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City Journal Spring 2006.
Spring 2006
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Facing Down Iran
Mark Steyn

Our lives depend on it.

Most Westerners read the map of the world like a Broadway marquee: north is top of the bill—America, Britain, Europe, Russia—and the rest dribbles away into a mass of supporting players punctuated by occasional Star Guests: India, China, Australia. Everyone else gets rounded up into groups: “Africa,” “Asia,” “Latin America.”

But if you’re one of the down-page crowd, the center of the world is wherever you happen to be. Take Iran: it doesn’t fit into any of the groups. Indeed, it’s a buffer zone between most of the important ones: to the west, it borders the Arab world; to the northwest, it borders NATO (and, if Turkey ever passes its endless audition, the European Union); to the north, the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation’s turbulent Caucasus; to the northeast, the Stans—the newly independent states of central Asia; to the east, the old British India, now bifurcated into a Muslim-Hindu nuclear standoff. And its southern shore sits on the central artery that feeds the global economy.

If you divide the world into geographical regions, then, Iran’s neither here nor there. But if you divide it ideologically, the mullahs are ideally positioned at the center of the various provinces of Islam—the Arabs, the Turks, the Stans, and the south Asians. Who better to unite the Muslim world under one inspiring, courageous leadership? If there’s going to be an Islamic superpower, Tehran would seem to be the obvious candidate.

That moment of ascendancy is now upon us. Or as the Daily Telegraph in London reported: “Iran’s hardline spiritual leaders have issued an unprecedented new fatwa, or holy order, sanctioning the use of atomic weapons against its enemies.” Hmm. I’m not a professional mullah, so I can’t speak to the theological soundness of the argument, but it seems a religious school in the Holy City of Qom has ruled that “the use of nuclear weapons may not constitute a problem, according to sharia.” Well, there’s a surprise. How do you solve a problem? Like, sharia! It’s the one-stop shop for justifying all your geopolitical objectives.

The bad cop/worse cop routine the mullahs and their hothead President Ahmadinejad are playing in this period of alleged negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program is the best indication of how all negotiations with Iran will go once they’re ready to fly. This is the nuclear version of the NRA bumper sticker: “Guns Don’t Kill People. People Kill People.” Nukes don’t nuke nations. Nations nuke nations. When the Argentine junta seized British sovereign territory in the Falklands, the generals knew that the United Kingdom was a nuclear power, but they also knew that under no conceivable scenario would Her Majesty’s Government drop the big one on Buenos Aires. The Argie generals were able to assume decency on the part of the enemy, which is a useful thing to be able to do.

But in any contretemps with Iran the other party would be foolish to make a similar assumption. That will mean the contretemps will generally be resolved in Iran’s favor. In fact, if one were a Machiavellian mullah, the first thing one would do after acquiring nukes would be to hire some obvious loon like President Ahmaddamatree to front the program. He’s the equivalent of the yobbo in the English pub who says, “Oy, mate, you lookin’ at my bird?” You haven’t given her a glance, or him; you’re at the other end of the bar head down in the Daily Mirror, trying not to catch his eye. You don’t know whether he’s longing to nut you in the face or whether he just gets a kick out of terrifying you into thinking he wants to. But, either way, you just want to get out of the room in one piece. Kooks with nukes is one-way deterrence squared.

If Belgium becomes a nuclear power, the Dutch have no reason to believe it would be a factor in, say, negotiations over a joint highway project. But Iran’s nukes will be a factor in everything. If you think, for example, the European Union and others have been fairly craven over those Danish cartoons, imagine what they’d be like if a nuclear Tehran had demanded a formal apology, a suitable punishment for the newspaper, and blasphemy laws specifically outlawing representations of the Prophet. Iran with nukes will be a suicide bomber with a radioactive waist.

If we’d understood Iran back in 1979, we’d understand better the challenges we face today. Come to that, we might not even be facing them. But, with hindsight, what strikes you about the birth of the Islamic Republic is the near total lack of interest by analysts in that adjective: Islamic. Iran was only the second Islamist state, after Saudi Arabia—and, in selecting as their own qualifying adjective the family name, the House of Saud at least indicated a conventional sense of priorities, as the legions of Saudi princes whoring and gambling in the fleshpots of the West have demonstrated exhaustively. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue—though, as the Royal Family has belatedly discovered vis-à-vis the Islamists, they’re somewhat overdrawn on that front. The difference in Iran is simple: with the mullahs, there are no London escort agencies on retainer to supply blondes only. When they say “Islamic Republic,” they mean it. And refusing to take their words at face value has bedeviled Western strategists for three decades.

