April 13, 2009

Hezbollah's Mushroom Cloud

Christopher Hitchens recently went to a rally in the suburbs south of Beirut and found Hezbollah ratcheting up its belligerence. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote in the May issue of Vanity Fair, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!” Last week James Kirchick reported seeing the same thing at the same rally in City Journal. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Hezbollah has threatened nuclear war.

Hezbollah isn’t broadcasting this to the world. If Hitchens and Kirchick hadn’t written about it, few would know the mushroom-cloud banner even exists. It’s not so much a threat as it is a revelation of Hezbollah’s dark psyche. But perhaps Hezbollah’s not shouting “nuclear war” for all to hear means its threats are more dangerous than public taunts from the Iranian government. Empty threats and hyperbole are rife in the Middle East. Death threats are rarely carried out anywhere. Most assassins don’t announce their intentions. They kill their victims without warning. Whatever Hezbollah’s mushroom-cloud banner means, we know this much: intimations of nuclear war with Israel are now coming from Lebanon as well as Iran. The worst case scenario — a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv — might be slightly more likely than some of us thought.

Every foreign policy-maker and analyst must be wondering whether Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities this year or next. Most don’t know the answer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself might not know the answer. It’s risky. Hezbollah didn’t open a second front against Israel during the Gaza war a few months ago, but it’s unlikely they’ll sit still in South Lebanon if their patron and armorer in Tehran is attacked. Iran’s Al Quds Force may retaliate against the United States in Iraq. A military strike against Iran could easily trigger a regional conflagration.

There’s a theory floating around the Middle East that I’ve heard from Israelis and Arabs alike, and some find it slightly reassuring: Iran doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons against Israel. Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can transform itself into a true regional superpower. Arab regimes fear this, which is why Saudi Arabia and Egypt have threatened to develop or purchase their own nuclear arsenals to counter the “Persian bomb.” No Arab state got into an arms race with Israel to counter the “Zionist bomb,” but they’re obviously worried about what might happen to them if Tehran weaponizes uranium. The Iranians don’t want to be neutralized by an arms race, so they’re threatening the Israelis and hoping the Arabs will relax or acquiesce. I don’t know if the theory is true, but Hezbollah’s recent mushroom-cloud banner doesn’t quite fit. Hezbollah didn’t put that on stage to calm nerves in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They used it to thrill a crowd of furious Shia Arabs in Lebanon.

An Iranian bomb would be a problem for Israelis, Arabs, and the rest of us even if Tehran has no intention of using it. The last thing an energy-dependent planet needs is extremist regimes with vast oil reserves threatening to obliterate each other as India and Pakistan sometimes do. And the second-to-last thing Israel needs is a nuclear umbrella protecting Hamas and Hezbollah. President Barack Obama said a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer” last year. He’s right.

The worst case scenario — the incineration of Tel Aviv and a nuclear retaliation against Tehran — isn’t likely. I don’t expect it will ever actually happen. I’m sure enough — at least 90 percent sure — that I feel safe making the prediction in public. I’m a writer, though, not a policy maker. And I don’t live in Israel. I’m safe and can afford to be wrong. I won’t be killed, nor will I be blamed for getting anyone else killed. The Israeli government won’t make the same risk calculations I make. If I’m wrong, they’re dead, and so is their country.

I can’t tell whether or not Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike. But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it’s 90 percent likely Iran’s threats of annihilation are just bluster. And let me ask this: How would you feel if your doctor diagnosed you with an illness and said there’s a ten percent chance it will kill you? Would you find 90 percent odds of survival acceptable? Would you sleep peacefully and do nothing and hope for the best? I travel to dangerous places. It’s part of my job. But those odds, for me, are prohibitive. Those odds are almost as bad as the odds in Russian Roulette, and you couldn’t pay me enough to play that game even once.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 13, 2009 11:29 AM

To extend your analogy out a bit further, say that your doc gave you 90% survival if you did nothing, and then said that operating did NOT mean 100% survival, just a different sort of risk. That's a fair extension, I think. Remember that both doing nothing and doing something both have consequences. Some people and groups like to think that doing nothing (wage peace! dialogue! more diplomacy!) is good, while action is bad, but both have consequences that must be weighed.

Posted by: jasonholliston Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 1:41 PM

Three reasons why you are being intellectually dishonest:

1) Iran, at best estimate, is no less than 2 years from obtaining
enriched, weapons-grade uranium. They do not have the ballistic ability to send
a weapon, nor do they have a history of WMD
proliferation to their proxy militias.

Moreover, the logistics of actually combining missile technology with
enriched uranium can not be done instantly. IF they whined up with a
weapon, it will be years from now before they can even posture against

Therefore strikes can not be preemptive, as you claim, if the IRI has
NO weapon. They would be PREVENTIVE, therefore a choice.

2) Because the IRI is scared of Israel, the regime does threaten the Israeli state.
But unlike the impression in your post, the regime has never
threatened with nuclear capability.

