May 11, 2010
Even after Reza Aslan called me a moron, I still had one more question for him.
We were sitting with about 30 others in the Hollywood Hills living room of Keith Addis and Keri Selig. Aslan, the Iranian-born scholar and author, was holding forth to a salon of entertainment industry elite at a Foreign Policy Round Table.
Aslan is youthful, handsome and persuasive — a full head of dark hair, witty and cocksure. Imagine, if you will, the love child of Fareed Zakaria and Jon Stewart and you begin to grasp his TV-ready mix of erudition and hip.
Aslan didn’t call me personally a moron, but he did say this: “Anyone who tells you that Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to use it is a moron. An absolute moron.”
Iran wants nukes for the same reason that every country wants nukes, Aslan said — “for deterrence.”
That’s when I raised my hand.
Even if that were true, I asked, why should Israel take the risk of allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon? After all, its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened “to wipe Israel off the map,” and the regime Aslan claims is nothing if not pragmatic directly provokes and threatens Israel by arming Hamas, to Israel’s south, and Hezbollah, to its north. Is it really so moronic to think that a leadership that says and does such things might one day, eventually, given the right circumstances, do the unthinkable?
Aslan replied that Ahmadinejad’s hard-line rhetoric wins him points among hard-liners at home and in the Arab world, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric comparing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to Nazi Germany in 1939 scores him points with Jews in Israel and abroad.
Both leaders, Aslan asserted, need the fear and bluster of the other to maintain their power.
What struck me about Aslan’s talk was how completely it contradicted the going opinion in much of the Israeli press and Jewish community.
Not long ago, in a high-rise office building a few miles away, a group of 40 Jewish leaders gathered to hear another Iran expert give an off-the-record briefing on the same topic. For him, as for so many in the American and Israeli intelligence community, a nuclear Iran poses an imminent danger that has to be met first with crippling sanctions and then, if that fails, preemptive military action. Don’t forget that many liberal Democracts, like Rep. Howard Berman, are at the forefront of the sanctions effort. If smart people didn’t think Iran could conceivably use its nukes against Israel, why bother with sanctions at all?
It’s an occupational hazard: being exposed to convincing experts who offer diametrically opposed conclusions. But when it comes to Iranian nukes, when the stakes of being wrong are so high, one has to choose between them.
To Aslan, the Israelis have been crying wolf for too long to be taken seriously.
“Israeli intelligence is useless on this topic,” he said, “because they’ve been saying Iran is 18 months away from developing a nuclear weapon for the last 10 years. They’ve left the argument.”
But the boy who cried wolf was right, too — once. Just because the Israelis may have overreacted back then doesn’t mean we should under-react now.
By Aslan’s estimation, Iran is now one to two years away from weaponizing its nuclear program. (A number, by the way, that many Israelis now agree with.)
If the regime wants a nuclear weapon, he said, there’s nothing the world can do to stop it: international sanctions won’t work, nor would a military strike.
Israel couldn’t attack without America’s approval, Aslan said, as it would have to cross American airspace over Iraq — something even President George W. Bush refused to permit. And a joint attack would, at best, delay, or perhaps even speed up, development.
Meanwhile, Israeli experts say a strike could at least cripple the nuclear facilities, while changes in Iran might, in the meantime, topple the regime — remember Iraq’s nuclear reactor?
“If Iran wants nuclear weapons,” Aslan said, “there’s nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do is make Iran not want them.”
For him, this means three things: using specific sanctions against businesses owned by the Revolutionary Guard, which Aslan says has become a kind of Persian Gulf Sopranos; letting the Green Movement take its course, causing the necessary social upheaval; and applying parity to Middle East nuclear policy — getting Israel to give up its nukes while extending the United States’ nuclear umbrella over the Middle East.
Obviously, this is where Aslan parts company with the other groups of experts I’ve heard. They would scoff at treating the Iranian regime — which oppresses its own people, sends rockets via proxy into Israel, engages in international terror and, as I mentioned to Aslan, vows the destruction of Israel — virtually the same as the Israelis.
Finally, there is Aslan’s confident prediction that even if Iran had nukes — and he’s convinced the Obama administration is resigned to this — it wouldn’t use them.
“The Iranian regime’s primary goal over the past 30 years has been self-preservation,” he said. Use nukes, and it’s game over.
Part of me wishes Aslan were 100 percent right. But, like all experts, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
A people who faced obliteration at the hands of an anti-Semite just a few decades ago probably shouldn’t rely solely on Reza Aslan’s expertise. Maybe Iran is not, as Netanyahu keeps saying, Nazi Germany, but it isn’t Luxembourg either.
Aslan holds that it’s impossible for Israel to do anything about Iran’s nukes on its own.
To that I can only quote an expert on that particular subject:
“If an expert says it can’t be done,” David Ben-Gurion once said, “get another expert.”
To read another account of Reza Aslan’s talk, read here.