Twenty-seven years ago, because Islam didn’t fit into the old cold war template, analysts mostly discounted it. We looked at the map like that Broadway marquee: West and East, the old double act. As with most of the down-page turf, Iran’s significance lay in which half of the act she’d sign on with. To the Left, the shah was a high-profile example of an unsavory U.S. client propped up on traditional he-may-be-a-sonofabitch-but-he’s-our-sonofabitch grounds: in those heady days SAVAK, his secret police, were a household name among Western progressives, and insofar as they took the stern-faced man in the turban seriously, they assured themselves he was a kind of novelty front for the urbane Paris émigré socialists who accompanied him back to Tehran. To the realpolitik Right, the issue was Soviet containment: the shah may be our sonofabitch, but he’d outlived his usefulness, and a weak Iran could prove too tempting an invitation to Moscow to fulfill the oldest of czarist dreams—a warm-water port, not to mention control of the Straits of Hormuz. Very few of us considered the strategic implications of an Islamist victory on its own terms—the notion that Iran was checking the neither-of-the-above box and that that box would prove a far greater threat to the Freeish World than Communism.

But that was always Iran’s plan. In 1989, with the Warsaw Pact disintegrating before his eyes, poor beleaguered Mikhail Gorbachev received a helpful bit of advice from the cocky young upstart on the block: “I strongly urge that in breaking down the walls of Marxist fantasies you do not fall into the prison of the West and the Great Satan,” Ayatollah Khomeini wrote to Moscow. “I openly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world, can easily help fill up the ideological vacuum of your system.”

Today many people in the West don’t take that any more seriously than Gorbachev did. But it’s pretty much come to pass. As Communism retreated, radical Islam seeped into Africa and south Asia and the Balkans. Crazy guys holed up in Philippine jungles and the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay who’d have been “Marxist fantasists” a generation or two back are now Islamists: it’s the ideology du jour. At the point of expiry of the Soviet Union in 1991, the peoples of the central Asian republics were for the most part unaware that Iran had even had an “Islamic revolution”; 15 years on, following the proselytizing of thousands of mullahs dispatched to the region by a specially created Iranian government agency, the Stans’ traditionally moderate and in many cases alcoholically lubricated form of Islam is yielding in all but the most remote areas to a fiercer form imported from the south. As the Pentagon has begun to notice, in Iraq Tehran has been quietly duplicating the strategy that delivered southern Lebanon into its control 20 years ago. The degeneration of Baby Assad’s supposedly “secular” Baathist tyranny into full-blown client status and the replacement of Arafat’s depraved “secular” kleptocrat terrorists by Hamas’s even more depraved Islamist terrorists can also be seen as symptoms of Iranification.

So as a geopolitical analyst the ayatollah is not to be disdained. Our failure to understand Iran in the seventies foreshadowed our failure to understand the broader struggle today. As clashes of civilizations go, this one’s between two extremes: on the one hand, a world that has everything it needs to wage decisive war—wealth, armies, industry, technology; on the other, a world that has nothing but pure ideology and plenty of believers. (Its sole resource, oil, would stay in the ground were it not for foreign technology, foreign manpower, and a Western fetishization of domestic environmental aesthetics.)

For this to be a mortal struggle, as the cold war was, the question is: Are they a credible enemy to us?

For a projection of the likely outcome, the question is: Are we a credible enemy to them?

Four years into the “war on terror,” the Bush administration has begun promoting a new formulation: “the long war.” Not a reassuring name. In a short war, put your money on tanks and bombs—our strengths. In a long war, the better bet is will and manpower—their strengths, and our great weakness. Even a loser can win when he’s up against a defeatist. A big chunk of Western civilization, consciously or otherwise, has given the impression that it’s dying to surrender to somebody, anybody. Reasonably enough, Islam figures: Hey, why not us? If you add to the advantages of will and manpower a nuclear capability, the odds shift dramatically.

What, after all, is the issue underpinning every little goofy incident in the news, from those Danish cartoons of Mohammed to recommendations for polygamy by official commissions in Canada to the banning of the English flag in English prisons because it’s an insensitive “crusader” emblem to the introduction of gender-segregated swimming sessions in municipal pools in Puget Sound? In a word, sovereignty. There is no god but Allah, and thus there is no jurisdiction but Allah’s. Ayatollah Khomeini saw himself not as the leader of a geographical polity but as a leader of a communal one: Islam. Once those urbane socialist émigrés were either dead or on the plane back to Paris, Iran’s nominally “temporal” government took the same view, too: its role is not merely to run national highway departments and education ministries but to advance the cause of Islam worldwide.

