Iran Attack Could Set Reform Movement Back 50 Years


by richards1052

This week, I organized a series of media and public events on the Iranian nuclear crisis which featured Prof. Muhammad Sahimi, an expert on Iran's nuclear program, Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist specializing in Israeli politics, and Keith Weissman, former AIPAC deputy director.  Sahimi and Lustick joined Steve Scher's Weekday on KUOW (audio stream here) and KIRO talk show host, Dave Ross, interviewed Sahimi (audio stream here).

125 people heard the above speakers discuss Iran, Israel, U.S.: Resolving the Nuclear Impasse at Town Hall.  What follows is an impressionistic summary of the most important ideas and information I gleaned yesterday.

Prof. Sahimi is a chemical engineer with special expertise in the world energy industry.  As a scientist he pays especially close attention to the Iranian nuclear program.

Just after the Islamic Revolution, when he was a young student, he told me that young people generally chose one of two political tendencies, the Mujahadeen al Khalq a moderate Islamist left group or the Communist Tudeh movement.  He supported the Mujahadeen as did some of his brothers and cousins.  Tragically, one of his brothers and several of his cousins were murdered.  One of the cousins who died was a doctor and his "crime" was tending to the wounds of fellow Mujahadeen members.

He told this story to establish his bona fides as a critic of the Iranian regime and as a supporter of some aspects of its nuclear program.  He does not accept Ahmadinejad's victory in the June election and does not call him "president."  The elections were a sham.

Nonetheless, he finds that some of the arguments raised by Iranian officials regarding the nuclear program are cogent.  First, both reformers and the current leaders support this program.  So if we are so naive as to believe that we will resolve our problem through regime change (short of installing a puppet regime), we are sorely mistaken. 

Second, we are hypocritical to deny Iran the ability to do research that many other western nations are pursuing.  Third, there is no evidence so far that Iran is actively following a path that would lead to building a nuclear weapon, there is some evidence to support the idea that the country is pursuing research that would lead to its ability to create such a weapon if it decided to do so.

This is a path that Japan decided to follow in the 1960s.  It has not nuclear weapons.  But should it feel under attack from one of its neighbors and face a severe national security threat it could put into place an effort to create such a weapon in short order.  Yet you don't hear the world complaining about this.

No matter how deranged Iran's domestic politics seem under the clerical regime, its foreign policy is conducted under different and far more pragmatic terms.  Iran knows that should it go too far that Israel and the U.S. stand ready to vaporize it with their own arsenals.  They look around them and see their country surrounded on three sides by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf (the 5th fleet), and Iraq.  They understand the limitations of their power.  Despite the claims about "wild-eyed mullahs" they are anything but when it comes to relations with the outside world.

If Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is it to destroy Israel?  In a word, no.  Aside from the three-sided net the U.S. has sewn around Iran, several Iranian neighbors like Pakistan and Russia have nuclear weapons.  Not to mention Israel's warheads which could strike it as well.  And one fact that is insufficiently understood is that Iran is deeply worried about the instability of the former.  Within Pakistan, there is deep hatred of Shiism, the dominant form of Iranian Islam. 

Pakistan is rumored to have funded and founded an anti-Iranian terror group, Jundallah that is active inside Iran along their joint border.  Iranians worry that an unstable Pakistan could fall to the Taliban or other radical Islamist forces who will look to Iran as a mortal enemy and feel free to use its nuclear arsenal as political blackmail.  We must recognize that Iran does have legitimate national security concerns to preserve its territorial integrity and social stability. If we address these concerns and treat them as legitimate then we may be able to resolve the impasse.

Prof.Lustick also says the Iranians have taken note of the fact that having a nuclear weapon has protected countries like North Korea from outside attack and regime change.  All they have to do is look next door to see what happens to a leader the U.S. doesn't like who does NOT have a nuclear arsenal.  This lesson is not lost on Iran.

Sahimi argues that Iran itself has not pursued an offensive war in 275 years. So the notion that it will take out Israel is far-fetched in the extreme.  Ian Lustick also argues that most Israeli security experts (as opposed to politicians) do not predict an Iranian attack on Israel.

