February 28, 2006

Reading between the lines on Iran’s nukes

On February 16, a cleric-disciple of Mesbah Yazdi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual advisor, issued a fatwa legitimizing the use of nuclear weapons for “defensive” purposes. Logically, to use nuclear weapons for defense, one must first have them. The fatwa gives President Ahmadinejad carte blanche to publicly declare his desire for an Iranian nuclear weapon. If there was before, there can be no doubt now that the Iranian nuclear program has weapons-grade ambitions.

Those who believe that Iran is taking the current spate of diplomatic talks seriously are gravely mistaken. Over the past month, two notoriously fickle forces—the French and the International Atomic Energy Agency—have come to the conclusion that the Iranian nuclear program has, at its core, a mission to develop an offensive nuclear weapon.

When Muhammad was pursuing military conquest over the Arabian Peninsula, he found his forces unable to defeat the Quoraysh, the tribe of Mecca. In light of this strategic setback, he negotiated a truce (hudna) with them. For 10 years, he built up his own forces and then, in a decisive move, swept down upon Mecca and forced them to surrender.

Emulation of the Prophet is a core principle of pious Islamic life, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Ahmadinejad and Iran’s mysterious Ayatollahs believe the current negotiations are akin to the Hudna. Saddam spent a decade after a negotiated truce alternating between allowing and then expelling U.N. weapons inspectors, between shooting down and not shooting down NATO aircraft from the “no-fly zones” protecting the Kurdish and Shiite minorities in the north and south. His aim was always to preserve his place in power and as the 90s progressed, establish himself as a figure of opposition to America in the Arab world.

In the same way, Ahmadinejad is using diplomacy as a means of deflecting attention from his goal. Over the past month, Iranian forces have deftly manipulated the news cycles to deflect attention from their nuclear ambitions. Their clerics have joined, three months after the fact, the call for protests of the Danish cartoons. The election of Hamas, which has extensive ties to the Iranian security services and receives large amounts of money from them, has been both praised and highlighted by Iranian public figures.

Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad seems to be constructing a self-fulfilling prophecy. His newfound religious cover will allow him to declare, after a strike by either Israel, the United States, or NATO, that though it was not designed for it in the past, the Iranian nuclear program must be revamped and geared toward producing nuclear weapons to ensure Iran’s security from the attacks of its enemies. Given the level of secrecy in the Iranian state, it will be almost impossible to prevent the development in the long term of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

There seem to be no good options. Iran funds terrorist groups, harbors terrorists, and supports other terrorist states. Ahmadinejad is a member of a sect of Shi’ite Islam that believes that only out of chaos will the Mahdi—the redeemer of Islam—come out of occultation (hiding). He makes statements that lend themselves to an assumption of irrational instability. A nuclear Iran will pose a problem to nearly every country in the Middle East and world.

Whatever the solution, the unfortunate reality is that the only rational response will be one of strength and resolve. If Ahmadinejad truly believes his current verbal prognostications of a peaceful nuclear program are essentially a hudna, then he is hoping that in the coming months and years, the West will weaken in its resolve, he will strengthen, and in the end, he will be victorious. Perhaps the only language he understands is that of strength. Caution in the coming months must be the watchword.