If you dust off the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Article One reads: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Iran fails to meet qualification (d), and has never accepted it. The signature act of the new regime was not the usual post-coup bloodletting and summary execution of the shah’s mid-ranking officials but the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by “students” acting with Khomeini’s blessing. Diplomatic missions are recognized as the sovereign territory of that state, and the violation thereof is an act of war. No one in Washington has to fret that Fidel Castro will bomb the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Even in the event of an actual war, the diplomatic staff of both countries would be allowed to depart.

Yet Iran seized protected persons on U.S. soil and held them prisoner for over a year—ostensibly because Washington was planning to restore the shah. But the shah died and the hostages remained. And, when the deal was eventually done and the hostages were released, the sovereign territory of the United States remained in the hands of the gangster regime. Granted that during the Carter administration the Soviets were gobbling up real estate from Afghanistan to Grenada, it’s significant that in this wretched era the only loss of actual U.S. territory was to the Islamists.

Yet Iran paid no price. They got away with it. For the purposes of comparison, in 1980, when the U.S. hostages in Tehran were in their sixth month of captivity, Iranians opposed to the mullahs seized the Islamic Republic’s embassy in London. After six days of negotiation, Her Majesty’s Government sent SAS commandos into the building and restored it to the control of the regime. In refusing to do the same with the “students” occupying the U.S. embassy, the Islamic Republic was explicitly declaring that it was not as other states.

We expect multilateral human-rights Democrats to be unsatisfactory on assertive nationalism, but if they won’t even stand up for international law, what’s the point? Jimmy Carter should have demanded the same service as Tehran got from the British—the swift resolution of the situation by the host government—and, if none was forthcoming, Washington should have reversed the affront to international order quickly, decisively, and in a sufficiently punitive manner. At hinge moments of history, there are never good and bad options, only bad and much much worse. Our options today are significantly worse because we didn’t take the bad one back then.

With the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a British subject, Tehran extended its contempt for sovereignty to claiming jurisdiction over the nationals of foreign states, passing sentence on them, and conscripting citizens of other countries to carry it out. Iran’s supreme leader instructed Muslims around the world to serve as executioners of the Islamic Republic—and they did, killing not Rushdie himself but his Japanese translator, and stabbing the Italian translator, and shooting the Italian publisher, and killing three dozen persons with no connection to the book when a mob burned down a hotel because of the presence of the novelist’s Turkish translator.

Iran’s de facto head of state offered a multimillion-dollar bounty for a whack job on an obscure English novelist. And, as with the embassy siege, he got away with it.

In the latest variation on Marx’s dictum, history repeats itself: first, the unreadable London literary novel; then, the Danish funny pages. But in the 17 years between the Rushdie fatwa and the cartoon jihad, what was supposedly a freakish one-off collision between Islam and the modern world has become routine. We now think it perfectly normal for Muslims to demand the tenets of their religion be applied to society at large: the government of Sweden, for example, has been zealously closing down websites that republish those Danish cartoons. As Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has said, “It is in our revolution’s interest, and an essential principle, that when we speak of Islamic objectives, we address all the Muslims of the world.” Or as a female Muslim demonstrator in Toronto put it: “We won’t stop the protests until the world obeys Islamic law.”

If that’s a little too ferocious, Kofi Annan framed it rather more soothingly: “The offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were first published in a European country which has recently acquired a significant Muslim population, and is not yet sure how to adjust to it.”

If you’ve also “recently acquired” a significant Muslim population and you’re not sure how to “adjust” to it, well, here’s the difference: back when my Belgian grandparents emigrated to Canada, the idea was that the immigrants assimilated to the host country. As Kofi and Co. see it, today the host country has to assimilate to the immigrants: if Islamic law forbids representations of the Prophet, then so must Danish law, and French law, and American law. Iran was the progenitor of this rapacious extraterritoriality, and, if we had understood it more clearly a generation ago, we might be in less danger of seeing large tracts of the developed world being subsumed by it today.

Yet instead the West somehow came to believe that, in a region of authoritarian monarchs and kleptocrat dictators, Iran was a comparative beacon of liberty. The British foreign secretary goes to Tehran and hangs with the mullahs and, even though he’s not a practicing Muslim (yet), ostentatiously does that “peace be upon him” thing whenever he mentions the Prophet Mohammed. And where does the kissy-face with the A-list imams get him? Ayatollah Khamenei renewed the fatwa on Rushdie only last year. True, President Bush identified Iran as a member of the axis of evil, but a year later the country was being hailed as a “democracy” by then-deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage and a nation that has seen a “democratic flowering,” as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher put it.

