Home Articles Iran, the Paper Tiger, By ROGER COHEN
Iran, the Paper Tiger, By ROGER COHEN Print E-mail

LONDON — I had breakfast last month in New York with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Other journalists had lunch or dinner. Ahmadinejad’s passion for the hidden Imam, whose imminent return he expects, is matched only by his passion for Western media.

 
At the time I chose not to write about the meeting. I was too disgusted — by the media merry-go-round, by more incendiary provocations from Ahmadinejad, and by the sterility of an Iran debate that turns in the tight circle formed by fear-mongering, ignorance and the ghastly stew of Western carrots and sticks.

Ahmadinejad is a one-trick pony. His thing is double standards. Ask about the Iranian nuclear program, he’ll retort with Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. Ask about Iran’s economic difficulties, he’ll see you with September 2008. Ask about rampant capital punishment, he’ll raise you a Texas. Ask about Iranian lying, he’ll counter with human rights and Abu Ghraib.

Not surprisingly, in Fareed Zakaria’s “post-American world,” he has an audience. He’s adept enough, with a touch of Tony Curtis in “The Boston Strangler,” switching personalities with eerie ease.

Throw in some headline-grabbing lunacy — 9/11 as self-inflicted, or the Holocaust as invention, or “Iran is the freest country in the world” — and you have a post-modern media star and villain.

And what do all his words amount to? I’d say not a whole lot beyond unnecessary misery for 71 million isolated Iranians. This guy is all hat and no cattle.

Ahmadinejad is odious but I don’t think he’s dangerous. Some people do of course find him dangerous, especially in the Israel he gratuitously insults and threatens, and yet others — many more I’d say — find it convenient to find him dangerous.

The Iranian president is into his sixth year in office, the Islamic Republic is more divided than ever, Iranian youth have been brutalized, and there’s a nuclear program that, a bit like the Middle East “peace process,” goes on and on and on, defying definition even as it defies termination.

I read with interest in a recent piece by my colleagues John Markoff and David Sanger that “in the past year Israeli estimates of when Iran will have a nuclear weapon had been extended to 2014.” Given that various Israeli leaders have predicted that Iran would have a bomb in 1999 or 2004 or just about every year since 2005, that’s a decade and a half of the non-appearing wolf at the door.

Sure, such predications are necessarily haphazard, the Natanz centrifuges may now be Stuxnetted by computer worms, and Iranian scientists have resembled Iranian pistachios: up for sale. Still there is a dangerous pattern here of Israeli and U.S. alarmism.

Cool heads are needed. Untenable Nazi allusions, rampant in the case of Iran, demean victims of the Holocaust and lead to disastrous wars. A bloody war has been fought in Iran’s western neighbor. So let’s recall that Saddam Hussein told his captors he had cultivated nuclear ambiguity as a deterrent even though his program was precisely zilch.

And what of Iran’s program? Iran remains a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are at Natanz; the number of centrifuges being used to make low-enriched uranium (far from weapons grade) has dropped 23 percent since May 2009 and production has stagnated; U.S. intelligence agencies hold that Iran has not made the decision to build a bomb; any “breakout” decision would be advertised because the I.A.E.A. would be thrown out; the time from “breakout” to deliverable weapon is significant.

I’m with Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who this year told the Washington Post: “Iran will muddle along building its stockpile but never making a nuclear bomb because it knows that crossing that line would provoke an immediate military attack.” The Islamic Republic is a study in muddle but lucid over a single goal: self-preservation.

So there’s time. Yet the foreboding industry is in overdrive, with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic declaring that the Obama administration “knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program” and setting “a better than 50 percent chance” Israel will strike by next July.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, used Yom Kippur to deliver a speech of ominous prophecy in synagogues, warning of the fateful choices presented Israel by “a radical, genocidal Iran.” (Oren had less to say — and most of that dismissive — about direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks inaugurated two weeks earlier with White House pomp and now already on hold.)

Yes, Ahmadinejad is the bogeyman from Central Casting. One of the things there’s time for, if you’re not playing games with the Iran specter, is a serious push for an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough that would further undermine the Iranian president.

I don’t expect that, however. And here are two more predictions: Obama won’t attack Iran and nor will Israel, not by next July or ever. Iran is a paper tiger, a postmodern threat: It has many uses but a third Western war against a Muslim country is a bridge too far.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/12/opinion/12iht-edcohen.html?_r=1

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