Bibi does show and tell.

Benjamin Netenyahu gets up in front of the UN General Assembly with a poster board showing a caricature of a bomb (surprisingly similar to the Mohammed Turban bomb cartoon motif) that supposedly shows how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The bomb is bisected by horizontal lines at the “70%” and “90%” uranium enrichment marks, the latter at the neck of the 19th century cannonball drawn on the board. Bibi draws a red line at the “90%” mark, declaring that it was time to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Pardon me if I cough. Forget the fact that Israel has at least a dozen nuclear warheads, some of them submarine launched. Forget that even if Iran was to develop a trigger for its fissile material, it still would have to place it in a warhead that in turn must be installed in an artillery shell, airborne deployed bomb, or on a missile, all of which are exposed to attack at the point of loading. Forget the Iranian nuclear physicists have one of the highest occupational morality rates in the world, dying in a myriad of unfortunate and unexpected ways. Forget that the computers governing the Iranian nuclear enrichment process are unusually susceptible to catastrophic failures caused by worms and viruses. Forget the fact that Iran is merely seeking what could be called deterrent parity: no one seriously messes with a nuclear armed country, as North Korea, India, Pakistan and yes, Israel, have demonstrated.

Forget all of that. Why should Iran not seek deterrence parity given what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in light of the US attacks on them even though they threatened no vital US national interest (let’s be clear: terrorist attacks, no matter how atrocious, are not existential threats to any well-established state). Given the attitude towards it on the part of the US and other Western countries, to say nothing of Israel, Iran has every reason to seek the ultimate deterrent.

In fact, Iran is on the horns of a classic security dilemma: the more it feels threatened by the actions of hostile states, the more it is determined to protect itself by seeking the nuclear trump card. The more that it does so, the more the US and Israel will feel compelled to move against it.

One might say that it is the Iranian regime’s rhetoric and support for terrorism that warrants grave concern. I say give us a break. Ahmadinejad talks to his domestic audience the way Netenyahu and Romney talk to theirs, especially during electoral season or times of internal crisis. However Westerners may wish to misinterpret and mistranslate what he says (which, admittedly is offensive and often bizarre, as his latest “homosexuality is a product of capitalism” remarks demonstrate), and no matter what an unpleasant fellow he may be, Ahmadinejad is no more of a threat to international security than any of the dozen or more Central Asian despots that the West supports, and who do not even try to hold contestable elections. They may not have nukes, but that does not mean that they are any more peace-minded than the mullahs in Teheran. As far as the use of armed proxies are concerned, does anyone remember the Contras?

And even where nuclear states have elected leaders, they are not often the most stable or impeachable. I mean, does anyone seriously think that Iran is a worse threat of starting the nuclear apocalypse than Pakistan? And yet billions of dollars in foreign aid flow to the Pakistani government, whose corruption is matched only by the rapidity with which they take offense at perceived slights.

No, the real problem is that the Persian Shiia did a bad thing to the US three decades ago by throwing out the US-supported Shah and holding US embassy hostages for more than a year (the latter a definite inter-state transgression and diplomatic no-no, to be sure). They also pose a grave threat to the US-backed Sunni Arab autocracies because of their evangelical and proselytizing Shiaa fanaticism. Yet Iran has attacked no other state directly (Iraq attacked Iran to start the 1980s war between the two), even if it uses proxies like Hezbollah to pursue military diplomacy and exact revenge on its enemies. After all, plausible deniability can work many ways.

In any event, Bibi’s show and tell show at the UN demonstrates the hypocrisy and disdain he and his supporters hold for that international organization and the intelligence of the interested public. Trying to reduce and simplify into a cartoon a complex diplomatic and military subject that is layered upon centuries of cultural, religious and ethnic enmity is not a useful teaching aid: it is an insult to the audience.

If anything, with a different presenter that ticking/fizzing poster bomb could be well be read as an indication of the state of Palestinian frustration with a territorial occupation and ethnic subjugation that has been decades in the making.  As the leader of a state that yields nothing to the self-determination aspirations of the Palestinian people, aspirations that have exacted a terrible toll on both sides of the conflict, Bibi’s bomb poster is an incitement, not an explanation.

What is galling about Bibi’s demonstration is a) his denial of Iran’s right to pursue a course of action that has proven to be an effective deterrent against aggression by larger powers and which Israel itself has availed itself of; and b) his disrespect for the UN in trotting out a kindergarten poster as an illustration of the threat he claims that Iran poses.

I am no fan of the Mullahs regime and Ahmadinejad. I believe that the Iranians are lying when they say that there nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But I understand their reasons for doing so, especially since the Israelis have lied all along about their nuclear program.

