TCS Daily

Calling Bluffs

By Gregory Scoblete - May 17, 2006 12:00 AM

Iran's announcement that it had "joined the nuclear club" by enriching uranium has catalyzed a fierce debate in the U.S. over what -- if anything -- should be done to stop the Islamic Republic before its nuclear know-how expands to weapons making. While it's universally recognized that Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon would have a host of negative consequences, the debate has essentially ignored the context in which Iran may acquire that weapon.

That context matters. An Iran that acquires a nuclear weapon furtively is likely to behave differently than an Iran that acquires one openly and defiantly. Granted, neither option is preferable, but in this realm of "least worst" scenarios, a clerical regime that felt it hoodwinked a distracted West is a better choice than a regime that felt it bullied a weak West into submission. It is the choice between an emboldened Iran and quite possibly, a reckless one.

Unfortunately, the current diplomatic dynamic suggests we are heading inexorably toward the later.

Powerful Perceptions

In 1988 the Soviet Union began pulling their forces out of Afghanistan following nearly a decade of brutal guerilla warfare. Shortly thereafter, exhausted and demoralized from the conflict and the fifty year stand-off with the West, the Soviet empire collapsed.

To hear Osama bin Laden recount the story, the USSR's fall owed little to decades of American pressure or the internal rot endemic to communist rule, but to the work of his small clique of "Arab Afghans." Interviewed by the Independent's Robert Fisk in 1996, bin Laden boasted: "We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled."

In an interview with CNN in March 1997, bin Laden explained that his experience in the Afghan jihad helped destroy the myth of the superpower, a myth he claimed the U.S. was assiduously cultivating to intimidate Muslims.

It was a delusional reading of events. Bin Laden, of course, had nothing to do with the Soviet Union's overall collapse and played at best a marginal role in Russia's military defeat in Afghanistan. According to a Frontline interview with Milton Bearden, the CIA's field officer in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet insurgency, bin Laden and his Arab volunteers played a "minimal" combat role (Arab funding, particularly from Saudi Arabia, was another matter).

"There were some Arabs that fought with some mujahedeen groups, but not many," Bearden recalled. "At any given time, inside Afghanistan, [there were] maybe 2,000 Arabs. ... But the people of Afghanistan fought that war, they bled, they died, they were driven out of their country. To suggest that others were engaged in the combat activity to any extent is just simply wrong."

Yet bin Laden's delusion was powerful and it led to another: if one superpower proved a hollow adversary, so would the other. His perception that America was weak and could, with sufficient violence, be cowed was bolstered by the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia following the infamous Battle of Mogadishu (of Black Hawk Down fame) in 1993. To American eyes, Somalia was most certainly not a country worth dying for. Bin Laden viewed it differently. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war against the U.S. he wrote: "When tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you....the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear."

Emboldened by his perception of American weakness, bin Laden set about engineering more consequential atrocities.

Iran's perception of American resolve in the ongoing nuclear standoff will likewise influence Iranian behavior.

Two Paths

Let's assume, for a moment, that the West will not succeed in derailing Iran's atomic pursuits with sanctions and embargos and won't resort to military force as a last resort. This leaves Iran with essentially two paths toward a bomb.

The first is the path they had pursued since IAEA inspections began in the country in 1992. In certain respects, it resembles the one Iran is on today: the country insists that its nuclear work is geared toward civilian power production while Western intelligence officials beg to differ. In this scenario, there are no threats and counter-threats and certainly no crisis atmosphere. Iran's nuclear test (should they conduct one) comes not as a shock but as an embarrassment to the intelligence community. Iran, essentially, "pulls an India" and catches the West napping. (Iran was well along this road until 2002 when the National Council of Resistance of Iran disclosed the existence of secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.)

The second path, the one down which we are currently treading, sees Iran achieve nuclear weapons status defiantly, in the teeth of Western opposition. After gravely declaring that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" (President Bush) and that we would "not allow it" (Vice President Cheney), the U.S. ultimately convinces itself to stop worrying and if not love, then tolerate, the Iranian bomb. The Iranian leadership, which had threatened military reprisals against the U.S., Israel and the global economy will conclude - not unreasonably - that the U.S. can be bullied.

