Podhoretz sees the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as "theaters that have been opened up in the early stages of a protracted global struggle," and sees Iran as another front in what he describes as "World War IV." And to throw in the standard dose of fear factor to support his arguments, he compares today's Iran to Nazi Germany in 1938.
A Hatful of Hitlers
We had one Hitler in the 20th century. In this century, to hear the likes of Podhoretz tell it, we've already had three of them. Osama bin Laden became the new Hitler after 9/11. Saddam Hussein took the Hitler mantle during the propaganda campaign that led to the Iraq invasion. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned into Hitler right about the time the Bush administration figured that, oops, we've hosed up this Iraq thing, time to start making Americans afraid of somebody else.
The anti-Semitic angle aside, what makes Hitler such a convenient boogey man to compare Middle East bad guys too is the 1938 Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany to satisfy Hitler's desire for Lebensraum (living space). Many credit this appeasement as having emboldened Hitler to invade Poland and France a year later. Podhoretz and others argue that if we appease rather than attack Iran, we'll embolden that country to undertake further aggressive actions.
This Germany/Iran analogy is bunker mentality bunk for several reasons.
First, Ahmadinejad doesn’t hold the kind of absolute power that Hitler had in Nazi Germany. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i holds the real power in Iran, and unlike Hitler, he has a track record of behaving like a rational actor.
Next, the balance of military power today looks nothing like it did in 1938. Then, Hitler had the most modern and mobile military in Europe. Having invested its military capital in a static defense system of fortifications--the Maginot Line--France was incapable of running Hitler out of the Sudetenland, and Britain's only realistic way to access the continent was to come through France. The only way France or Britain could engage Hitler on the continent was for Hitler to invade France, and we all know how things went for France and Britain when he finally did.
Today, the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Even though it has a pesky coastal navy, Iran's military is a comparative flyspeck. It cannot project power much beyond its borders or the Persian Gulf, and if it ever came down to a no-holds barred showdown between them and us, they would lose large. It is ludicrous to characterize a sole superpower's decision to talk to a minor power rather than to attack it as "appeasement."
MAD vs. SAD
Iran has consistently claimed that it has no ambitions to produce nuclear weapons, and despite concerted efforts by Dick Cheney and others, no one has been able to prove Iran's claim to be false. But if Iran gets itself a fistful of nukes, Podhoretz says, the Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence of the Cold War won't work. To back up this assertion, he quotes noted Islamic world expert Bernard Lewis:
MAD, mutual assured destruction, [was effective] right through the cold war. Both sides had nuclear weapons. Neither side used them, because both sides knew the other would retaliate in kind. This will not work with a religious fanatic [like Ahmadinejad]. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that [Iran's leaders] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.
I won't pretend to have Lewis's background and experience when it comes to understanding the Islamic mind, but it sounds like Lewis is losing his, and I'm not alone in coming to that conclusion. Of Lewis's 2002 book What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Juan Cole wrote: "How a profoundly learned and highly respected historian, whose career spans some sixty years, could produce such a hodgepodge of muddled thinking, inaccurate assertions and one-sided punditry is a profound mystery."
For Iran to use nukes, either directly or through a proxy terrorist group wouldn’t be a case of mutually assured destruction. It would be self-assured destruction. Iran couldn't possibly do as much damage to the U.S. or its allies as the U.S. and its allies could do to Iran. I question Lewis's assertion that Iran's leaders "do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers," but I completely reject the notion that Iran would risk a successful nuclear attack or New York or Chicago at the price of losing all of its people, all of its cities, all of its industries and all of its culture.
Podhoretz describes Iran as the "main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11." He also says that Iran is "the main sponsor of the terrorism that is Islamofascism's weapon of choice."
The neoconservative propaganda campaign to subliminally connect Iran with 9/11 is fairly new, and is no more substantiated than earlier claims of a connection between Iraq and 9/11. Calling Iran the "main sponsor of terrorism" conveniently ignores the fact that most of the 9/11 attackers were Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, not Shiite Persians from Iran. It also stiff-arms the reality that al Qaeda, supposedly the biggest bad guys in our war on terror, are still comfy-cozy in their feathered nests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Podhoretz also says that Ahmadinejad "wishes to dominate the greater Middle East, and thereby to control the oilfields of the region and the flow of oil out of it through the Persian Gulf."
Well, Ahmadinejad may wish to control the Middle East, but making that wish come true will take a heck of a lot more than blowing out candles on his birthday cake. The notion that the non-head of a Persian Shiite state can "dominate" the largely Arab Sunni Middle East defies the laws of probability. Liberal Buddhist Dennis Kucinich has a better chance of becoming president of the United States.
Iran is most certainly an emerging regional power that we must learn to deal with, but not in the way Podhoretz wants us to. The best move we could make would be to become Iran's big energy partner, elbowing China and Russia out of the picture.
But that would require real diplomacy, which means it won't happen on Bush's watch.