As an Iran watcher it is clear that the hardline entities of the
regime do make threats against Israel's existence that should be taken
seriously. But the capabilities should get more attention. Who has the
power in this equation?

3) If you know anything about Iran, you would know that it is not a
messianic state, with "Islamofascists" running the state towards the
return of the Hidden Imam. Instead it runs like other rational states
in the international system, looking to balance against external

Ahmadinejad does not hold the reins that guide the state's national
security policies. It is Supreme Leader Khamenei. And if one examines
Khamenei's bio, you would see his pragmatic and rational governance
since the early days of the Revolution. Read Washington Institute for
Near East Policy academic Mehdi
Khalaji's discussion of messianic politics and the regime.

The regime is paranoid about survival. The chances of Iran's link to a
bombed Tel Aviv you envision, is slim to none right now, and even IF
the gain the technology, would not even be a possibility until YEARS from now.

I am no Iran apologist, this is for sure
(http://commera.wordpress.com), but before
the concept of Iran destroying Israel is floated, one should honestly
disseminate facts so the reader can see the bigger picture.
Intellectual dishonesty only hurts your musing.

Posted by: commera Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 3:10 PM

Commera: you are being intellectually dishonest...The chances of Iran's link to a
bombed Tel Aviv you envision, is slim to none right now

Didn't I just say the odds, in my view, are ten percent of less that this is going to happen? You need to read the article again. Or did you only read part of it?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 3:29 PM

Given both Obamas and Hilary Clintons statements during the general election, I can't imagine the US letting Israel fight this out alone. Somebody is going to have to take out Irans nuclear sites before they can weaponize. Given what happened to Syrias nuclear site, that somebody is Israel. Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas may all attack Israel in response, but Jordan, Egypt, Saudi and Iraq will not. Saudi and Egypt will be quietly cheering on Israel. The balance of power in the ME will be wrecked if Iran goes nuclear, and all the key players know it. I don't know what commera is smoking, but its hallucinagenic. If I were Israel, I'd move before the Russians supply their latest air defense systems to Iran: they've promised them but have yet to deliver.
Russias role in all this seems schizo. A nuclear armed Iran on its southern border would keep me awake at night if I were Putin. Who says they'd always aim those suckers at the Saudis and Israel?

Posted by: PresterJohn Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 3:52 PM

Oddly enough, Israel would attack if it wanted to. Because what can an American president do? Claim it sent up American jets in a dog fight? What if the American pilots lost their lives? Isn't that like the 3rd rail to a politician?

I think Israel has ratcheted up the Iranian talk; because it was frustrated with Bush. And, it doesn't know where Obama is going, either.

In other words? Words are used to "blow on the press" to see, to borrow one of Nixon's lines: "Send it up the flagpole, boys, and see if anyone salutes."

Posted by: Carol_Herman Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 6:01 PM

Russia's role in all this seems schizo. A nuclear armed Iran on its southern border would keep me awake at night if I were Putin. Who says they'd always aim those suckers at the Saudis and Israel?

Why would Russia feel secure if they thought Iran would nuke Israel? They know that Israel would retaliate against Iran, and Iran is on their southern border.

Like most dictatorial Islamist states, Iran has a huge brain drain. Anyone with brains and common sense left a long time ago (or they're planning to leave, or they passionately hate their leaders). Iran couldn't build nuclear capability without Russia's help.

Russia is not the best-run state, but it's full of people with brains and common sense. Would people with brains and common sense give nuclear weapons to lunatics who live along their border? Or would they just threaten to do so, to drive us crazy and make us waste a huge amount of time and money bribing or attacking this militarily insignificant state?

The best way to put an end to this is to deal with and/or threaten the Russians, and make them deal with Iran.

There's no guarantee that this will solve the problem, and there is no guarantee that the world won't end tomorrow, but since Hiroshima, there never has been any such guarantee. One thing we do know - the Russians want to avoid nuclear war as much as we do. That's why we need to deal with them.

Hezbollah is supported by Iran and some opposing groups in Lebanon are supported by Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia sometimes work together and sometimes they fight. I'd guess that the mushroom cloud graphics are an attempt to scare the Sauds. They're probably fighting now.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 8:46 PM

I have pre-traumatic stress flash-forward moments sweating for Tel Aviv (celebrating 100 years this month).

Yet I think the odds are probably even lower of Iran as a nation nuking Israel, maybe 5%. But using a nuke threat to back up increasingly pointed Hamas and Hizbullah aggression, or to power edgy face offs over Iranian vessels bringing high-tech weapons straight into Gaza? That seems more like 60-40 or worse. Or to coerce Israel into a supremely bad deal with Syria or to support a Syrian attack to forcibly retake the Golan...

