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Biography, Apocalypse And International Relations


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The Nuclear Sphinx Of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad And The State Of Iran

A Review of a book by Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar Carroll & Graf

An Imprint of Avalon Publishing Group

Copyright 2007

ISBN 0-78671-8870, 296 pp./$25.95/Illustrated

Over the years, I have closely followed the work of Yossi Melman, an outstanding investigative journalist with Ha’aretz and a leading authority on Israel’s intelligence communities. Not surprisingly, his earlier book, Every Spy a Prince (co-authored with Dan Raviv) was an international bestseller. A Nieman Fellow at Harvard who lives mostly in Tel Aviv, Melman writes with obvious erudition and real authority. The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, written together with Meir Javedanfar – an Iranian-born Middle East analyst – is altogether a very timely and informed work of genuine importance.

My readers in The Jewish Press will quickly recognize that the subject of this book has been one of particular long-term interest to me. As a scholar involved for years with Israeli intelligence and strategic matters, I was especially intrigued by the authors’ gainful fusion of Iranian presidential biography with the increasing prospect and dreadful portent of Iranian nuclearization. If, after all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should manage to elude both meaningful international sanctions and effective military preemptions (an avoidance position which now seems quite plausible), he will likely become a current national leader of substantial worldwide influence and power.

The authors of course fully understand this, and they have fashioned their excellent book with considerable industriousness and a meticulous attention to relevant detail. Based in part on approximately one hundred interviews with government officials and experts, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran cites appropriately to assorted research and reports. It also provides useful appendices that supply nuclear abbreviations; up-to-date lists of Iran’s major known nuclear sites; a list of Iranian companies and persons banned by UN Security Council Resolution 1737; and even basic diagrams to better understand (generically) the otherwise esoteric nuclear fuel cycle. Additionally, there are a few helpful photos and a revealing map of Iranian nuclear facilities.

Today, to be sure, there is little point in trying to understand world politics without first trying to understand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Well aware of this, Melman and Javedanfar look closely at the Iranian president’s rural and populist roots and at his relationship with the Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Of special value is the book’s skilful exploration of Ahmadinejad’s messianic eschatology – that is, of the president’s apparently firm conviction that Islam now awaits the return of the Shiite Messiah Mahdi, a decisive reappearance that will signal the auspicious beginnings of a global Islamic republic. In this very precise “end times” vision, Iran could conceivably welcome ever-wider wars, even nuclear ones. Under certain circumstances, in fact, the authors point out explicitly, Ahmadinejad “would welcome a war to defend his country and would perceive it as a battle between good and evil.”

The Final Battle between good and evil would be capably led by Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and would be focused against those countries that allegedly have “no right to exist,” notably Israel and the United States. Anyone who joins the sacred struggle against Israel, Ahmadinejad believes, “is fighting for G-d,” and “anyone who dies in the process is a martyr who will go to heaven.”

We learn further from The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran that although Iran’s president “does not hate the USA as deeply as he does Israel,” he very strongly opposes what he sees as this country’s “imperialist expansionist policies.” For Ahmadinejad, America represents nothing less than “an empire that wants to expand in the Middle East and in the third world, as evidenced by its support for Israel and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ahmadinejad believes that the United States wants to do the same in other parts of the world by assisting corrupt and weak regimes so that they depend on American support for their stability.”

It follows that both Israel and “the Great Satan” need to understand that any meaningful diplomatic reconciliation with Ahmadinejad’s Iran will always be extremely problematic. In this connection, Melman and Javedanfar point out correctly that in Ahmadinejad’s eyes, the U.S. war in Iraq deliberately seeks to prevent the Mahdi from reappearing there, and that “fighting and expelling U.S. forces from Iraq will set the stage for the Mahdi’s return in the land of his birth.” (The Mahdi was born in C.E. 868, 255 years after the start of the Islamic calendar, in Samara, Iraq. He disappeared at the age of five.)

Significantly, the book’s last chapter (“Living in the Shadow of the Nuclear Sphinx”) discusses a “new strategic reality in the Middle East.” Here, with a nuclear Iran examined as a fait accompli, Melman and Javedanfar envision a “‘balance of terror’ model like the one created between the United States and Soviet Union during the cold war.” In my own judgment, this relatively promising model – one the authors attribute also to current “international experts” – is founded upon various erroneous presumptions. Indeed, there are assuredly precious few good reasons to argue that a new nuclear arms race in the region would be analogous to the condition of strategic stability that once obtained between the U.S. and Soviet superpowers. After all, the authors themselves argue that Ahmadinejad’s messianic view essentially precludes the assumption of rationality that is always a sine qua non for any viable system of nuclear deterrence.

The book ends by raising certain questions about the Iranian president’s claims and intentions. Can we believe that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons? “Can we take the risk of believing him? Can the world live in peace and tranquility with a nuclear Iran and trust that its leaders would never push the button?”

C’mon Yossi; c’mon Meir. These are not the important questions. We already know the answers to these questions beyond even a hint of doubt. Rather, what we need to be asking right now is this: As a nuclear Iran cannot possibly be consistent with elemental American and Israeli security, and as a Cold War-type “Balance of Terror” could never be sustained anywhere in the Islamic Middle East – especially in an area involving Iran – what can still be done to effectively prevent Iranian nuclear weapons? In this connection, even a highly reliable system of ballistic missile defense (technically, a very improbable prospect in view of each defensive system’s likely “leakage”) could do little if anything to protect American and Israeli cities from nuclear explosives or radioactivity that would be delivered by cars, trucks or ships.

Neither the United States nor Israel could ever answer a riddle posed by the nuclear sphinx of Tehran. This is because the only “correct” answer would have to acknowledge the desirability of wiping both states off the map in a fully ecstatic spasm of Islamic apocalyptic destruction. It follows that the nuclear sphinx of Tehran would intend to “kill” its most hated enemies, however these despised states might try to answer his riddles, and that Washington and Jerusalem now need to plan accordingly.

All things considered, this book is still a very lucid and impressive treatment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran. It is also meaningfully comprehensive because it considers the full range of possible scenarios, including Iranian submission to international sanctions; military action against Iran (both all-out and limited); and still rather plausible circumstances wherein sanctions would not work, but military options were nonetheless excluded. I therefore have no hesitation in recommending The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran to all of my readers who may wish to acquaint themselves with a uniquely dangerous international personality and with a potentially existential issue of substantial urgency.

Copyright© The Jewish Press, October 26, 2007. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. The author of such major books As Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe In World Politics and Security Or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, he was Chairman of “Project Daniel,” an early high-level effort to deal purposefully with Iran’s developing nuclear threat to Israel.

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About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

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