Last week, the pistachio nut dropped. With adequate missile defense technology, I had questioned the necessity of a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear capability. Uncomfortable as living with an Iranian bomb would be, I thought, better to defend ourselves than attack first. And why should Israel – alone – take such risks?
Overflowing with dire predictions and warnings, pleas for negotiations and economic and diplomatic sanctions, the media, politicians and 'experts' left me confused. Why is an Iranian nuclear arsenal 'intolerable?' I wondered, until I attended a press briefing by Dr. Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at The Institute for Policy and Strategy, IDC's think tank in Herzilya, Israel. Bar, an expert on Iran and Islam, with over 30 years experience working with Israel's intelligence community is clear, articulate and convincing.
Forget everything you know about reason and logic when it comes to Iran. Forget history and experience. There is a little man in Teheran who communicates directly and indirectly with "the hidden Imam" – a mystical messianic-like figure who is waiting to be revealed. And his little friend believes he can do it with the push of a button.
"It's not only, or necessarily Ahmadinejad who speaks to the Imam," Bar says. "There's a whole new second generation elite of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) who indoctrinate their troops with the belief in the need to hasten the advent of the Imam. This has also spread to Hizballah in Lebanon."
As Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability, the world is – or should be – shaking in its shoes. The problem is not only the proliferation of WMDs – access to such weapons has become easier since Pakistani and North Korean peddlers have opened the market. Nor is the problem only French, German and Russian companies who supply Iran with equipment and technology to build nuclear reactors; they're in business!
The problem is the little man in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers.
"He's not Hitler," Bar insists. "He represents a larger elite and wider trend. Hence he is more dangerous, since even if he were to disappear through elections or other means, the trend he represents would remain strong. This is in contrast to Hitler who – had he disappeared even as late as 1939 there is great doubt that WWII would have occurred."
The idea of a "hidden Imam" is a fundamental belief in the Shiite version of Islam, dominant in Iran. As Bar explains, when the "hidden Imam" reappears, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished – a not uncommon religious theme. But there's an added twist.
Shiites believe that this messianic figure is hiding because he's threatened by enemies and can only be liberated by someone who is not afraid to act decisively against the enemy and initiate a war.
An apocalyptic confrontation could take the form of a nuclear attack, precipitating a clash of civilizations which would usher in the final stage of Muslim redemption and bring about the conversion of the entire world to Islam. As Bar explains: "The need for the Imam's loyalists to have the strategic upper hand is a necessary condition for his appearance. The upper hand can only be achieved through possession of nuclear weapons."
Traditionally, only the highest Muslim spiritual leaders claimed to understand, let alone delve into this murky realm of the "hidden Imam." That a simple politician, with little knowledge and less sense could contact the "hidden Imam" is theologically absurd, verging on blasphemy. But he rules the country – and his finger is one of those on the button. Bar argues that the "balance between the Supreme Leader and the President is no longer clearly in the favor of the former, as it was with Ahmadinejad's predecessors. Now, the President has the direct support of the Revolutionary Guard – the regime's mainstay."
"Some Iran experts believe that Ahmadinejad is irrelevant, since real power is in the hands of pragmatic clerics. This ignores the fundamental shift that has occurred in Iran since Ahmadinjead's election. Ahmadjinejad and the Revolutionary Guards represent a powerful force which can crush domestic opposition. This has changed the fundamental balance of power in Iran. Ahmadinejad's ability to influence issues of national security goes far beyond any of his predecessors, as he proved in his manipulation of the nuclear issue and relations with the West – frequently against the wishes of the Supreme Leader. The faction that takes credit for providing Iran with a military nuclear capability will grow even stronger as Iran comes closer to that goal. That's why sanctions won't work; they can't work."
"The problem isn't that Ahmadinejad will unilaterally give an order to attack, but the IRGC's policy of escalation and brinkmanship could push the entire region to the brink of a nuclear confrontation, and then leave no choice but to attack. Most wars were not premeditated but rather developed out of bad estimates of the situation and what the response would be from the other side."
Developing nuclear weapons, according to Bar, has a persuasive Iranian logic: If the West strikes first, it will vindicate Ahmadinejad's version of the West as evil; if the West does not act, he can claim this justifies his aggressive stand and weakens any domestic opposition. Moreover, Ahmadineajad surmises, if the West invaded Iraq because it threatened to develop nuclear capability (WMD), acquiring such weapons would deter the West from attacking.
Theologically and practically, therefore, acquiring nuclear weapons and using them, not only against Israel and Western infidels, but Sunni opponents as well, has its own internal momentum. The more the West hesitates to act, the stronger and more provocative Ahmadinejad and the "Jacobin" elite he represents become. Impelled by theological delusions, his willingness to risk war is not deterred by opposition; just the reverse. He can become the ultimate Muslim Hero, defying the "hidden Imam's" enemies and bringing the Messianic Age. This is the jihadist dream, a 'holy war' to end all war, a world bathed in blood.
The immediate danger, Bar emphasizes, is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, other countries in the region would soon follow. Without a stable chain of command and no structure of rational decision-making – a condition which rendered the Cold War manageable – the situation would become extremely volatile.
WMD in the hands of homicidal, apocalyptic, insecure and irrational leaders, with populations for whom nuclear weapons would be perceived as a ticket to the club of superpowers, threatens the entire world. "This does not only have to happen intentionally," Bar notes. "The very nature of brinkmanship in the Middle East can create an escalation of nuclear crisis that can quickly spiral out of control." There's no "hot-line" phone; there's no line!
This isn't about Iran. No one wants to watch the destruction of a viable country and its culture. The alternatives, however, are everyone's worst nightmare – including Arab countries who are directly threatened by Iran.
The Iranian threat is not just against Israel, but the entire region and beyond.
Current sanctions on Iran have little effect, Bar observes, since they don't affect the people who run the economy, or those who might be able to act. Diplomacy is, well, for diplomats.
Deterrent missile technology is not foolproof. A single missile could kill tens of thousands of Israelis. That risk is unacceptable. Even if Israel or the United States could eliminate much of Iran in a second strike, that would be a Pyrrhic victory. And, even if Iran decides not to use its nuclear weapons, it can export them to terrorist organizations and regimes throughout the world. Given an extremely volatile political situation, Iranian nuclear weapons could easily ignite a world-wide catastrophe.
That Western leaders cannot agree on what to do about the crisis has led to paralysis and naiveté. Supported by Russia, China and the 120-member bloc of so-called "non-aligned nations" in the UN, Iran has virtually ignored criticism – and why not? It gains with every moment of doubt and hesitation, every gesture of appeasement and self-defeat.
That's why, Bar warns, if all else fails Israel will have to act – alone or in consort with others. There's simply no alternative. Then, pray, for all of us, that we have done the right thing.