Posted by: AZZenny Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 10:56 PM

Iran is a pawn in a larger game. What Iran does is not as important as what Iran means to the larger players, something I'm sure irks Iran and its neighbors to no end.

fwiw, I do not consider the existing regime rational by any stretch. I do not see rationality when bloggers go to jail for advocating women's right to vote. How is such an action pragmatic? Lets be intellectually honest. It's not rational to put people in jail for advocating basic civil rights that exist in much of the free world.

So to suggest that the puppeteers of Iran are rational either means we have different definitions/contexts, OR, thems who call the shots ARE rational, but are surrounded by irrationality and an inability to control it. Neither case lends itself particularly well to the idea that Iran will be a responsible steward of the international community, which is sad--*because the capability is there*. Not all nations can say such a thing.

Posted by: Oobs Author Profile Page at April 15, 2009 6:59 AM

I thought that this was a pretty interesting piece, but it only gives half of the pragmatic case against.

The truth is, it's highly unlikely that Israel has the military capability to stop Iran's nuclear program. They can maybe pull off a brief strike. But that will just slow them down. And all Iran has to do is lay low, wave the cameras at the piles of dead bodies, and rebuild.

This won't be like the Syria strike. Any serious attack on just the three largest spots will kill thousands of people. And Iran has an actual media to cover the results.

The result will be the beginnings of a real, serious attempt to isolate Israel economically and politically, while Iran finishes developing nukes anyway.

And, frankly, Iraq will erupt, and will Lebanon, with hardly even a twitch from Iran. They'll probably be able to take a public role of restraint of their non-state forces. If they're smart.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at April 16, 2009 3:46 AM

We're coming up on Holocaust rememberance day here....and 'Never Again' is not just a slogan.

A few random thoughts here from someone who lives just a few miles from Gaza...

US Support for Israel...anyone remember Trumans 'Weapons Embargo' that effectively cut off only Israel from access to supplies during 1948? Break my heart, yeah the aid over the last few years has been nice, but we always knew it was one year at a time. So, thanks for all the memories.

15 minutes after the US cuts off all aid to Israel because we 'waz bad boyz in the hood' Israel signs a defense/tech cooperation agreement with Russia and commences talks with China...because 'Never Again' means whatever it takes...

Delaying the 'Inevitable' for a few years, may just get us to a regime change.

While the ICBM 'Thing' is nice and sexy and sure it may be a few more years off, but a 10 kiloton nuke embeded in a tanker full of sand or some such, detonated 12 miles of the Tel Aviv coast with the wind in the right direction? yeah, double plus ungood.

So, taking out the entire Iranian weapons complex may be tricky, but we can put one hell of a dent in it. BTW, did you notice that we are in an Oil Glut? Did you also ponder that Iran is about 2 F-18I's shy of losing it's entire gasoline refining capacity?

Iranian Oil and Gasoline imports are also highly vulnerable. Since, if memory serves, Iran is still in a state of war with Israel, a few Israeli Dolphin Submarines in the gulf could easily shut down all import/export activity to Iran for a year. Can you say...economic collapse?

Yeah, it would all be very messy, unpredictable, ugly...and Hetzbollah and Hamas would put there two cents in...but you know what? We faced odds an order of magnitude worse than this before.

Never Again!

and WTF is Pres. Obamma gonna do? Come over and hold a Town Hall Meeting in Rammallah?

You know and I know that 10 minutes after the Israeli bombs land on Iran, the Champagne will be popping in Ankara, Alexandria, Bahgdad, and yes, even Moscow.

Ain't nobody 'round here actually likes the Iranian Government, not even the Iranians

Posted by: John Mahler Author Profile Page at April 16, 2009 8:14 AM

The worst case scenario — the incineration of Tel Aviv and a nuclear retaliation against Tehran — isn’t likely. I don’t expect it will ever actually happen. I’m sure enough — at least 90 percent sure — that I feel safe making the prediction in public. I’m a writer, though, not a policy maker. And I don’t live in Israel. I’m safe and can afford to be wrong. I won’t be killed, nor will I be blamed for getting anyone else killed. The Israeli government won’t make the same risk calculations I make. If I’m wrong, they’re dead, and so is their country.

Probably true, but nuclear weapons are a strategic asset with uses well short of actual detonation.

For instance, what better way to ruin a nation's economy than to repeatedly threaten nuclear annihilation? Few would want to live, let alone invest, under such conditions. Such a threat also makes a nice card to deal when Israel is fighting Hizbollah.

Posted by: TallDave Author Profile Page at April 16, 2009 3:19 PM

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Hezbollah has threatened nuclear war...."

Um.... to threaten nuclear war surely one needs nuclear weapons, not just posters of them...

Believe me, people... the global threat of nuclear armed Islamofascists who hate "our way of life" comes not from Irano/Hezbollahi big mouths, but from extreme factions within a Pakistan/Saudi Arabian nexus....

....and the bad bit is Pakistan isn't possibly developing nukes.

It already has them.

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at April 17, 2009 4:43 AM
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