Dienstag, Juli 22, 2008

Iran, the Soviets and Rationality...

Gideon Rachman of the FT is, sorry to say, rather consistently either terribly misinformed or cannot see his biases and confuses wishful thinking for consistent argument.

If you read here you can see what I mean.

Here are the key words:

The US has already had to learn to live with nuclear weapons in the hands of countries that are far more oppressive and irrational than Iran: North Korea, Mao's China, the Soviet Union.

One of the great lessons of international relations since 1945 is that nuclear deterrence has worked. Mr Obama respects that lesson. Mr McCain does not.

This is where Gideon is completely incorrect, terribly misinformed and blind to his own bias.

Iran's record as a country of oppression is very close to that of Mao's China and the Soviet Union: the structure of the Iranian state resembles both of these states fairly closely, characterized by multiple security systems that watch each other. Iran, however lacks the bloodthirstiness of internal repression that both China and Mao and the Soviets under Stalin had: while women and minorities are suppressed and sanctions against key behavior remain in effect (clothing, sexual orientation), more often than not with deadly effect, Iran has yet to undergo the same kind of blood-letting that both China and the Soviet Union went through.

So I'll be happy to agree with Gideon that Iran isn't as oppressive as those other countries.

But neither Korea, China or the Soviets were anywhere near irrational when it came to nuclear weapons. Iran is, and to deny that is an indication of lack of understanding.

Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons were nothing more than a political bargaining chip. They knew that the weapons alone weren't enough, and hence acquired delivery systems that were theoretically capable of threatening their neighbors: the US reaction to the Korean tests was muted, as the US knew that Korea couldn't actually deliver. There is a huge, huge difference between making a nuclear weapon and making one that fits on top of a missile, especially the type of missiles that Korea builds and exports (which have a very, very limited warhead capacity.

To repeat: building a nuclear weapon and testing it is different from making one that fits on the top of a missile. The first is basic physics, which is nowadays extremely well known, coupled with the kind of engineering abilities that even a Third-World country, given some imported technology, can manage, albeit with difficulties (like losing your mechanics to plutonium poisoning and production that is rather inefficient).

Korea built a working nuclear weapon to get attention, to have it taken seriously. It lacks, almost literally, everything else. The North Korean state is a shambles, the economy, such as it is, moribund and inefficient at best. Political and economic isolation was working and had contained North Korea, but largely because North Korea itself wanted to be contained: the entire philosophy of North Korea is based on preventing foreign influences to set any challenge to the State.

Hence Korea was rational in acquiring the bomb: the US and its partners knew that as well.

Both the Chinese and the Soviets were eminently rational when it came to nuclear weapons: they knew their political usage, but also that the failure of deterrence - in whatever form - meant the destruction of their ways of life, the destruction of everything that they had murdered so many tens and hundreds of millions for, the Destruction of History, as it were. Nuclear war was never an option for the Soviets or the Chinese under Mao: they knew that they had far too much to lose.

Not so Iran.

Iran has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated its intention in acquiring one: it is the destruction of Israel.

That is irrational: the Iranians, as does the rest of the Middle East, must know that if Israel is attacked with nuclear weapons, or indeed any weapons of mass destruction, will lead to a massive retaliation, be it Israeli or US. The estimates of the number of Israeli nuclear weapons range from a few dozen to over 200. If Israel were to be attacked in such a way that it would be destroyed, retaliation would see the destruction of cities and infrastructure that would destroy any and most likely all aggressors (and aggressors they are).

That makes no difference to the chiliastic state religion of Iran: it is, after all, God's will if such were to happen.

That is where Rachman is plain and simple wrong: nuclear deterrence has worked for rational actors. Iran is not a rational actor: it rejects, as Rachman also notes, the idea that it shouldn't destabilize it neighbors, that it should respect borders. Iran, as a rational actor, should make peace with its neighbors and work on improving the lot of its people: instead, it actively destabilizes them and has abysmally failed to improve the lot of its people. The mullahs in Iran may be theological geniuses within Islam, but are secular fools and idiots, making decisions based on complete ignorance of international relations, the international community and the international economy. They are in that sense irrational: rationality has little to do with Islam, which has everything to do with belief, unwavering belief and fanaticism in its service.

Iran broke with the rest of the world when it occupied the US embassy and kept diplomats as hostages: that was a crime against the international order that Iran has not only consistently failed to acknowledge, but rather trumpets as one of its finest hours. It wants the US to acknowledge its failings, but absolutely and steadfastly refuses to see the beam in their own eye. That is irrational: they could have so much if they weren't so absolutely set on being so self-destructive, so set in their beliefs that the world works in a way that it patently does not.

Iran is an irrational state, full of contradictions that will indeed bring about its collapse. For that reason specifically the worst thing that the world can expect is a nuclear-armed Iran: the Iranians have a long and well-documented history of choosing to be irrational when it fitted their own purposes.

To deny that is worse than folly, worse than misunderstanding Iran's intentions: it is a mistake with the most horrendous consequences for Middle East peace.

Hence I must say, in the starkest contrast to Gideon Rachman: Obama would not make the better commander-in-chief. If elected, his administration would be that of Carter II, full of idealists whose introduction to reality would be just as painful now as it was back then.

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