Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Whom to Believe? 

Well, given the choice, I know whom I prefer to believe.

Former Iranian President Rafsanjani, translated from Arabic in an oft-quoted speech a few years ago:
If one day, he said, the world of Islam comes to possess the
weapons currently in Israel's possession [meaning nuclear weapons] - on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This, he said, is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.
or Uzi Landau, quoted yesterday in Haaretz:
In answering a question from a reader in Baghdad during the Haaretz.com Q&A, Landau added that Israel's military deterrence factor would likely head off an Iranian nuclear attack.

'If [Iran] knew that on the one hand, the chances to really penetrate our air defense systems with a missile are very small, while on the other hand the price it would pay for it would be disproportional - turning them back to the Stone Age - I guess they would be much more hesitant,' Landau said.
Pretty fundamental disagreement here. One claims he won't be deterred, even by the threat of complete nuclear retaliation, because he believes the wounds to the greater body of his people will not be fatal while his enemy will be completely destroyed. The other the first will in fact be deterred by the chance of getting caught, not succeeding and perhaps suffering retaliation and punishment.

Obviously I hope Uzi Landau is correct. I'm just trying to understand why that would be the right conclusion. Surely he was aware of Rafsanjani's words when he spoke. So one wonders what is his basis for announcing that the Iranian Theocracy can be deterred?

Maybe he has inside information? Or the Israeli government is passing him important intelligence?

I don't think so. Uzi Landau is not the Prime Minister. He is not the Defense Minister. He is not the Foreign Minister. He is not even the Deputy Minister of Tourism. He is, best I can determine, a Plain Vanilla Member of Knesset -- and at that, one involved in a running battle with Prime Minister Sharon over the coming disengagement, and who hints at opposing Sharon in elections. The idea that he is Sharon's specially chosen mouthpiece, or receiving significant information that is not announced by other parts of the government, well, it's silly.

Perhaps he actually believes Rafsanjani, but prefers to keep that belief to himself?

It's possible to imagine rationales that might lead him to do this. We Israelis have developed a penchant for lining up at gas mask stations whenever the word Scud appears in the news. But Israel's best answer to Arab/Islamist threats is a resolute populace. So his statement could be interpreted just as a morale booster, regardless of his true beliefs.

If so, his reassurance is tepid at best. Note that the deterrence he postulates in his response, "turning them back to the Stone Age", isn't a likely deterrence available to Israel, as Rafsanjani's remarks indicate. The gap between what Iran would do if it believed there would be no price to pay, and what they would do if being drop-kicked back to the Stone Age would be the result, leaves plenty of political wiggle room. If he seeks to calm the public by calling Rafsanjani's bluff, he needs the conviction to simply and directly call the bluff, not talk around it.

So does Landau truly believe the Iranians are bluffing?

It's a comforting thought. But it would be more comforting to understand what would make him think so. Of course, one could rely on the fact that the Russians (and Americans for that matter) were deterred throughout the Cold War, so why not the Iranians? After all, in this age of assymetric non-state warriors, Iran does present an address for response.

But the Cold War offered deterrence by means of Mutually Assured Destruction. However, the Iranians are obviously not assured the destruction will be mutual this time. Sure, they might lose an arm and a leg, but they'll live. Not so Israel. On top of that, even if Israel could somehow assure Iran's destruction, that still would not deter, since Iran presents itself as just an agent of the wider Islamic world. And their jihad mentality, the conviction that death in the service of Allah, killing the infidels, is the highest calling, may further innoculate them against any Israeli threat of reprisal. A country that sent a generation of their children to the Iraqi front as human minesweepers isn't easily deterred.

So does this leave us with no answer? Are we left with some sort of "Landau is an idiot" conclusion? Before reaching that point, let's bear in mind we've only looked at the thought process of one side here.

Let's consider why Rafsanjani would say what he said.

Presume Iran knew it would definitely obtain WMD of sufficient quantity to wipe out its sworn enemy in a few years, and that it hated this enemy (or feared it) sufficiently that it felt it must go ahead in the use of the WMD, even at threat to its own well-being. What would motivate Rafsanjani to announce this in advance?

Is there deterrent value to Rafsanjani's statement, discouraging Israel from using its own weapons?

No, for Iran's threat is not one of certain overwhelming response. Instead, they promise undeterrable first use, which only provokes the opposite of deterrance, making it more logical for Israel to consider their own first strike or pre-emptive attack.

Perhaps it is a statement meant merely for internal consumption?

Rattling the sabres of war to keep the populace focused abroad is a time-tested strategy. But does it really make sense to try to pacify one's population by assuring them you plan to cause nuclear devastation to rain down on them? Sure, the promise of Israel's annihilation at the same time may comfort the unhinged, but I think even the Ayatollahs would see this isn't a winning strategy.

So why say anything, if you hold all the cards?

Well, one can never feel truly comfortable gauging the Ayatollahs' capacity for rational analysis, but they have maintained power for a few years, so they certainly must have some sense for the rules of the game. Since Rafsanjani's announcement doesn't make sense for an Iran that believes itself on the cusp of the ability to wipe out its enemy, and willing to withstand the consequences, then maybe the assumpton should change.

Are there any scenarios where making wild first-strike threats actually would make sense?

What if getting all the pieces in place to develop, produce, and even deliver nuclear bombs sufficient to destroy Israel isn't quite so simple, perhaps beyond Iran's means? But if Iran follows through as if it has the ability, the world is likely to believe. The US believed the USSR long after it was but a husk of its industrial self. And look at Iraq.

Why would Iran do that? Try coupling this idea with first-strike threats aimed at nudging Israel into pre-emptive action. Could Iran believe it would stand to gain by provoking Israel into knocking out supposedly nearly-ready nuclear sites? Maybe. Israel, depite the justice of its actions in preventing threatened annihilation, would surely suffer internationally and economically. And the cost to Iran would be cheap, since the strikes would be at isolated sites. The odds of Israel managing to resist the bait aren't good, given the cost of showing weakness in a tough neighborhood.

Maybe this is how Landau explains Rafsanjani's kooky threats, and how he can confidently reassure Israeli's that Iran will be deterred.

Hmmmm. Yeah, it all adds up. I want to believe.

I feel myself foaming at the mouth just contemplating such convoluted scenarios. And I still can't figure out how to piece Elvis into the whole thing.

Realistically, the simplest explanation is probably the right one: Rafsanjani is an insane Ayatollah issuing apocalyptic threats as his holy duty, and Iran is carrying out all this nuclear-appearing activity because it truly is striving to reach its genocidal goals. Meanwhile, Landau probably is speaking as an Israeli politician, presenting a strong face as he prepares for approaching leadership elections, confident that regardless of what he says in a newspaper Q&A, the defense planners carry on.

But there's a lot of hooey being heaved around here, and I for one am not buying it.

If I'm missing possibilities please let me know with a comment. While you may think I'm merely a sarcastic right wing mouthpiece, I'm actually a sarcastic right wing mouthpiece who wants to learn the truth. So I take serious comments seriously.

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