He also notes the similarities between Israel's early nuclear program and the current Iranian posture.  Israel maintains studied ambiguity regarding its nuclear capability.  It has always refused to acknowledge that it has such weapons, though experts generally concede it currently has about 400 warheads.  It has always said it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East, though it immediately contradicts that statement by adding it won't be the second either.  More studied ambiguity.

Lustick also notes another historical parallel between Israel and the U.S.' deep-seated fear of a nuclear Iran and the Soviet Union's similar response in 1965, when they learned from an Israeli spy that his country was a few years away from developing a nuclear weapon. The Soviets were so hysterically opposed to this that they did their best to provoke the 1967 war. They even basing their most sophisticated Foxbat MIG fighter-bombers there in preparation for an all out assault on Israel's Dimona facility.   They felt they needed the cover of a war in order to launch such an attack.

The point he makes is that we should learn from the mistake that the Soviets almost made in 1967 and not repeat it through the same overreaction.

Lustick argues that the reason Israel is so vehement about stopping an Iranian weapon is NOT because it fears being attacked, but rather it fears losing nuclear hegemony and the constrictions on its own behavior which would result.  Israel has always followed the dictum of Jacobtinsky's Iron Wall, which argued that Israel need to use massive, overpowering force to defeat the Arabs so they would eventually see reason and accept Israel on its own terms.  This explains the "madman" strategy of the Lebanon and Gaza wars.  If Iran gets the bomb, then Israel can no longer muster that overwhelming firepower to intimidate the Arab enemy.  This will mean that it is that much more likely Israel will have to accomodate to its opponents than the other way around. This constraint upon its courses of action is unacceptable and "sends shivers down the spines of Israeli leaders."

Lustick and Sahimi both argue that the fear of Israeli military vulnerability will also encourage a net migration outflow from Israel to the Diaspora.  In such an event, the first to go would be the best educated, wealthiest, and those with intellectual, scientific and technical backgrounds which Israel can ill afford to lose.  Those who choose to remain will be the poor, elderly and those with the least likelihood of succeeding outside Israel.  So the real threat from an Iranian bomb is the debilitating psychological impact and instability it will instill.

This also plays into the deep trauma instilled in Israel by the Holocaust.  Which means that when the Iranians speak in terms that resonate with the Nazis in Israeli minds, it also provokes an atavistic survival mode response.  While some Israelis will dig in their heels and say they'll fight till the end, many others will say they refuse to live under the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear attack since it brings to mind memories of the Holocaust.  They will not want their children to face such a fight and may choose to emigrate.  In fact, in the past seven years there has been significant emigration and a net outflow of population.

Lustick calls for patience in dealing with Iran and recognition of the fact that the mixed messages emanating from there about various nuclear approaches and compromises offered and then rescinded indicate an internal political situation in a state of flux.  Instead of posing parnoiac theories about Iran seeking regional dominance and mistrusting every statement made by the  Iranians, we should take a step back and view developments in pure internal political terms.  The reformers are vying for power  with the hardliners.  Neither is in complete control.

In fact, the reformers are the ones who are taking a harder line than Ahmadinejad regarding the nuclear talks with the west.  So if we really support the former and want them to succeed, we have to recognize the possibility that the nuclear debate is a secondary issue to the more important question of who will control Iran in the long-term.  If we shrei about the axis of evil and use other hyperbolic phrasing, we only stand to make things worse.

The current crisis also enables one to broach the idea that all nuclear states should be on the same terms, and the same demands should be made of all of them.  They all should join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Israel is not a member).  They all should offer inspections by the IAEA.  They should all follow the same standards and sign the same agreements.  There needs to be transparency in nuclear affairs and not the current state of opacity represented by Israel's approach.

Israel's supporters point out Iran's support for neighboring forces like Hezbollah and Hamas who wreak havoc on Israel's northern and southern flank.  They use this as evidence that that country harbors expansionist motives and seeks to sow seeds of discord into regional politics.  Lustick argues that the best way to defang this issue is a comprehensive peace agreement among Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.  In fact, one Iranian president said: "It's not up to us to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians."  If they accept an agreement, Iran will as well.  That is the best way to end these proxy battles.

