Why Zakaria Doesn’t Get The Iranian Threat

Fareed Zakaria is normally a very astute observer of international politics, but his latest piece on why Iran is not like Nazi Germany utterly misses key points about why Iran represents such a major threat to world security in years to come. Zakaria argues:

To review a bit of history: in 1938, Adolf Hitler launched what became a world war not merely because he was evil but because he was in complete control of the strongest country on the planet. At the time, Germany had the world’s second largest industrial base and its mightiest army. (The American economy was bigger, but in 1938 its army was smaller than that of Finland.) This is not remotely comparable with the situation today.

Iran does not even rank among the top 20 economies in the world. The Pentagon’s budget this year is more than double Iran’s total gross domestic product ($181 billion, in official exchange-rate terms). America’s annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran’s. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are real and dangerous, but its program is not nearly as advanced as is often implied. Most serious estimates suggest that Iran would need between five and 10 years to achieve even a modest, North Korea-type, nuclear capacity.

Except those figures aren’t relevant in the 21st Century.

For instance, Afghanistan was one of the poorest and most isolated countries on Earth on September 10, 2001, yet Afghanistan became the launching pad for the most devastating attack on America since the War of 1812. The size of a nation’s economy is irrelevant in an age of asymmetric warfare. Yes, if we were talking about a conventional war in which tanks and planes are involved rather than a few men with vials of anthrax, then Iran would not be a threat in the slightest. The problem is that because of the democratization of technology these days means that $500,000 can buy you a terrorist attack on a nightmare scale. Tehran has undoubtedly learned that lesson quite well.

Furthermore, Pakistan, which is no less poor and isolated than Iran is, was able to build and detonate a nuclear weapon, and we know that the A.Q. Khan network proliferated those nuclear technologies across the globe. The biggest hurdle to a working nuclear arsenal is getting enough fissile material — and the Iranians are well on their way to getting past that barrier.

Even with the debacle of Iraq, it’s still not sound policy to assume best-case scenarios. Assuming that Iran is years away from obtaining nuclear weapons may not be such a safe bet given that the Iranians are saying otherwise. We don’t know how far Iran’s nuclear program has come, and it is quite possible that their uranium enrichment technologies are significantly more advanced than Zakaria’s assumes they are. It is simply too risky to assume that we have the luxury of years to deal with the situation.

Zakaria then makes yet another rosy prediction:

Iran is run by a nasty regime that destabilizes an important part of the world, frustrates American and Western interests, and causes problems for allies like Israel. But let’s get some perspective. The United States is far more powerful than Iran. And, on the issue of Tehran’s nuclear program, Washington is supported by most of the world’s other major powers. As long as the alliance is patient, united and smart—and keeps the focus on Tehran’s actions not Washington’s bellicosity—the odds favor America. Ahmadinejad presides over a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line; his authority is contested, and Iran’s neighbors are increasingly worried and have begun acting to counter its influence. If we could contain the Soviet Union, we can contain Iran. Look at your calendar: it’s 2006, not 1938.

Except that assumes that the rest of the world really does support America in fighting Iran becoming a nuclear power. Would China and Russia allow for any serious sanctions regime against Iran, especially when there’s a very strong chance that they’re helping Iran build a nuclear infrastructure? I wouldn’t take that bet, and it seems likely that the chances of anything happening in the Security Council are slim to none. The Iranians know quite well that the UN, US, and EU are all relatively impotent so long as China and Russia are on their side.

Our options for dealing with Iran are extremely limited, and ultimately containment is the only viable option — however, that containment should also include full support for Iranian dissident groups and a strong regime of economic sanctions. However, the chances of either of those happening are slim at best and both require a sustained multilateral commitment.

Iran may not be like Germany in 1938, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous in its own way. Iran is al state sponsor of terrorism, and has undoubtedly armed, trained, and equipped members of Hizb’Allah and may well be shielding members of al-Qaeda. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a populist anti-Semite who is suppressing dissent, creating a new nationalist identity, and may soon have what Hitler never had: the most devastating weapons known to mankind.

It isn’t that Iran poses a conventional threat; it’s that Iran poses an unconventional one, and that’s what makes Iran in many ways more dangerous to the United States than Hitler was in 1938.

One thought on “Why Zakaria Doesn’t Get The Iranian Threat

  1. There is one huge difference that Zakaria did not even address. Iran has the most open civil society of any of the non-democratic countries in the region. Before this is dismissed as being a meaningless distinction, I need to expand on this point further. Iran is not a police state like Syria. There is a lively and active reformist press, there are student demonstrations, there is active criticism of the government. Certainly social restrictions exist, and that is why so many young people are so angry with the regime. Yes the government has been scaled back from its reformist expectations during the days of Khatami. However, to be anti-government in Iran is to be pro-American, because the level of government oriented anti-americanism is so deep. The opposite is true in states like Egypt and Jordan, where to be anti-government amounts to a visceral detestation of the local american aided regimes. No one is going to deny that Ahmadinejad is a scary figure. Certainly the mad mullahs are controlling the military, the basijis, and the powerful ministries. But Iran still has a degree of unpredictability which means that no one’s power is guaranteed. Ahmadinejad was something of a surprise choice being that he is not a cleric and is not rich like his main rival Rafasjani was. An undereducated populace elected him (remember that most of Iran’s best and brightest live in Los Angeles, Balitmore, Gothenburg, and Hamburg) and he is a rogue. But the people are not as compliant as 1938 Germans. Indeed Persian culture has always never been as clan based as Arab culture. Iran was arguably closer to a Nazi like ideology during the Shah’s days, as his personality cult and tying in Iran’s national identity to that of the zoroastrian days of Darius and early Aryan rulers was not that unlike certain national fervor Hitler tried to induce (keep in mind the Shah’s father was an admirer of Hitler). The level of Iran’s threat to the world should be examined in a more enlightened way in which comparisons to 1938 are dropped. They confuse the picture and distort the modern Persian reality. The downside of the unpredictability I mentioned above is that anything could happen, and those pulling the strings are detached from the young of their nation, so they will use this issue as a distraction. Iran needs a new Mossedeq, but I don’t see him emerging during these days of clerical control on the most top layers of government.

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