TCS Daily

Iran's Declaration of War

By Arnold Kling - November 1, 2005 12:00 AM

'It was certainly undiplomatic of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" at a conference on Zionism in Tehran. But the wave of Western fury, with countries such as Canada, France, the UK and Spain hauling in the Iranian ambassador and protesting, looks contrived.

Is this the same France that four years ago ignored the comments of its then ambassador in London, Daniel Bernard, who called Israel "that shitty little country"? Is this the same UK that likewise turned a deaf ear?'
-- Arab News


While the major news media seem to have other priorities, I thought that the Iranian President's threat last week to destroy Israel deserved a bit more attention than it received. I have no expertise in Middle East politics or military strategy, so my main purpose here is to ask questions. While I will give my own guesses concerning the answers, I am sure that there are others better qualified to provide more reliable analysis.


Why is President Ahmadinejad choosing this moment to make his threats?


My guess is that he would like to assert (or re-assert) Iran's leadership of militant Islam. A recent Pew Survey suggests that the prestige of Al Qaeda may be waning somewhat. Thus, the Iranian President may see an opportunity to rally militant Muslims to his own banner.


Another, less likely explanation is that Ahmadinejad sees a need to buck up jihadists by changing the subject from the Iraqi insurgency to Israel. I have no way of knowing, but one possibility could be that the morale of America's opponents in Iraq is not holding up so well. It can be very difficult even for an expert to assess enemy morale -- early in 1918, for example, hardly anyone on the Allied side saw the imminence of Germany's collapse. If the jihad in Iraq is going poorly, then the Iranian President would want to encourage militants to shift their focus elsewhere. His enthusiasm for the Iraqi theater also could be restrained by the fact that many of the insurgency's victims share Iran's Shia Muslim faith, although I doubt that he cares much about that.


Will Iran and Israel fight one another, and what would be the outcome?


To me, looking at a map suggests that Iran and Israel are too far away from each other to fight an overt war. Intervening lands, primarily Syria, are so extensive that neither country is likely to be able to reach the other with aircraft. Even if missiles can be launched over such large distances, they are unlikely to be accurate.


Many Americans have an almost-mystical faith in the competence of Israel's military (and there is a symmetric faith held by many Israelis in American military capability). But I would be surprised if Iran is within the range of Israel's air force. And even if the two countries were neighbors, the sheer difference in size between the two countries needs to be taken into account. Iran is simply too big for Israel to be able to inflict much damage.



(thousand square km)


United States












Source: CIA World Factbook



What can Iran do to Israel, and vice-versa?


What Iran can do and presumably will continue to do is finance and arm terrorists to attack Israel. Elements of the Palestinian leadership may sincerely desire an end to terrorism, but the terrorists enjoy considerable outside support, particularly from Iran.


I suppose that if the Israelis became completely frustrated with Iranian-sponsored terrorism, they could invade Syria. Such an Israeli incursion could accomplish two goals. It would make it more difficult to supply terrorists through Syria and Lebanon. And it would allow Israel's air force to move within striking distance of the western regions of Iran. Obviously, however, such an invasion could backfire in many ways.


How will the condemnation of the international community affect President Ahmadinejad going forward?


Assuming that his goal was to enhance his credibility among militant Muslims, the international reaction can only help him. The denunciations of his remarks draw attention to them and show that they have had the desired impact. At the same time, the lack of any action to back up the denunciations raises his prestige by suggesting that he has successfully defied the infidels.


The European democracies have made no formal commitments to respond should Iran attack Israel. None of them has signed a treaty with Israel that is as strong as the treaties that small countries in Europe held when they were threatened by Nazi Germany. (Of course, Czechoslovakia's defense pact with England and France was notoriously betrayed. And although Britain and France did honor their promise to treat an attack on Poland as casus belli, when the invasion came in 1939 the Allies largely hid behind their defense lines. During this "phoney war" period, the Allies' stupefaction and passivity was of no use to Poland. Also, in hindsight one might argue that their failure to attack Germany while that country's front-line forces were in Poland forfeited an opportunity to save France.)


Does the United States have a compelling interest in reining in Iran?


If the issue is simply Israel, then probably not. Our prestige would suffer if Israel were destroyed, but the damage would not be irreparable.


However, a blogger who opposes Iran's current regime provides evidence suggesting that Iran's war plans include the United States as well as Israel. He refers to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that includes the following:


'In May, 2004, Hassan Abbassi, a leading adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, announced:


"We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization and for the uprooting of the Americans and the English. The global infidel front is a front against Allah and the Muslims, and we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles. There are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West. We have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them."'


Perhaps we should ignore what the Iranian leaders are saying. After all, it now appears that Saddam Hussein was only bluffing by making it seem as though he was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the Iranian leaders are bluffing, also. Somehow, though, it seems to me more prudent to take them at their word. If nothing else, doing so would create an incentive for them to take their own utterances seriously.



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