crazy talk but they take it seriously.”
Is this, one may ask with all due diffidence, the sort of regime that should be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and to perfect solid-state delivery systems, like the Sajill-2, that bring all of Europe within their range? Is this what our “experts” in their ineffable sagacity are prepared to accept? The bottom line is that if they are wrong, then many of us are dead—an outcome, I would suggest, that is scarcely worth the risk. For as Frank Gaffney, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for International Security Policy, has stated: “If we think we can deter mullahs who are committed to an apocalyptic, messianic program, we’re kidding ourselves.” The Wikileaks data dump has shown that much of the Arab world would concur with this assessment, or why else would they have pleaded with the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear sites?
Pollack, who prides himself on being “a student of military history” and loftily declares that “I teach courses on it. I’ve spent my whole life on it,” also believes that a pre-emptive strike would alienate ordinary Iranians. “When people are bombed, they tend to rally around the flag,” he asserts. One may beg to differ, since it is precisely these ordinary people and Green Movement dissidents who are constantly in danger of being thrown into prison, tortured and murdered for opposing the designs of their brutal overlords. And after all, it is not Tehran or other civilian centers that would be bombed but army, air force and missile installations, prior to taking out the nuclear plants and laboratories. Under current conditions in Iran, it seems plausible to assume that such an intervention is just as likely to be welcomed as resented.
As for the belief that sanctions, an international campaign of delegitimation and “shaming Iran by listing off its numerous human rights violations” would suffice to dissuade the Iranian leadership from proceeding on their avowedly determined course, the evidence to date does not seem encouraging. The mullahs don’t shame easily, especially as they are convinced they are doing the divine will. They are exceedingly adept at feigning negotiations to stave off international pressure. And with the assistance of Turkey, China, Venezuela, Austria and other culprit nations, sanctions can, to a significant extent, be circumvented.
Such impractical recommendations demonstrate just how far from reality our self-proclaimed experts tend to live. Or, for that matter, how far from Iran. As Philip Weiss points out in The Huffington Post, Pollack is an “Iran expert who’s never been there, doesn’t speak Persian, and has only dribs and drabs of Arabic.” He is, plainly, the kind of “Iran expert” who puts the farce in Farsi.
What we are witnessing here is a colossal bankruptcy of imagination coupled with an overweening arrogance and a pie-in-the-sky worldview. If Pollack and his professional kin are misguided, what they will see in the sky when they look up one day from their conference notes and briefing papers may not be pies. Perhaps it’s best not to promote oneself as some sort of “expert” or guru but to rely instead on cognitive depth, common sense and a reasonable alertness to the world as it is.
In summing up, Kay concedes that a punitive assault against Iran might be satisfying “on an emotional level” and “has the ring of moral clarity.” But, he continues, deferring to the forum’s chief pedagogue, Pollack “reminds us that all the moral clarity in the world doesn’t erase today’s military realities, nor the lessons of yesterday’s bombing campaigns.” Now what lessons might these be? one wonders, given the rather obvious objections to such timid and conventional thinking docketed above.
Is Pollock by some chance still stuck in Vietnam mode? But it was not the bombing campaign there that proved ineffective; the war was lost owing to poor planning, lack of will and domestic dissent. If he is thinking post-Vietnam, other factors should prevail. Operation Opera against Osirak is, as likely as not, what made Desert Storm feasible in the first place. Operation Orchard against Syria was a blessing to all, except Bashar Assad, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il. And Operation Allied Force against Serbia, a bombing campaign that lasted several months, certainly worked well enough.
Kay concludes that, “as things now stand,” military action against the Iranian program “would do more harm than good.” This is no doubt yet another “sobering insight”—although not one shared by more credible authorities such as Reza Khalili, Emmanuel Sivan, Kenneth Timmerman, Frank Gaffney, chair of the Congressional EMP Commission William Graham, Ronen Bergman, author of _The Secret War with Iran_, and Louis Rene Beres, professor of International Law at Purdue University and author of Force, Order and Justice. These men do not give themselves airs as specialist virtuosos or policy wonks, but manifest variously as thoughtful, experienced and scholarly observers of a complex situation.
Beres condenses in two short sentences their collective position concerning the Iranian problem: “Tehran’s new nuclear status could coincide with an unshakable leadership belief in the Shi’ite apocalypse. Here, Israel would face… a ‘suicide state.’” And so might the rest of us. For a nuclear exchange in the Middle East may not stay in the Middle East and would clearly have incalculable repercussions.
Now this is a sobering insight indeed.
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