Either scenario leads to an emboldened Iran. As Mark Kukis recalled in The New Republic, Pakistan's successful nuclear test didn't bring calm to the stand-off with India over Kashmir. Instead, the Pakistanis, flushed with national pride, ratcheted up their terrorist campaign against India, convinced their nuclear weapons would prevent escalation. Following the first path, the Mullahs will presumably pursue their dream of Gulf hegemony through a campaign of conventional terrorism against U.S. targets in the Gulf -- and possibly Israeli and Arab ones as well -- secure behind their nuclear deterrent.

The second path however, introduces the very real possibility of Iranian over-reach. Sensing weakness in the face of their bravado, the Mullahs may be tempted to push the limits of Western forbearance by ratcheting up acts of international terrorism, or by orchestrating a more aggressive campaign against U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. They may even attempt to control shipping traffic through the vital Strait of Hormuz (and thus further boost the price of oil).

Even if Iran's rhetorical bluster is for domestic consumption (to prop up an unpopular regime), as author Mark Bowden suggests in the New York Times, its impact won't be lost on Iranian decision makers. If America ultimately acquiesces to an Iranian bomb, the Mullahs will not understand the reasoned debate that ruled out the use of force, just as bin Laden didn't see the strategic insignificance of Somalia to the American public. Instead, they will see that after a fusillade of provocative invective, the West backed down.

This dynamic in and of itself is unlikely to sway those who believe the use of military force against Iran would be a mistake, but it could help shape American diplomacy to mitigate the effects of Iran's eventual atomic bomb (assuming they get one).

It has been reported that following the rapid defeat of Saddam's army, the Iranians reached out to the U.S. through Swiss intermediaries in May 2003. According to Flynt Leverett, who was on Bush's National Security Council at the time, the offer proposed "comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

The offer was rebuffed. Critics of the Bush administration have been quick to seize on this rejection as an example of neoconservative obduracy. While the Bush administration has disputed Leverett's characterization of the offer, it may well have been a golden opportunity to at least attempt to slow Iran's march toward an A-bomb via diplomacy. But surely the larger lesson of the Iranian offer is that in an important sense, the neoconservatives were right: the Middle East respects and responds to power. It was only after the U.S. demonstrated a willingness and ability to use military force against threats that the Iranians decided to send out diplomatic feelers.

Such an opportunity for a dramatic show of military might no longer exists. If the use of force against Iran really is worse than a nuclear-armed Iran, then the only avenue open to the U.S. to reverse this diplomatic dynamic are bluffs.

And bluffs, we know, can be called.

Gregory Scoblete is a senior editor at TWICE Magazine He writes regularly about technology and politics at



Nuclear Accidents Happen
Seems to me, the thing which would go furthest in convincing the Iranians to abandon their foolish pursuit of nuclear weapons would be a nice little accident at one of their facilities. No one to blame but themselves, very destructive, but hopefully with not too much loss of life, yet nevertheless having region-wide repercussions, and causing their citizenry to rise up and demand an end to such folly.

Too bad there is no way to help such an event along, hmmm.

I like your thinking. Accidents can happen in many fashions. Regardless of how it happens, Israel and the US will somehow be blamed. Perhaps they just need a self fulfilling prophecy.

Quite a plan
I see. Now we voice our abhorrence of terror by committing an act of terror. I'm sure the world will view this act with the same understanding they showed the authors of 9/11.

Roy dont be so damn bitter.
Nobody is suggesting sabotage against Iran. Historically, muslims are so naturally inept, they will do something to themselves and blame us...THE EVIL WHITE MEN AND JEWS. White people are used to being blamed for everything, yet we still pay all the taxes and bills. I am used to it so just get over yourself and relax. Perhaps, if you are so miserable in this site try looking around to 1 of the left-wing, we love muslims sites.

Certainly what Wesley was advocating, above, was a terror strike on an Iranian nuclear installation. And as a person living within ten miles of a nuclear plant, I find that offensive. It would make us as bad as the perps of 9/11.

Also, it would immediately be found out.

We currently have spec fours operating both in Khuzistan (the Iranian south) and in Iranian Kurdistan. And you can believe that if I happen to know this, they do too. This kind of adventurism only does one thing-- it makes people understand that until the day they have nukes of their own they are vulnerable to US terror activity, pre-emptive war, regime change or whatever you care to call it. They need the ability to protect themselves from us.

We already changed their regime once. I don't think they are about to let it happen again.

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