The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The lone and level sands

In 2002 I was in Cracow as a guest of the Polish national SF convention, who had put me up in a newly-opened hotel in the Old Jewish Quarter. The quarter was quite visibly becoming the new happening place, and - most hearteningly - a new Jewish quarter, with kosher delis and Israeli cafes sprucing up its neglected streets. The big pre-war synagogues are still there, and open. I think it was the sight of them that gave rise to a premonition I'd never had before. Something very bad is going to happen. Nothing I'd seen in Poland had given any occasion for gloom. Quite the reverse. But my unease had nothing to do with Poland, and it remained. I tried to shake it off as a side-effect of sombre hindsight: it's hard to look at those massive, ornate synagogues without thinking of the fate of those who once worshipped there, and of how little they must have suspected of what was to come. And maybe gloomy hindsight is all it was. At that time, the confrontation with Iraq was a cloud no bigger than a man's hand.

I'm no prophet, and nor are you, but you know what I'm going to say next.

Yes, Iran. Israeli historian Benny Morris claims it is preparing a second Holocaust: it is striving to acquire nuclear weapons and when it does, it will nuke Israel. (Via.) Morris acknowledges that this would mean nuking Palestine, and destroying or contaminating some of Islam's holiest sites, but believes Iran would go ahead and do it anyway. The Iranian leadership consists of mad mullahs, fanatical and undeterrable. Not even the prospect of an Israeli counterstrike would stay their hand. Israel might not have the capability to retaliate anyway. The US wouldn't retaliate and the rest of the world would do essentially nothing. Millions of Jews would die and the world would shrug it off. So the only thing to be done is to nuke Iran before it nukes Israel. Morris's only worry is that the Israeli leadership isn't up to the job.

Iran's own Jews don't seem to believe they're living under a Jew-hating regime, if their reluctance to leave (via) is anything to go by. Morris's evidence that the Islamic Republic of Iran has such a heinous intent as to nuke Israel amounts to little more than the familiar litany of Ahmadinejad's rants and stunts: the Holocaust cartoon competition, the Holocaust denial conference, and the infamous remark that 'Israel must be wiped off the map'. The fascinating story of that alleged remark has been traced in some detail by Arash Norouzi - an apparently liberal artist and no fan of the Iranian president - and is well worth reading, both for its demonstration that Ahmidinejad did not in fact say it and its explanation of how the mistranslated phrase went around the world. But whatever about that, Ahmadinejad's undoubtedly provocative and reactionary antics are a somewhat inadequate basis for advocating a nuclear attack on Iran. The very fact that they are constantly cited is evidence enough that the Islamic Republic has not actually threatened Israel with nuclear attack. Meanwhile, far more representative and responsible voices in Israel and the United States most definitely have threatened Iran with nuclear attack.

Worry that a US and/or Israeli attack is in the works has spread beyond the usual suspects of left and right, and has seeped into the mainstream. Some even see it as imminent. By next month there will be two carrier groups in the Gulf. The Israeli air force is practicing bombing runs to Gibraltar and back. Bush blames Iran for instability in Iraq. The pieces are moving into place. You'll find lots of links to details of troubling recent developments here (As you can see from Jorge Hirsch's sidebar, he's cried wolf about an imminent attack before, but it's a useful collection of links.)

Very likely there will be no US or Israeli attack on Iran. No, what's far more probable is what will be presented as an Iranian attack on the US. As conservative pundit William S. Lind puts it:

It now looks as if the Bush administration may have realized that an out-of-the-blue, Pearl Harbor-style air and missile attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is politically infeasible. Instead, the White House will order a series of small "border incidents," pinpricks similar to last week's raid on an Iranian mission in Kurdistan, intended to provoke Iranian retaliation. That retaliation will then be presented as an Iranian attack on [US] forces, with the air raids on Iranian nuclear targets called "retaliation."
A Humvee blasted by an IED with Revolutionary Guard fingerprints on the circuitry, some luckless patrol-boat drawing fire, whatever. No matter how minor the skirmish, that's how it could be spun. And then, purely in self-defence, the stealth bombers and cruise missiles and who knows what else would be on their way to turn Iran's defences and nuclear facilities into 10 000 points of light.

It would be a mistake to predict immediate and inevitable disaster ensuing. The mullahs might sit and take it, even tactical nukes, refraining from retaliation for fear of worse. (This assumes, interestingly, that the 'mad mullahs' are in fact rational and deterrable, as well as cowardly.) The Strait of Hormuz might stay unblocked, thanks to Iranian caution or US boldness. Iran's supposedly unstoppable sea-skimming cruise missiles might be all destroyed in the first strike, or held in reserve, or turn out not to be unstoppable after all. Russian or Chinese technicians might not be killed, or if they are, Putin might be content to let communists and nationalists rage in Red Square until it all blows over; modulo Beijing. After a brief spike in the oil price the markets might settle their nerves and resume their upward trend. The Chinese banks might decide not to dump dollars. The Shia militias in Iraq might stay on side. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq could remain a bulwark of democracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Brits might withdraw from the south in good order, or hunker down, leaving Badrists and Sadrists to fight it out with each other. And if there does happen to be some kind of blowback in Iraq, well, the 'surge' of 21 500 more troops might be enough to hold the line.

I'm not saying that doesn't add up to a lot of things that could go wrong, any one of which could flip the world on its back, but hey. It could work. The Islamic Republic could fall, or fold, and the US bestride the Middle East like a colossus.

That victory would be the moment we'd some day look back on, and say, 'And that was when our troubles began.' Fortunately for America and its allies, such a victory is unlikely. What is far more likely is an ever-widening catastrophe across the Middle East if not beyond. But if a US victory does come about, the rest of the world would find itself facing a lone superpower that had successfully carried out an attack, perhaps even a nuclear attack, on a country that had no nuclear weapons and that had not attacked or threatened it. From then on we would all be living in interesting times; and on borrowed time. The time to do what we can to stop this is now.