Global Issues

The Persian Puzzle

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (second from left) at a parade in Tehran on the 23rd anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (second from left) at a parade in Tehran on the 23rd anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war (Vahid Salemi - AP)
Reviewed by Ray Takeyh
Sunday, July 31, 2005

COUNTDOWN TO CRISIS

The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Crown Forum. 392 pp. $25.95

Another day, another outpost of tyranny. With Saddam Hussein gone and Iraq locked in a tragic pattern of violence and disorder, the insta-book authors have set their sights on new targets. Even a cursory appraisal of the new offerings at local bookstores reveals a spate of books with alarmist titles and tantalizing claims regarding the remaining members of what President Bush famously called "the axis of evil." Kenneth R. Timmerman's profoundly deficient new book, Countdown to Crisis , falls squarely into this hyperventilating genre, making claims it can neither substantiate nor justify.

On the surface, Iran offers plenty of grist for sensationalist ideologues: a hard-line president-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledging to turn back the clock to the days of fervor that followed the country's 1979 Islamist revolution; a nuclear program that shows every sign of aiming to provide Iran's ruling theocracy with the bomb; and a long history of association with terrorist organizations, above all the notorious and skillful Hezbollah. But Iran is also home to one of the most sophisticated civil societies in the Middle East, a uniquely pro-American population and a divided ruling class wrestling with pressing economic and demographic problems. All this makes a judicious and tempered analysis of Iran all the more important. Alas, such sensible examination, capturing the subtleties of Iran today, is not to be found in Countdown to Crisis .

Timmerman's thesis is simplistic and provocative: Iran is America's most militant, relentless enemy and has been involved in nearly every terrorist attack against the United States since 1979. Iran is also actively seeking the bomb -- not for deterrence, but to menace the United States and its allies. After all, as the author suggests, "Only one Iranian nuclear-tipped missile needs to penetrate Israel's Arrow antimissile defenses to devastate Israel's highly concentrated population, destroy its economy, and effectively smash the state. Israel is a 'one-bomb' country and the Iranians know it." Timmerman dismisses any challenge to such claims as evidence of the pusillanimous nature of the U.S. intelligence services, the fecklessness of American politicians and, of course, the crass inclination of European appeasers to subordinate principle to commercial gain.

Timmerman, the author of earlier books attacking France and Jesse Jackson, begins his book with the outlandish claim that Iran was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities. In his retelling of history, a craven CIA, determined to exonerate rogue states that sponsor terrorism, has deliberately withheld this information from the American public. The conclusions of the numerous congressional investigations and journalistic inquiries into Sept. 11 are simply ignored. The one independent examination that Timmerman does cite, the 9/11 Commission, is faulted for missing what he considers the all-too-apparent Iran link. The reader gets the impression that Timmerman would rather not bother with facts precisely because they undermine his conspiracy theory.

A persistent problem with this book is its absence of credible evidence. Timmerman frequently describes meetings between Iran's most senior officials, complete with dialogue, facial expressions and body language -- all without any attribution. For instance, in one curious scene, Timmerman describes a late 2004 meeting between Iran's Revolutionary Guard commanders, an important hard-line ayatollah named Ahmad Jannati, and al Qaeda's number-two leader, Ayman Zawahiri. For good measure, he adds (in omniscient voice) that Osama bin Laden himself joined a second day of meetings in which Jannati and the al Qaeda leader -- who looked "frail and old" and "wore Iranian clerical robes," not Arab ones -- "discussed different places where bin Laden felt his men could launch spectacular new attacks against the United States and its key allies."

It behooves Timmerman to provide at least some sources for such eyebrow-raising claims; he attributes them only to "sources with direct knowledge of these meetings," whatever that means. To the extent that the author proffers any foundation for his theories, he appears to rely on exiles with tall tales and defectors with wild imaginations. The war with Iraq, premised on its nonexistent doomsday arsenal and nonexistent working relationship with al Qaeda, has vividly demonstrated where that can lead.

Beyond Timmerman's preposterous claim that Iran plotted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the remainder of the book merely chronicles events already familiar to most observers. A pedestrian review of Iran's sordid involvement in terrorism and its pattern of clandestine nuclear activities, all sufficiently hyped to fit the book's ideological assumptions, passes here for analysis. The jumbled narrative lacks coherence and structure as the author shifts from topic to topic without evident connection. He jumps without segue from deliberations within the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear portfolio to purported meetings between bin Laden's henchmen and high-ranking Iranian officials to Iranian attempts to stoke the Iraqi insurgency (a largely Sunni revolt for which Shiite Iran is, naturally, blamed).

In the end, Timmerman does not even possess the courage of his own convictions. If Iran indeed plotted the Sept. 11 attacks, is eagerly sustaining Iraqi insurgents who are killing American soldiers and is developing nuclear weapons in order to subvert U.S. interests, then it should indeed be a candidate for President Bush's doctrine of preventive invasion. But Timmerman's proposed solution to the grave, imminent threat he portrays is merely further organizational assistance to the country's increasingly battered pro-democracy activists. Given that Iran's genuinely democratic reformers, such as the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, and the political prisoner Akbar Ganji, abjure such aid from America, it is hard to see how such a strategy could work.

At a time when the United States has already invaded one Middle Eastern country based on exaggerated claims about the dangers it posed, one would hope that pundits and policymakers alike would have absorbed some basic lessons. Foremost among these is the maxim that both analysis and policy pronouncements should be restrained by evidence. But all too often, authors such as Timmerman and Jerome R. Corsi (who wrote the similarly irresponsible Atomic Iran: How the Terrorist Regime Bought the Bomb and American Politicians ) present their ideology as self-evident verity and their assumptions as incontrovertible facts. The reality remains that Iran does present serious challenges to American interests; a quarter-century after the Iranian Revolution ruptured U.S.-Iranian relations, the United States is still profoundly ill-equipped to understand Iran, much less effectively address those challenges. Unfortunately, Countdown to Crisis only highlights how little we know about such an important country -- and the paralyzing effects of ideological dogma. ยท

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company