The University of Pennsylvania professor invoked a new book, Iranophobia, which argues for deep parallels between the Israeli Zionist historical narrative and the Shah's tale of an ancient Persian empire revived via his Peacock Throne.  In each mythology an ancient people was returning to its ancient home to claim its historical birthright.  The goal of both Zionism and the Shah was to turn this ancient regime into a modern, western one which was an important political, economic and military state.  In this way, Israel and Iran saw each other as kindred spirits in this project.  So when the Shah was toppled and was replaced by what some Israelis called a "Levantine dunghill," it shattered Israel and made it realize in some deep way if it could happen to the
Pahlevis it could happen to it as well.

Keith Weissman, as former deputy director of Aipac, spoke about the ineffectiveness of sanctions.  He said he wrote the first set of legislative sanctions for Congress in 1995 and experience has shown that they have failed.  Unilateral sanctions don't work.  The only instance in which sanctions have ever worked was South Africa and the circumstances there were much different from what we face today.  In fact, sanctions are a "placeholder" policy because they stave off a cry for military attack, which no one in the Obama administration wants to face.

The problem is that sanctions are not a policy in and of themselves.  They don't advance an agenda, they merely prevent a worse outcome.  They cannot replace the need for a comprehensive settlement of the outstanding issues with each party's needs and interests being considered as legitimate.


more from richards1052

Smart sanctions work while broad-based sanctions do not

by MM on

In the history of the existence of sanctions, I could only find one successful set of "attributed" sanctions, and that was a very selected set that was targeted towards the regime of South Africa and not her people.  Please correct me if I am wrong.

Please understand that I am not totally against sanctions.  I just do not want sanctions that will hurt the people of Iran.  Two profound examples of bad sanctions are 1. lack of parts for Iran Air fleet which have caused many planes to crash; 2. Lack of tools for the people of Iran to enable them to communicate effectively with the outside world, e.g., software.  We can discuss all possible sanctions and ask our reps (NIAC or ???)  to lobby for or against.  Please remember that the Iranian-American community can think for itself and not rely on the wisdom of groups like the neo-cons and AIPAC.

The sanctions on Cuba have lasted more than 45 years and only the people of Cuba are suffering.  Iraq had the worse case of U.N. sponsored sanctions.  Iraqis could not even fly a plane without permission.  Meanwhile, Saddam and his clan used the sanctions to create a black market that benefited them tremendously.  It took a bloody war to end the misery of the people of Iraq brought about by sanctions. 



argebam That's where you have to realize

by Abarmard on

That sanctions don't do any harm to the regime. I guess the historical data, the numbers and current situation is not enough to convince you. The green movement or any movement in Iran is not connected to sanctions, never was and never will be. If I were to talk from Iranian position inside, I would only say that they don't want any "help" as you put it, as they know very well what kind of "help" they will get.

The problem with most analysis such as yours is that you take the kind hearted people and their raising hands mistaken for the politics and the intentions of foreign governments. Perhaps a bit of history won't do any harm, especially when you deal with countries such as Iran in the Middle East. The argument here is that government under sanctions doesn’t get weakened. there is no way to have smart sanctions and most parts of mafia government enjoys trades that are not official. Any doubt about that?

Merry Christmas.


