Magazine | July 5, 2010, Issue

Non-Suicidal Tendencies

(Vahid Salemi/AP)

The other day, noting Bret Stephens’s analysis in Commentary as to why Iran cannot be contained, Jonah Goldberg made a very shrewd throwaway aside: “Arguments like this tend to get ignored not because they aren’t persuasive, but because they are,” he said. “The political and psychological costs of accepting the premise are too high. So, denial inevitably triumphs.”

And thus our Iran “policy”: There will be no U.S. military strike. There will be no international sanctions regime. The mullahs will go nuclear, because letting them go nuclear requires least of us — and there will always be scholars and experts ready to justify our inertia as farsighted realpolitik. Hence the rehabilitation of “containment”: That we can do. Iran, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, “may be dangerous, assertive, and duplicitous, but there is nothing in their history to suggest they are suicidal.”

Mr. Brzezinski is a man who has been reliably wrong about everything that matters for decades. His decision to route American support for the Afghan resistance through the malign double act of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki and Pakistan’s ISI has had consequences we live with to this day. He is the master of unrealpolitik, and so naturally his is now the new conventional wisdom: Iran is not “suicidal”; therefore, it can be contained.

Even a non-suicidal Iran is presumably intending to derive some benefit from its nuclear status. Entirely rational leverage would include: controlling the supply of Gulf oil, setting the price, and determining the customers; getting vulnerable emirates such as Kuwait and Qatar to close U.S. military bases; and turning American allies in Europe into de facto members of the non-aligned movement. Whatever deterrent effect it might have on first use or proliferation, there is no reason to believe any “containment” strategy would prevent Iran’s accomplishing its broader strategic goals. Besides, as Bret Stephens points out, Soviet containment was introduced a couple of years after we’d nuked Japan. Iranian “containment” would follow years of inaction, in which the ayatollahs have been allowed to nuclearize in full view of the world and with the acquiescence of many American allies. Unlike 60 years ago, there is a basic credibility issue: Despite President Obama’s line that Iran is “isolated,” it’s just been elected to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and its president in the last year alone has been received in China, Venezuela, Turkey, Denmark, Brazil, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Senegal, The Gambia, and various other places, most of which are at least nominally American allies. If he were to be any more “isolated,” Ahmadinejad might get the occasional night at home to wash his hair. So “containment” seems unlikely to impede any non-suicidal moves by Iran.

#page#But let’s flip Brzezinski’s point around: An American might conclude that Iran isn’t suicidal. But can the Iranians make the same confident claim about America? After all, we’ve just let them go nuclear — not under cover of darkness, as Pakistan did, but in slow motion and in open contempt of the U.S. and its European negotiators. Why would you do that? Iran doesn’t observe even the minimal courtesies of mutually hostile states: It seizes foreign embassies at home, and blows them up on the other side of the world; it kidnaps the sailors of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in international waters; it seeds terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, and backs terrorist attacks all over the world. And it pays no price for any of this. If you can’t rouse yourself to prevent a rogue state with a 30-year consistent pattern of malign behavior from getting nukes, what else won’t you rouse yourself for?

On Sept. 10, 2001, America was the preeminent nuclear power in the world. We forget now that the following morning’s attack was aimed not only at the symbols of U.S. military and financial power but at the very heart of government. A combination of the vagaries of scheduling and the bravery of Flight 93’s passengers saved us, on a day of horror, from the additional burden of a Robert C. Byrd presidency or some such. Osama bin Laden set out to decapitate his enemy — and Mullah Omar, al-Qaeda’s patron in Afghanistan, cheerfully signed off on it. Presumably he’s not suicidal, either. Yet he made a calculation about the American response that concluded the attack would be worth it.

Remember how quickly the objections to retaliating against Afghanistan began? Suppose there were a “nuclear transfer” to Sudan or Hamas, and Iran were most likely responsible: Do you think an Obamafied Washington would take action? Or would they express “grave concern” and go to the U.N. to get a resolution? I think we know the answer.

Now let’s suppose one of those nuclear transfers detonates somewhere or other and kills tens of thousands of people, but the provenance isn’t 100 percent clear: Bombing raids on Tehran? Or back to the Security Council? You might not be so sure of the answer, but I’ll bet, after the last few years, Iran is.

How about the big one? The ayatollahs nuke Tel Aviv and put Israel out of business. What’s the U.S. going to do? Flatten Iran? Or hit a couple of cities and leave it at that? Iran believes we are a hollow superpower. It concluded from our behavior that it could go nuclear with impunity. And, whatever the unrealpolitik crowd say to themselves, it has now concluded it can be nuclear with impunity. In a supposedly unipolar world, the planet’s wealthiest states, from Norway to New Zealand, can project no meaningful force, while moribund basket cases nuke up.

That sounds like a transitional phase, don’t you think?

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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