In Bob Dylan’s 1963 song “Talking World War III Blues,” he dreams of being the last person alive after a nuclear apocalypse, then discovers that his shrink has been having the same dream, and so has most everyone else. Dylan concludes with a solution: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.” If we are to avoid a catastrophe in the Middle East and beyond, it may be of supreme importance that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, be introduced to the dreams of his adversaries. For it is in the fevers of President Bush — and much of the leadership on both sides of the aisle in Washington — as well as those of most of the Israeli political spectrum that the danger of war is most vivid.
Of course, I’d be the first to insist that the converse is true, too — that if Bush and company were to properly understand the anxieties and ambitions of the Iranian leadership, the world would be a lot less dangerous than it is right now. But the track record alone should be sufficient evidence of the fact that if we’re depending on the ability of the current U.S. leadership to reason, empathize and understand the world as it appears from the perspective of his adversaries, we are in deep, deep trouble. As the ever-excellent Israeli analyst Daniel Levy suggests, it is vital for Israel, more than anyone else, to urge the U.S. leadership to engage in comprehensive talks with Iran aimed at finding a modus vivendi to avoid war. But none of us is holding our breath for an Israeli (or American) epiphany. After all, as Aluf Benn points out, in Israel it simply isn’t kosher to suggest that Iran is anything less than an immediate threat to Israel’s very existence. “Anyone who thinks otherwise does not dare speak out openly, at least not until it emerges that either there is a way to stop the Iranians, or that it is already too late.” (That’s not strictly true, of course: Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami recently argued that instead of a confrontational path, Israel should seek a grand bargain of coexistence with Iran. And just last week, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said bluntly that Iran is a substantive but not an existential threat to Israel, also urging direct diplomacy. Still, following Benn, it is safe to say that these grownup views are hardly the political consensus.)
In short, if we are reliant on the ability of the current U.S. and Israeli leadership to reason not with the empathy of the Dalai Lama, but even, say, according to the ruthless Machiavellian pragmatics of the Kissinger school, then many thousands of Iranians, Americans and Israelis face the prospect of a violent death in the not too distant future.
And the truly scary thing is that the Iranians appear to be banking on Washington making rational calculations. I’m not yet sure what to make of the resignation of Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on the eve of new talks with Europe, but most of the reporting I’m seeing suggests it is a sign that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is leaning more towards the confrontational positions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than toward the more pragmatic positions of others like Larijani, who question the cost of pursuing confrontation in order to maintain uranium enrichment. There have certainly been many reports in recent weeks of rising tension within the regime in Tehran over how to handle the nuclear standoff. I’ll reserve judgement on the meaning of Larijani’s move until I can gather some expert opinion.
But I did find particularly disturbing the sense of the thinking in Tehran conveyed by the L.A. Times piece on Larijani’s resignation. Iranian analyst Saeed Leylaz told the paper that “Iran’s leadership, watching oil hover near $90 a barrel, thought it had little to lose by taking a tough stance, convinced that the U.S. wouldn’t dare launch a military attack against Iran and risk sending the world economy into a recession. ‘Whether that is right or wrong it does not matter,’ Leylaz said. ‘That is how the Islamic Republic of Iran perceives the situation.’ ”
Oy. If these guys are thinking that the U.S. decisions are going to be made on the basis of what’s best for the world economy or avoiding a recession, we’re in serious trouble. I can understand exactly why the leadership in Tehran might find it difficult to believe that its counterparts in the world’s hyper-power, or, for that matter, in Israel, with its 200 or so nuclear warheads and its second-strike submarine launched cruise missile capability, and probably the world’s fourth or fifth best-equipped conventional military, would see Iran as a threat. Bush last week, with that trademark idiot-bully grin of his, was tossing around bon mots about World War III, claiming that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons in order to eliminate Israel. The fact that more sober heads in Washington and Israel pooh-pooh such hysteria may not matter when the decisions are taken: In Israel and the U.S., the political echelon is talking itself into a lather of hysteria which may, in itself, narrow their options for avoiding confrontation.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation as it perceives them, under the circumstances responsible leadership in Tehran has an obligation to understand the thinking of those who might launch military strikes on their territory. And to understand, also, that in President Bush’s fevered imagination, causing a recession (that may already be in the works regardless of the state of conflict with Iran) may be an acceptable price to pay for stopping what he perceives as an epoch-defining power-shift as a result of Iran attaining the ability to enrich uranium. Deranged as that reasoning may be, it may yet drive the U.S. to war. More rational voices may nonetheless prevail, of course, particularly those of the U.S. military all the way up to the Joint Chiefs (with the exception of General David Petraeus in Iraq, who appears to have been entirely conscripted by the neocon party of war), who correctly see war as more dangerous than even a nuclear-armed Iran. But the voices of rationality and restraint on the U.S. side will not be helped by Iran appearing to harden its position.