Commentary

Beyond the Bombast

The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran by Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar. Carroll & Graf Publishers, March 2007, ISBN: 0786718870. Price US$25.95, 336 pages.

Let’s face it. Ever since the extent of the Iranian nuclear program became the subject of public debate in summer 2002, the amount of ink spilled on the subject could float a carrier battle group. The waves of ink have crested ever higher since the election in 2005 of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran.

In the classic Shakespearean sense there has been much sound and fury over the status and intent of Iran’s nuclear program, but not a whole lot of light has been shed. Much the same can be said about Ahmadinejad.

Most of the debate has been reduced to the repetition of cliches and polemics by both those who mistrust the Iranian government and those who believe Iran has an inalienable right to a nuclear power program.

Given Iran’s leading role in the global oil trade and the global impact any military attack on Iran would have, dispassionate, accurate analysis of Iran’s nuclear program, in terms of technical, political, economic, social and cultural aspects is critical.

We’ve not seen much of it here in the West, even less in terms of books. But finally we have one that promises to be the go-to book for the next few years.

The authors, Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, have the distinction of being two of the best-informed observers you’ve never heard of. Melman is an investigative reporter with Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. To those who follow the doings of spy agencies he is known worldwide for his reporting on Israel’s intelligence operations. Meir Javedanafar is an Iranian-born Middle East analyst specializing in Iranian affairs.

As much of the debate over Iran is driven by the fear, or paranoia, that Iran might someday have and use nuclear weapons against Israel, having both Israeli and Iranian perspectives from people who know each country intimately is invaluable.

When it comes to a subject like a nation’s possible nuclear weapons, parsing technical capabilities is not enough. One must also consider the background and personality of the political leaders, their life experiences and world view, their geopolitical ambitions, the county’s relations with other nations, and the domestic politics of the country.

In all these areas this book stands out. The first chapter tracing Ahmadinejad’s life from birth through school and university studies, duties during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, through his time as mayor of Tehran to when he declared his candidacy for president, gives invaluable insights into his personality and psychology.

Chapter three, detailing his religious beliefs and how they affect his views on both governing Iran and dealing with the greater world, notably Israel, is equally valuable.

Chapter four details some of the domestic economic issues Ahmadinejad is confronting as president and his battles with political rivals such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Economically, most Iranians are embattled enough, so it is far from certain that Ahmadinejad can continue to count on popular support.

Chapters five and six detailing the origins and early development of the Iranian nuclear program, while unavoidably covering some material that has been covered elsewhere, offers some useful details about how long-lived the program is, having started in the “Atoms for Peace” era in the 1950s.

In light of all the hand-wringing about Iran receiving nuclear help from other countries, it is useful to remember that Iran received some of its earliest infrastructures, such as the Tehran Nuclear Research Center, from United States companies, courtesy of the approval of the Johnson and Kennedy administrations. It is not well known that the US provided weapons-grade uranium from the late 1960s to 1979 after the Islamic revolution.

Chapter six is also useful in reminding people of how deeply Rafsanjani was involved in reviving Iran’s nuclear program in the aftermath of the war with Iraq. He was far more of an “atomic ayatollah” than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ever was.

Chapters seven through nine deal with recent times; the past few years since the 2002 revelations about the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. These are the years of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, negotiations over safeguards agreements, debate over the capabilities of the uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz, and efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to frantically try and obtain reliable and accurate information on the Iranian nuclear program. It appears that as part of that effort, intelligence agencies, both Western and Iranian, spend considerable time spying on the IAEA itself.

Chapter 10, is particularly appropriate, given rising oil prices, as it examines the ability of Iran to threaten regional oil supplies transiting the Persian Gulf. It also examines the impact of sanctions, which, paradoxically, have helped Ahmadinejad strengthen his support via appeals to Iranian nationalism. It also looks at some of the Israeli and American ideas regarding destabilization and regime change. One might say that currently, both the US and Israel, are in a back to the future moment, where they are trying to desperately find a way to emulate the 1951 overthrow of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

The last three chapters look the prospects for preventive action against Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian retaliation options, and a concluding chapter on what the future holds. While most public discussion of preventive action focuses on military attacks, there are other options such as sabotage via covert operations and even “leadership elimination”.

The authors make it clear that while Iran might be able to do something it would be very difficult and certainly not achieve a permanent setback. It certainly wouldn’t destroy Iranian nuclear know-how. They also point out that Israel really doesn’t have real freedom of action as any attack would have to be coordinated with the US government and gain US permission.

Iran, on the other hand has terror networks it can run in many parts of the world and has significant, though not decisive, missile capabilities, which can negatively affect the region.

They conclude that “without dialogue and without a viable military solution, the world might simply have to accept a nuclear Iran and live in the shadow of a nuclear sphinx”.

David Isenberg is a an analyst in national and international security affairs. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, and a US Navy veteran.