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After Diplomacy Fails
Think Imaginatively About Iran

By Mark Helprin
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Even were one to believe that, despite its low and stagnant per capita gross national product and having the world's second-largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas, Iran would invest uneconomically in nuclear power generation, one would also have to disbelieve that it wanted nuclear weapons. But with an intermediate-range strategic nuclear capacity, it could deter American intervention, reign over the Persian Gulf, further separate Europe from American Middle East policy, correct a nuclear imbalance with Pakistan, lead and perhaps unify the Islamic world, and thus create the chance to end Western dominance of the Middle East and/or with a single shot destroy Israel.

Iran's claim of innocuous nuclear ambitions comports both with the Islamic doctrine of taqqiya (literal truth need not be conveyed to infidels) and the Western doctrine of state secrecy (the same thing), and it is part of a strategy of deception and false compromise deployed to buy time. After almost three years, the Bush administration has maneuvered the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where it will fall under the protection of Russia and China, which will make any resolution meaningless or veto it outright. In the event of sanctions, Iran can sell oil to China in exchange for all the manufactures it might need, trade on the black market and eventually reenter the world economy after the inevitable unveiling of Iranian nuclear weapons stimulates the resignation of the West.

Were Russia not playing a double game, it would not have agreed in December to upgrade the Iranian air force and sell Iran 29 SA-15 SAMs for the protection of key facilities. Russia and China can operate in contradiction of what many assume to be their self-interest because they have always had a different appreciation of and doctrine relating to nuclear weapons, because they are willing to live dangerously and because they are the least likely targets. In addition, the agitation that they support roils the smooth surface of the Pax Americana to their maximum opportunity and relief. For example, chaos in the Middle East makes Russia in comparison a stable supplier of energy and shifts European resources and dependency to Russia's advantage.

Other than the likely nothing, what will the United States have done in the months and years ahead to prepare for the failure of diplomacy and sanctions? The obvious option is an aerial campaign to divest Iran of its nuclear potential: i.e., clear the Persian Gulf of Iranian naval forces, scrub anti-ship missiles from the shore and lay open antiaircraft-free corridors to each target. With the furious capacity of its new weapons, the United States can accomplish this readily. Were the targets effectively hidden or buried, Iran could be shut down, coerced and perhaps revolutionized by the simple and rapid destruction of its oil production and transport. The Iranians know their obvious vulnerabilities, but are we aware of ours?

In this war with a newly revived militant Islam, we think systematically and they think imaginatively. As we strain to bring the genius of imagination to our systems, they attempt to bring systematic discipline to their imagination, and neither of us is precluded from success. Despite our superior power, its diminution by geography, overcommittment and politics means that they might confound us. And because they believe absolutely in the miraculous, one must credit their stated aim to defeat us in the short term by hurling our armies from the Middle East and in the long term by causing the collapse of Western civilization.

If, like his predecessors Saladin, the Mahdi of Sudan and Nasser, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes for the long shot, he may have in mind to draw out and damage any American onslaught with his thousands of surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft guns; by a concentrated air and naval attack to sink one or more major American warships; and to mobilize the Iraqi Shia in a general uprising, with aid from infiltrated Revolutionary Guard and conventional elements, that would threaten U.S. forces in Iraq and sever their lines of supply. This by itself would be a victory for those who see in the colors of martyrdom, but if he could knock us back and put enough of our blood in the water, the real prize might come into reach. That is: to make such a fury in the Islamic world that, as it has done before and not long ago, it would throw over caution in favor of jihad. As simply as it can be said, were Egypt to close the canal, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to lock up their airspace -- which, with their combined modern air forces, they could -- the U.S. military in Iraq and the Gulf, bereft of adequate supply, would be beleaguered and imperiled.

In trying to push the Iraqi snake by its tail, we have lost sight of the larger strategic picture, of which such events, though very unlikely, may become a part. But because the Iranian drive for deployable nuclear weapons will take years, we have a period of grace. In that time, we would do well to strengthen -- in numbers and mass as well as quality -- the means with which we fight, to reinforce the fleet train with which to supply the fighting lines, and to plan for a land route from the Mediterranean across Israel and Jordan to the Tigris and Euphrates. And even if we cannot extricate ourselves from nation-building and counterinsurgency in Iraq, we must have a plan for remounting the army there so that it can fight and maneuver as it was born to do.

To make these provisions will secure our flanks and give us a freer hand in the potentially difficult project of denying to a rogue nation of 68 million people, with a well-developed military and a penchant for rash action, the nuclear weapons it is bent on acquiring and rushing to construct. Our problem in Iraq has been delusion and lack of foresight. Iran is bigger and more powerful. What a pity it would be either to do nothing or once again to lurch forward with neither strategy nor thought.

The writer, a novelist and journalist, served in the Israeli army and air force. He is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. This article will also appear in the Claremont Review of Books.

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