Monday, December 28, 2009

This Man's Death Is Not Your Talking Point

Working in his capacity as amplifier of Israeli alarm over Iran, Jeffrey Goldberg passes this along regarding the murder of Ali Moussavi, a nephew of opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi:
From the Times: "Moussavi was first run over by a sport utility vehicle outside his home, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote on his Web site. Five men then emerged from the car, and one of them shot Mr. Moussavi. Government officials took the body late Sunday and warned the family not to hold a funeral, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote."

Now imagine this regime with nuclear weapons.

While I think Mr. Moussavi's death represents an escalation, we already know that the Iranian regime was brutal. Here's an interesting little factoid, though: The number of nuclear-armed brutal regimes who have never actually used their nuclear weapons is only every single one of them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Another Bad Argument For Iran Strike: 'The Worst Might Not Happen!'

Today, Iran's leading daily newspaper featured an op-ed by a conservative Iranian university professor insisting that there is only one way to deter the American war on Iran that all serious Iranian analysts believe is coming: A massive wave of guerrilla attacks on American military facilities.

This tells us a lot about Iran. They really are a bunch of crazies intent on blowing up the Middle East. Look at what they publish their leading newspapers!

Oh, wait -- the op-ed is actually in this morning's New York Times, and it's written by an American conservative, Alan Kuperman, who argues that there's "only one way to stop Iran": by bombing them. Trotting out the most overworked noun in the conservative foreign policy vocabulary, Kuperman writes "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."
We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.

Kuperman doesn't bother to mount an argument about Iran's intentions or capabilities -- he simply presupposes that Iran wants a weapon, will get one soon, and that nothing short of military action can change this:
Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate.

Ah, yes, "precision attacks" that wonderful salve for the modern, sophisticated warmonger's conscience. This paragraph, by itself, should have disqualified Kuperman's op-ed from running in any serious publication. The amount of work that "relatively" is doing is here is pretty staggering. One can argue that the benefits of a strike outweigh the risks and costs. I think that's clearly wrong, but one could argue it. But stating that those costs and risks would be "little" -- even "relatively" -- is a flat out, bald-faced admission that you just haven't bothered to do the work.

Kuperman uses Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility as an example of a strike that worked to delay a regime's nuclear program. He says nothing about the fact that the Osirak example is one of the reasons that Iran has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities around the country, though he does suggest that "Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Considering the consequences of such a strike for American troops and allies in the region, and for Iran's domestic opposition, Kuperman's argument amounts to: "Hey, the worst might not happen!" In Kuperman's defense, he's not alone here. I have yet to hear any advocate of an Iran strike do better.

Kuperman has a history of providing intellectual cover for policy choices that result in huge numbers of deaths. In a 2000 Foreign Affairs essay, he argued that humanitarian intervention in Rwanda would've just made things worse. In 2006 op-ed, he suggested that Darfur's victims kind of had it coming. It is utterly unsurprising that he should now apply his brand of human bean-counting to the thousands of Iranian (and American, and Iraqi, and Israeli) casualties that would very likely result from the action he advocates.

It is, however, deeply discouraging that the New York Times would choose to run it. The Weekly Standard and National Review already exist for promoting this sort of harebrained militarism. The Washington Post's editorial page, too, has, at least in regard to foreign policy, long since devolved into a neoconservative rat's nest. If we're not to repeat the tragic mistakes of the very recent past, then the Times needs to start insisting on quite a bit more intellectual rigor from its guest opinionators.

Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Mullahs Versus 'The Mullahs'

Here's an easy way to tell where someone stands on the Iran question: If they constantly refer to "the mullahs" (religious leaders) who rule Iran, then you're most likely dealing with someone who is disdainful of U.S.-Iran engagement, who thinks that the only problem with the Bush administration's 2003-06 hardline approach was that it wasn't hard enough, and who buys the nonsensical "Islamofascist" construct that powered the "Global War on Terror." You're probably also dealing with someone who either hasn't been following, or would like to ignore, the way that the Iranian system has been changing, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, from one controlled primarily by "the mullahs" into one that, though still presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and furnished with a fading veneer of religious legitimacy by a cadre of extremist clerics, is increasingly a military dictatorship controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

While using "the mullahs" in such a pejorative fashion may allow certain commentators to communicate their prejudices in a marginally acceptable way and stoke fear of scary guys in robes and turbans, it also elides one of the most important aspects of the current situation in Iran: The role of the mullahs in confronting "the mullahs."

Flipping through the TV channels late last night, I landed on the 700 Club just as Pat Robertson was offering his, err, "analysis" of Iran. Suppressing with great difficulty the urge to turn away from the stupid, I watched as Pat assured his viewers that the Iranian people "hate those mullahs," but then noted that the latest anti-government demonstrations had occurred at the funeral of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Montazeri, "one of the better-liked mullahs." I could see on Pat's face that he realized that he'd just kind of clowned himself, but this is the situation that a lot of conservatives find themselves in now. Having fulminated for years against "the mullahs," they're unsure how to react to an Iranian opposition movement powered in considerable part by mullahs.

And not just mullahs, but Islamist mullahs, such as Montazeri himself, who even though he had turned against what the Iranian Islamic Republic had become, remained a firm believer in the principles of the Iranian revolution, in the idea of an Islamic Republic, and in the appropriateness of Islam as the organizing force in society.

Noting Montazeri's passing, neoconservative analyst Michael Rubin (who, though an occasional "mullah"-baiter himself, has also been very clear-eyed about the costs of a military strike on Iran, unlike many other neocons) gets part of the way there:

While the media focuses on popular protests in Iran, such as those which occurred in Iran after this summer's flawed elections, the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism. Simply put, it is hard for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to claim ultimate political and religious authority when he is outranked by many clerics who oppose him and his philosophy of government.

Rubin's right: Shi'ism supplies a powerful anti-authoritarian critique, and Khamenei's meager religious credentials make it difficult for him to convincingly push back against it (the fact that his government has been murdering people in the streets certainly doesn't make it easier). It's very important to recognize, however, that these critiques are not just being generated from within Shi'ism, but also from within Islamist Shi'ism of the same sort that enlivened the 1979 Iranian revolution. Having ceaselessly condemned Islamism as inherently inhumane and undemocratic, many conservatives are now simply unable to appreciate the manner in which Islamist arguments have been redeployed against the Iranian regime's inhumane and undemocratic behavior.

Given the resonance of Islamist arguments, in both their Shia and Sunni variants, to significant numbers of Muslims throughout the world, developing a more nuanced view of the various trends that have too often been carelessly grouped under the scare-term "Islamist" is essential in order to cultivate a more serious and rigorous U.S. policy discussion about political reform not only in Iran, but in the broader region. We shouldn't have any illusions that Islamists are our allies, but neither should we presume that they're all necessarily our enemies. As events in Iran show, moderate Islamists can be an important source of religious legitimacy for the forces of reform.

Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.