Sanctions will prevent war as oppose to NIAC views

by argebam on

Sanctions are to bring IRI to the negotiating table and hopefully prevent IRI from aquiring a bomb. No one in the right mind and I mean no one wants war. But sanctions need to go on. It is easier to defeat Ahmadinejad with out a bomb than with the bomb. I keep seeing the same faces of NIAC members bringing the same issues up in the and use propaganda to influence the Iranians. Look if we want to be part of the Green Movement, we want Iranians to defeat Ahmadinejad through civil disobedience. In other words protests and hurting the government economically, at the same time international community can help them via sanctions specially Gasoline imports. An yes every one will pay the price even if we have smart sanctions. But at present time Iranians (inside) have shown that they are willing to pay the price and they are not sleeping on bed mad of roses. If sanctions do not work we will face probability of war. I am sorry to say this but you NIAC people call each other anight before than write an article and all of you guys comment on it. NIAC is backed by major oil companies who wish to keep this government in power and love to take advantage therefore they are aginst sanctions. Can some one tell me why Ex-CEO od Exxon would do a $400 dinner fund rasing for NIAC? Why can't you guys be like PAAIA the other Iranian Lobby that works for Iranian interests in US and never (till now at least) play one side show. At least in their constitution they ask for Secularism and Democracy for all countries not just Iran. You guys have not said such word, because you know that means that you do not want this government to go away.

Veiled Prophet of Khorasan


by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


It is impossible to reform the Islamic Republic. The only way it will happen is by force. This force will preferably be brought internally. But anyone waiting for a gradual reform is fooling thmeself. The Islamic Republic was a bad idea from day one. It must go and all those who participated in its building and in anyway supported it punished. 


"...As with a number of

by vildemose on

"...As with a number of well-known Middle Eastern leaders, including the late and largely unlamented Saddam Hussein, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad continues to put what purports to be national pride before common sense or a rational approach to international relations.

The Iranian government, its military and intelligence services go out of their way to needle the West in a manner that suggests that they still harbor the illusion of surviving such a military confrontation.

Iran incapable of defending its strategic targets
The truth is that Iran is quite incapable of defending its air space and strategic targets against a determined Israeli attack, let alone one that involved US air assets.

Iran's air force and air defense forces are a generation or more behind its potential foes. According to the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington in May 2009, "Without Russian air defense systems, Iran is a sitting duck."

CSIS said, "Iran's current air defense umbrella is antiquated and could not stop an Israeli or US strike. Iran's air defense network could be easily penetrated by the air forces of Israel and the United States."



Veiled Prophet of Khorasan

Islam is unreformable

by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


A "religion" brought by an insane pedophile is not reformable. There is nothing thee! Why wast time trying to do it? Dump the garbage and find something else. I do not want Iran attacked. But I also do not see any reform for IRI or Islam. It is pure nonsense.  We must move on.

Iran must dump Islam or perish. There is no other way. There will be no threat of attack if it were not for Islam. Why are people holding on to it?



by vildemose on

reconsider that point of view and think that Iran can certainly get
worse a

That is exactly what the power that be want so they can justify total destruction of Iran and even using nuclear bomb. The West is really not afraid of Iran getting worse than it is. It welcomes it.


Any kind of attack to Iran

by Abarmard on

Will make the conservatives in the Islamic Republic justify their long preached concepts of hate.

Iranian people will accept that in Iran only hardliners and backward
Mullahs rather than soft and pro reforms can run the country and defend
their borders (security).

Iron fist becomes an accepted principle and people will go to the
corners of their homes and will not fight the system. Any anger will be
directed to the aggressor.

This is only the negatives from the Iranian side, for the Western
countries Iran will focus to bring the Shia and Sonni anti-Western
forces together, to construct a united terrorist organization against
all things that bother the Western nations and their citizens. Welcome
to the new world order. At that point, the system will be divided
between those who want to rule and those who want revenge. This is not a wise risk to take.

Some might think that Iran is already as bad as it can get, or the Iranian
government is a terrorist organization and can't get worse. Please
reconsider that point of view and think that Iran can certainly get
worse and the region with the help of more revengeful bunch with oil
money can suffer harsh and chaotic future that will hurt all nations in
the long run.

Thanks again for this important piece.


I enjoyed reading the proceedings of your meeting

by MM on

I enjoyed reading the proceedings of your meeting and agree with most points.

I have also heard/speculated that Iran wants to have the capability (know-how) to make an atomic bomb, but does not want to build one, yet.  Even if Iran prepares an atomic bomb, what are they going to do with it? 