The real issue here is that Netenyahu is trying to provoke the US during an electoral campaign into supporting a pre-emptive strike on Iran. He is doing so more for his own domestic political reasons than out of concern about any imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He is a scoundrel, and he is mistaken. The US, quite frankly, is in no position to do support his preferred move, which Israel cannot do on its own. The US needs a break from more than a decade of constant war and Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Thus the timing of the cartoon presentation is ill-advised as much as its substance is childish.

The bottom line is that only a clown would find explanation and justification in Bibi’s poster bomb. That clown is Bibi himself.

23 thoughts on “Bibi does show and tell.

  1. Agree. Bibi knows that campaign time is the best time to try and secure a red line from the US. After Nov. 6, he just won’t get it. Neither candidate will want to know though: Obama and his staff are clearly frustrated with Bibi’s antics, and they know another war is not popular. While the sticks are running thin (sanctions almost out) they aren’t completely exhausted, and we’ll likely see expanded covert operations in due course.

    Likewise Romney for all his rhetoric doesn’t want to deviate his already unclear campaign message from the economy, which is the only thing that seems to be gaining any traction. Bibi won’t get his assurance before Nov. nor after, and Israel cannot go it alone because they simply don’t have the hardware – it knows that and so does the US.

    That doesn’t mean a war won’t happen of course, if the US runs out of options, then we may just end up there..

  2. If my ignorance is on display in this comment, please chuckle quietly then gently correct me…

    I’m not convinced that Iran really wants a nuke, and if they do, I’m not convinced Israel is the target. In addition to the problems you note in your post, there is accuracy. Does Iran have missiles accurate enough to guarantee nuking Tel Aviv and not accidentally frying Jerusalem? And then again, Israel is very small and fallout travels widely. Even if Iran could nuke Tel Aviv, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the Palestinians and perhaps also Hezbollah would get a hefty dose of fallout. Not a good way to maintain friendships and alliances.

    I can’t help but see the recent troubles in Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and even Iraq as the Sunni/Shia conflict boiling over again, with the US and Israel in many respects largely peripheral, but Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for dominance in the region. So isn’t Riyadh at least as likely a target for hypothetical Iranian nukes as Israel?

  3. Id say Iranian nukes are probably first and foremost intended for defensive purposes – the Tehran government is still concerned about a US invasion and sees nuclear weapons as a guarantee against it.

  4. Well, I expect Pablo can chip in more effectively than I can on strategic vs tactical uses of nuclear weapons. But in the event of an in-progress or just-about-to-be-launched invasion of Iran by the US or some other large power (Russia, I guess, unlikely as that sounds in the medium term) they wouldnt have to get the nuke all the way to Washington DC, just to whatever US troop concentration was crossing or just outside their borders.

  5. I havent heard of Shia and Sunnies fighting in NZ-must be these radicals that push them to the edge over there.
    Im surprised these Iranian computers open themselves up to worms and viruses, i heard that in top secret locations no internet was allowed which would only leave operatives uploading by usb or something but that must be highly surveilled too.

  6. Chris:

    I generally concur with you. The power of an Iranian nuclear deterrent lies in part in the uncertainty of its targets. Riyadh certainly would be on the target list, perhaps more so than Tel Aviv given that, as you note, the Sunni-Shiia tension eclipses Tehran’s hatred of Israel. In fact, some have suggested that the Israeli saber-rattling is done with the encouragement of the Saudis and other Sunni petroligarcies. As for fall out issues–that would depend on the size of the warhead, whether it was ground or air burst, and prevalent winds. That, and the circular error porbable (CEP) of the target guidance systems involved.

    Deterrence–which is indeed a defensive strategy– also is premised on a second-strike capability. That is the ability to respond in devastating fashion after being attacked.

    In the Iran scenario, it would have to be able to respond with a nuclear strike after being attacked conventionally as well as via nuclear means. That would require a robust and sophisticated nuclear weapons deployment capability.

    The purpose of a pre-emptive US/Israeli attack would be to remove that second-strike capability before it can materialze. To be blunt, the purpose is to remove the Iranian deterrent capability so that it can be held hostage to Western pressure.

    Contrary to still widely held assumptions, nuclear strategy does not respond to so called MAD (mutual assured destruction) scenarios. That operating premise was a product of the warhead, delivery and guidance technologies available during the early days of the nuclear era. By the 1970s the ability to simultaneously guide smaller, more efficient nuclear warheads onto multiple hardened targets such as C3I centers was much improved, so nuclear strategy entered into an era known as “flexible response” whereby military planners target not cities but the military assets of the enemy. That includes tactical (battllefield) as well as strategic targets.

    This is known as a counter-force approach, whereas targeting cities is known as a counter-value approach (presumably becaus leaders place high value on their civlian populations). Modern technologies have made the delivery of counter-force weapons much more precise, which has reduced the size of nuclear payloads and allowed them to be detonated on or under ground rather than in the air (which has a wider fallout dispersion radius and windborne tail).