And let’s not forget Bill Clinton’s extraordinary remarks at Davos last year: “Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority.” That’s true in the very narrow sense that there’s a certain similarity between his legal strategy and sharia when it comes to adultery and setting up the gals as the fall guys. But it seems Clinton apparently had a more general commonality in mind: “In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.” America’s first black President is beginning to sound like America’s first Islamist ex-president.

Those remarks are as nutty as Gerald Ford’s denial of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. Iran has an impressive three-decade record of talking the talk and walking the walk—either directly or through client groups like Hezbollah. In 1994, the Argentine Israel Mutual Association was bombed in Buenos Aires. Nearly 100 people died and 250 were injured—the worst massacre of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. An Argentine court eventually issued warrants for two Iranian diplomats plus Ali Fallahian, former intelligence minister, and Ali Akbar Parvaresh, former education minister and deputy speaker of the Majlis.

Why blow up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires? Because it’s there. Unlike the Iranian infiltration into Bosnia and Croatia, which helped radicalize not just the local populations but Muslim supporters from Britain and Western Europe, the random slaughter in the Argentine has no strategic value except as a demonstration of muscle and reach.

Anyone who spends half an hour looking at Iranian foreign policy over the last 27 years sees five things:

  1. contempt for the most basic international conventions;
  2. long-reach extraterritoriality;
  3. effective promotion of radical Pan-Islamism;
  4. a willingness to go the extra mile for Jew-killing (unlike, say, Osama);
  5. an all-but-total synchronization between rhetoric and action.

Yet the Europeans remain in denial. Iran was supposedly the Middle Eastern state they could work with. And the chancellors and foreign ministers jetted in to court the mullahs so assiduously that they’re reluctant to give up on the strategy just because a relatively peripheral figure like the, er, head of state is sounding off about Armageddon.

Instead, Western analysts tend to go all Kremlinological. There are, after all, many factions within Iran’s ruling class. What the country’s quick-on-the-nuke president says may not be the final word on the regime’s position. Likewise, what the school of nuclear theologians in Qom says. Likewise, what former president Khatami says. Likewise, what Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, says.

But, given that they’re all in favor of the country having nukes, the point seems somewhat moot. The question then arises, what do they want them for?

By way of illustration, consider the country’s last presidential election. The final round offered a choice between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an alumnus of the U.S. Embassy siege a quarter-century ago, and Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, which sounds like an EU foreign policy agency but is, in fact, the body that arbitrates between Iran’s political and religious leaderships. Ahmadinejad is a notorious shoot-from-the-lip apocalyptic hothead who believes in the return of the Twelfth (hidden) Imam and quite possibly that he personally is his designated deputy, and he’s also claimed that when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year a mystical halo appeared and bathed him in its aura. Ayatollah Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is one of those famous “moderates.”

What’s the difference between a hothead and a moderate? Well, the extremist Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” while the moderate Rafsanjani has declared that Israel is “the most hideous occurrence in history,” which the Muslim world “will vomit out from its midst” in one blast, because “a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel, while an Israeli counter-strike can only cause partial damage to the Islamic world.” Evidently wiping Israel off the map seems to be one of those rare points of bipartisan consensus in Tehran, the Iranian equivalent of a prescription drug plan for seniors: we’re just arguing over the details.

So the question is: Will they do it?

And the minute you have to ask, you know the answer. If, say, Norway or Ireland acquired nuclear weapons, we might regret the “proliferation,” but we wouldn’t have to contemplate mushroom clouds over neighboring states. In that sense, the civilized world has already lost: to enter into negotiations with a jurisdiction headed by a Holocaust-denying millenarian nut job is, in itself, an act of profound weakness—the first concession, regardless of what weaselly settlement might eventually emerge.

Conversely, a key reason to stop Iran is to demonstrate that we can still muster the will to do so. Instead, the striking characteristic of the long diplomatic dance that brought us to this moment is how September 10th it’s all been. The free world’s delegated negotiators (the European Union) and transnational institutions (the IAEA) have continually given the impression that they’d be content just to boot it down the road to next year or the year after or find some arrangement—this decade’s Oil-for-Food or North Korean deal—that would get them off the hook. If you talk to EU foreign ministers, they’ve already psychologically accepted a nuclear Iran. Indeed, the chief characteristic of the West’s reaction to Iran’s nuclearization has been an enervated fatalism.