1. Give it to Hamas/Hezbollah for detonation?  No way.

2. Put it on a Shahab missile and fire away?  What are the chances of hitting holy Jerusalem, Mecca or another urban city instead?  I do not think the Iranian regime will dare take that chance. 

BTW, even if accurate, the fallout will smother Jerusalem and the neighboring states.



Grand Ayatollah Montazeri

by vildemose on

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri on "What are the recent achievements of Iran’s “green movement”?"

This movement is the accurate reflection and representation of the justified demands of the majority that have surfaced over many years. While it has faced a violent reaction and vehement hostility from the hardliner faction of the state, its domestic and foreign achievements are undeniable. Inside Iran, this movement has succeeded in institutionalizing a tolerant culture for demanding the rights of a large number of people, which were ignored during the election [process] and the events that followed. In addition, this movement has also prevailed in exposing the violent nature of the radical and the oppressive. Of course, to achieve this, it has paid a high price, which shows that the people will not be swayed until they attain the rights they are entitled to. Death, intimidation, threats, detainments, arrests, illegal and non-religious trials, heavy and unjust convictions for political activists and freedom seekers, as well as false and misleading propaganda – none of this has influenced the people’s will and determination. Outside Iran, the movement has succeeded in drawing international attention – especially that of developed societies and human rights organizations – to the oppression it faces as well as its rightful demands. From a political [perspective], [the movement] has presented the real power of nationhood to the world.


The "reform movement" will

by benross on

The "reform movement" will come at another time, by another generation of Iranians who have the guts to stand up and demand the seperation of church from state.

I don't quite agree. The overwhelming power of IRI enforced and fine tuned over 30 years, over a generation born and grown under its rule can not result to anything other that we see. This generation was supposed to be trouble free to begin with, the product of a social cleansing of all secular thoughts. And that's why they are so conformable using Islamic arguments and slogans to carry out their fight.. which I personally can't.

But the substance of their fight is secularism. The message doesn't have any clear political voice yet, and it it is highly unlikely to come from inside Iran, but it is there and it is not giving up. One more reason for Iranians abroad to take their responsibility seriously. They are waiting for us. 


reform movement is already dead

by Zereshk on

These are the last dying gasps of the "reform movement". The "reform movement" will come at another time, by another generation of Iranians who have the guts to stand up and demand the seperation of church from state. Everything else is like putting Band-Aid on the deep wounds that are killing Iran. It's all cosmetics. You cant have any "reform" when idiots like A.N. and Mesbah Yazdi are allowed to run the country. You cant have "reform" as long as the Sepaah is alive.

The solution for now? Save yourself and your children's future! Immigrate to the west, and keep the memory of a free Iran and her Persian gardens alive. Export your culture to where they will be appreciated, not to where people like Kashani call "na sharghi, na gharbi, jomhuri Irani" a sin! This is a sinking ship.


Your title in hebrew is interesting

by G_Tiffen on

چون ايران نباشد تن من مباد

 I enjoyed your article but it was all over the place

Tikkun Olam... B''h very interesting but this line   Iran knows that should it go too far that Israel and the U.S. stand ready to vaporize it with their own arsenals, Israel may stand ready however remember Israel is the size of NJ, and they will go down much faster than Iran... and what do you honestly think US will without concern back Israel please remember they will think and do what is right for them at the time just that there is no 100 percent of anyone just self interest please remember that.

PS I'm seeing the word Mujjahed a lot in discussion recently and it is starting to make me concerned should it?


The worst Option

by masoudA on

is for this regime to remian in power for few more years.   You better stop pussy-footing your way around the war against the terrorist regime.   I wonder how much of these kinds of arguments are put forth in support of this regime who does spend huge sum of PR money to stay afloat.

BTW - Reforming an Islamic Republic is an impossible task unless Islam is reformed.  The author could do himself a big favor if he could focus a bit on what has been the outcome of the so called reformist movements in the last decade?   


We need a remove movement not reform

by hooshie on

Sahimi has no authority to speak for the conservative faction of the regime. Therefore, his assertion that the regime is not going to use th bomb against Israel is meaningless and just a desparate attempt to buy time.