    There is no point in targeting the cities of the enemy if s/he retains a capability to engage in a counter-force response. By removing that capability you hold the counter-value targets hostage in order to negotiate better settlement terms.

    It could be the case that the Iranians simply want to acquire a counter-value capability (which uses warheads that are less sophisticated and less accurate than those used on modern counter-force weapons). That is similar to the North Korean approach (from who Iran purportedly gets help on its nuclear program). The DPRK program also demonstrates how difficult it is to weaponize and effectively deliver a nuclear device.

    Having a counter-value capability would still be a deterrent but would not be a very effective military instrument, and first-use of such a weapon would invite massive retaliation on its military faciities and infrastructure (possibly from multiple sources, including nuclear powers other than the US and Israel). That makes an Iranian first-use scenario a bit implausible unless you think that the Tehran leadership is collectively and uniformly crazy.

    Sorry for the long reply. I was trained as a strategist during part tof my graduate school career and wrote about such issues at some length prior to shifting to a more comparative politics/international relations/intelligence and counter-insurgency focus.

  7. Aren’t you forgetting that Iran shows far more disdain for the rights of its people than Western countries…those which have missiles as a deterrent. Based on Iran’s expression of values, does not the West have more to fear from Iranian extortion, than the spectre of them using them as a deterrent? I’m no celebrant of US hypocrisy…but its a compelling distinction. I would also note that the unwholesomeness of the US is probably values you’d approve of, but I’ll leave you to fight your own battles.

  8. Andrew:

    The USSR was not a bastion of popular consent and yet managed to be rational and play the deterrence game just fine. Likewise the PRC. Moreover, the deterrence game is about holding the opponent’s population hostage to a counter-value second strike, regardless of the nature of the regime in question. Internal societal or regime values have little to do with the calculus of deterrence. For deterence to work the strategic calculation must be amoral, so how regimes treat their own people is not part of the equation.

    Your last sentence makes no sense.

  9. Sorry, didn’t finish response. You are assuming Iran’s sole motive is deterrence, or that Middle Eastern leaders will not throw their people under a bus to retain leadership. The intent of developing nuclear power stations for Iran is a moral camouflage to develop nuclear weapons. Maybe they don’t think the US will allow it or not, but it allows them to extort concessions, as North Korea did. Yes, extortion is not compatible with deterrence, unless you make it so. Your conception of moral is subjective. Amoral to you seems to be ‘resorting to war’; you don’t seem to make any distinction for initiator. What can only reward one’s enemies. It presupposes a tragic view of human nature which will leave humanity in a state of moral abdication. i.e. The Middle Ages

  10. Andrew:

    The North Korean pattern is escalate, extort, quieten down, rinse and repeat. Iran has so far failed to follow that pattern. Instead it is stubbornly insisting on continuing down its own path. Indeed, the comparison with North Korea only shows up Iran’s rationality.

    Last I heard, Iran had a young and rapidly growing population. It needs energy. Nuclear power is a way of providing that energy without burning up its hydrocarbons. Whether or not their nuclear power programme is a smokescreen for a weapons programme is irrelevant – they have a legitimate need for energy and nuclear power is one way of generating large amounts of energy to meet that need.

    As for ‘rewarding one’s enemies’, it is worth remembering just how and why Iran came to be a US enemy – something Pablo touched on in the original post.

    And you still seem to be seeing this in very binary US/Israel vs. Iran terms. The wider situation is far more complex. Internally, Iran faces a similar political (conservative vs. progressive) conflict to the US plus ethnic conflict/independence movements in the northwest (Kurds), southwest (Arabs) and southeast (Balochis). Externally, Pakistan has nukes, is highly unstable, and has constant Sunni/Shia conflict. The Taleban consider Shiites to be infidels, and yet Afghanistan has a Shiite minority. Then there is, of course, Saudi Arabia, which seems to be doing a good job of keeping big brother USA happy while quietly going about advancing its own strategic interests in the area – let’s not forget it is the home of Wahhabism (am I remembering my history rightly? The House of Saud struck a deal with Ibn al Wahhab whereby the Sauds would provide the political and military power and Ibn al Wahhab would supply the opiate of the people), and there have been reports of Saudi machinations in, for example, Syria.

  11. There is no reason not to expect it to extort if you look at its grip on domestic politics. The only reason that it cannot do the same internationally is because it has no bargaining chip – except oil – and since we are in a recession, its a weak one. There is no compelling reason yet for it to do anything since the US has not acted either. Nuclear weapons irrelevant – context dropping. Of course its relevant. Its why we don’t give mass murderers a gun license.
    Chris, on your last point, I would agree with you, that would be an important context, IF Iran was a repository of rationality and rights. Its not. The clerics stand above the Constitution, and there is no respect for rights. So how can the Iranian government proclaim rights to exist if they do not recognise the rights of their citizens.