Back when nuclear weapons were an elite club of five relatively sane world powers, your average Western progressive was convinced the planet was about to go ka-boom any minute. The mushroom cloud was one of the most familiar images in the culture, a recurring feature of novels and album covers and movie posters. There were bestselling dystopian picture books for children, in which the handful of survivors spent their last days walking in a nuclear winter wonderland. Now a state openly committed to the annihilation of a neighboring nation has nukes, and we shrug: Can’t be helped. Just the way things are. One hears sophisticated arguments that perhaps the best thing is to let everyone get ’em, and then no one will use them. And if Iran’s head of state happens to threaten to wipe Israel off the map, we should understand that this is a rhetorical stylistic device that’s part of the Persian oral narrative tradition, and it would be a grossly Eurocentric misinterpretation to take it literally.

The fatalists have a point. We may well be headed for a world in which anybody with a few thousand bucks and the right unlisted Asian phone numbers in his Rolodex can get a nuke. But, even so, there are compelling reasons for preventing Iran in particular from going nuclear. Back in his student days at the U.S. embassy, young Mr. Ahmadinejad seized American sovereign territory, and the Americans did nothing. And I would wager that’s still how he looks at the world. And, like Rafsanjani, he would regard, say, Muslim deaths in an obliterated Jerusalem as worthy collateral damage in promoting the greater good of a Jew-free Middle East. The Palestinians and their “right of return” have never been more than a weapon of convenience with which to chastise the West. To assume Tehran would never nuke Israel because a shift in wind direction would contaminate Ramallah is to be as ignorant of history as most Palestinians are: from Yasser Arafat’s uncle, the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, to the insurgents in Iraq today, Islamists have never been shy about slaughtering Muslims in pursuit of their strategic goals.

But it doesn’t have to come to that. Go back to that Argentine bombing. It was, in fact, the second major Iranian-sponsored attack in Buenos Aires. The year before, 1993, a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 29 people and injured hundreds more in an attack on the Israeli Embassy. In the case of the community center bombing, the killer had flown from Lebanon a few days earlier and entered Latin America through the porous tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Suppose Iran had had a “dirty nuke” shipped to Hezbollah, or even the full-blown thing: Would it have been any less easy to get it into the country? And, if a significant chunk of downtown Buenos Aires were rendered uninhabitable, what would the Argentine government do? Iran can project itself to South America effortlessly, but Argentina can’t project itself to the Middle East at all. It can’t nuke Tehran, and it can’t attack Iran in conventional ways.

So any retaliation would be down to others. Would Washington act? It depends how clear the fingerprints were. If the links back to the mullahs were just a teensy-weensy bit tenuous and murky, how eager would the U.S. be to reciprocate? Bush and Rumsfeld might—but an administration of a more Clinto-Powellite bent? How much pressure would there be for investigations under UN auspices? Perhaps Hans Blix could come out of retirement, and we could have a six-month dance through Security-Council coalition-building, with the secretary of state making a last-minute flight to Khartoum to try to persuade Sudan to switch its vote.

Perhaps it’s unduly pessimistic to write the civilized world automatically into what Osama bin Laden called the “weak horse” role (Islam being the “strong horse”). But, if you were an Iranian “moderate” and you’d watched the West’s reaction to the embassy seizure and the Rushdie murders and Hezbollah terrorism, wouldn’t you be thinking along those lines? I don’t suppose Buenos Aires Jews expect to have their institutions nuked any more than 12 years ago they expected to be blown up in their own city by Iranian-backed suicide bombers. Nukes have gone freelance, and there’s nothing much we can do about that, and sooner or later we’ll see the consequences—in Vancouver or Rotterdam, Glasgow or Atlanta. But, that being so, we owe it to ourselves to take the minimal precautionary step of ending the one regime whose political establishment is explicitly pledged to the nuclear annihilation of neighboring states.

Once again, we face a choice between bad and worse options. There can be no “surgical” strike in any meaningful sense: Iran’s clients on the ground will retaliate in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Europe. Nor should we put much stock in the country’s allegedly “pro-American” youth. This shouldn’t be a touchy-feely nation-building exercise: rehabilitation may be a bonus, but the primary objective should be punishment—and incarceration. It’s up to the Iranian people how nutty a government they want to live with, but extraterritorial nuttiness has to be shown not to pay. That means swift, massive, devastating force that decapitates the regime—but no occupation.

The cost of de-nuking Iran will be high now but significantly higher with every year it’s postponed. The lesson of the Danish cartoons is the clearest reminder that what is at stake here is the credibility of our civilization. Whether or not we end the nuclearization of the Islamic Republic will be an act that defines our time.

A quarter-century ago, there was a minor British pop hit called “Ayatollah, Don’t Khomeini Closer.” If you’re a U.S. diplomat or a British novelist, a Croat Christian or an Argentine Jew, he’s already come way too close. How much closer do you want him to get?

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