  12. Andrew:

    Your broad brush characterizations of the Iranian regime do you a disservice. Its internal dynamics are a bit more complex than you care to admit, and it certainly has a legal and moral edifice in which citizen rights are recognized. You may not like that edifice and you may feel that Sharia interpretations of rights and responsibilities are less developed than in the West, but that does not detract from the fact that the Iranian regime is as legitimate, if not more so, than most pro-Western Arab regimes.

    I suggest that you read a bit about nuclear strategy and deterrence theory before making highly debatable claims about the supposed moral imperatives underpinning different regime approaches to the subject.

  13. Pablo, if you think I’m missing a ‘context’, by all means provide it, otherwise its a straw man argument. I don’t like the conception of rights in any country. Its an arbitrary permission easily renounced; whatsmore, some rights constitute claims on others rights, so they are contradictions in terms. The fact that Iranians are more oppressed and beholden to Sharia law makes them more of a threat. The fact that they have no economic surplus to extort means they rely more on breaches of political ‘rights’ to oppress.

  14. Andrew, the world is full of undemocratic countries that do not threaten their neighbours. Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, etc etc. The idea that you can divide the world into non-democratic, irrational and therefore dangerous, and democratic, rational and therefore safe and responsible, is really reminescent of mid -00s American NeoCon thought.

    Pablos example of the USSR as a country that didnt really respect its citizens rights but nonetheless followed a rational policy of deterrence is an excellent one, and I would argue that Iran is actually more democratic than the USSR was, except towards the very end.* It is quite ridiculously reductionary to sweep away all considerations of Iranian internal dynamics by saying “Iran is not a repository of rationality and rights”. Internal dissent doesnt require the concession of rights to be a factor.

    I remember when we discussed North Korea you said basically the same thing, that North Koreas state ideology was so whack that the whole country was basically collectively insane. Let me ask you this, do you think there is such a thing as a non-democratic rational country, or are rationalism and democracy basically the same thing?

    *Some positions of substantive political power in Iran are open to reasonably fair elections, even if the heights of political power arent.

  15. I think there is a difference between default irrationality (or incoherence) and rationalism as a methodology. The first can be a lack of evidence; but rationalism conveys a disdain for evidence, which since it’s impossible to frame an argument without experiential data, it amounts to ‘selective’ use of evidence.

  16. Riyadh certainly would be on the target list, perhaps more so than Tel Aviv given that, as you note, the Sunni-Shiia tension eclipses Tehran’s hatred of Israel.

    The enmity goes deeper than Shia/Sunni, it’s also ethnic. Arabs and Persians really don’t get on very well.

  17. Pablo – Actually the comments are more interesting than the original post theme.
    The existential threat to Israel from Iranian nukes is real. The Iranian leadership rhetoric is real and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The idea that terrorists or someone willing to use nuclear weapons on Israel would be concerned about collateral damage to Palestinians or the like given the damage inflicted to fellow muslims in iraq and afghanistan is a joke.

    Israel is behaving as a rational actor given the existential threat. It has obviously been dissuaded from attack. Bear in mind that Bibi seems pretty much on his own when you consider public pronouncements of ex defence and security chiefs about wisdom of Israel.

    The bigger threat to Israel from Iran nuclear capability is not Khamenei launching a strike. It is the possibility that improperly secured ( deliberately? ) nukes would be stolen and used by non state actors. For that reason the sanctions against Iran are rational.

    That said the often stated policy of Khamenei is to hold short of going nuclear. Perhaps that most interesting counter force/counter value discussion has been considered by Iranian strategists and their current policy was considered the better outcome.

    It seems to me that if they were genuinely intent on going nuclear they would have done so already. It seems to suit all sides to play the rhetoric game.

    Any US action against Iran would NOT involve ground troops. Why would the US bother. They can command the air and would win any counter force conflict.

  18. Phil: The thread was Ok except for that feeble minded Rand wanna-be troll who thinks that pulling a flutter of big words out of his rear constitutes an argument.

    What is real stranger is that this post and the link to the RNZ interview went up in Sept, but then somehow was republished in late October. That attracted a fresh set of readers such as yourself. Not sure how that happened.

  19. Pablo,
    I wish you could post clear messages to us.
    It is difficult for us to read everything .
    Please will you write simple messages clearly.
    We do not want to go back to University to see what went wrong.
    We do not have time to go across and see what that pompous idiot Trotter says.

    from Paul Scott

  20. Pablo It is difficult for us to read everything .
    Please will you write simple messages clearly.
    We do not want to go back to University to see what went wrong.
    We do not have time to go across and see what that pompous idiot Trotter says.

    from Paul Scott

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