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AEI scholar Michael Rubin’s very sober analysis of Iran

Wednesday, April 16, 2008
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HH: Joined now by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the country’s leading authorities on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Michael Rubin, last week, Vice President Cheney was on the program, and I talked to him about 12th Imamism, and about Ahmadinejad. And the left has gone crazy, and they’ve been throwing bricks at him, because he said we should take very seriously what Ahmadinejad says, and we should be concerned about sort of a millennialist outlook. And I’ve been waiting to talk to you ever since this controversy broke out, and to get your reaction to the idea that the people of the United States government have to pay attention to the theology of Iran. What do you think?

MR: Absolutely. Look, just one bit of evidence that you have to take a look at the theology of Iran is the fact that in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, the theology of Iran was believed by enough people that thirteen and fourteen year olds would run across mine fields with plastic keys around their neck, believing that if they detonated a mine, that they would go straight to Paradise.

HH: Yup, yup. Now given that background, what does the audience need to know about…I know it’s primarily Mullah Yazdi who’s associated with this area, but Ahmadinejad talks a lot about the return of the 12th Imam. What do they need to know about that?

MR: Well, there’s two issues here. First, let me give the cynical, then I’ll give the theological.

HH: All right.

MR: The cynical is that traditionally, the president in the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn’t have as much authority as the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad is the first president who’s not a cleric. Before Ahmadinejad was president, Mohammed Khatami was president. A lot of people thought he was reformist, but putting that aside, he was a cleric. Before him, Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was a cleric, and so forth. Now because Ahmadinejad comes from the Revolutionary Guard and not from the clergy, what he’s doing with a lot of this talk of the Hidden Imam is really appealing to the popular folk belief. Basically, when he says the Hidden Imam is asking me to do this, what this could be is saying you’re going to do things my way, and if these clerics get in the way, well, they’re just going against the Hidden Imam’s wishes. But there’s also the possibility that he may really believe it, because what he does, what he has done is not just rhetorical, but it’s also investing money, for example, in Mosques in towns where the Hidden Imam is supposed to appear, and so forth.

HH: How interesting.

MR: In analysis, I mean, look, anyone in Washington, in policy, has dealt with the CIA before, dealt with the Defense Department, dealt with the State Department and so forth. In wherever you are, and whatever the issue is, the greatest mistake you can make in analysis is projection, assuming that everyone else thinks like you. We may be political, so they’re political in the same way. We may have learned how to negotiate in the State Department’s A100 class, and therefore, they went through similar classes. But that’s not the case. They learned a great deal of their ideology in the Mosques, from age four and five years old. When I was playing with Play-Doh, they were being told to memorize the Koran, and they really believe it. And we have to assume that they don’t think like us. Multiculturalism isn’t just having mojitos with your sushi.

HH: Right.

MR: There’s a negative side to it. Not all cultures are all shiny-go-lucky.

HH: So Michael Rubin, stepping back, as you look at Iran, and I’m trying not to be alarmist here, I just think it is the most dangerous state that the United States has ever confronted, because it is so unpredictable. And it wants nuclear weapons. Now obviously, Hitler’s Germany wanted nuclear weapons, but we were at war with it, and they were very naked in their aggressions. But in the modern times, the Soviets, at least, were deterrable. Is Iran deterrable?

MR: Well, first of all, let’s talk about deterrence. When politicians in the United States talk about well, we shouldn’t have a military strategy, instead we should have containment or deterrence, it drives me nuts, because containment and deterrence are both military strategies. You can’t have containment unless you’re willing to station troops in the region, unless you’re willing to upgrades your bases, unless you’re willing to sell arms to neighboring states, and so forth, so that Iran can be contained. The basis of deterrence is basically an understanding inside Iran that if they used nuclear weapons directly or by proxy, that they will suffer the same consequence. The danger here, though, is that Iran, and some Iranian leaders, not all of them, believe that they have the strategic depth to withstand a nuclear strike.

HH: Wow.

MR: And they also believe, it’s the same logic that al Qaeda expressed, albeit from a different theological segment within the Islamist community, that in explaining the Muslims who would be killed, the innocent Muslims in the World Trade Center, for example on 9/11, that they would go directly to Paradise, because they died for the cause, even if it wasn’t their intention to. There is that strain of thought as well. Now 99% of Iranians may not believe this, but 99% of Iranians are irrelevant. What matters when you’re doing U.S. national security and analyzing Iran, isn’t how rich a culture Iran has, but it’s the guys with the guns. And this also drives me nuts about so many journalistic commentaries and so forth, and when I hear diplomats speak about Iran’s nuclear program. It’s not Iran’s nuclear program. It’s the Revolutionary Guard’s nuclear program. And if Ahmadinejad is from the Revolutionary Guard corps, and if he is mirroring their ideology, then we’re in a very dangerous state indeed.

HH: Now Michael Rubin, I’m also surprised that David Petraeus comes to the Senate and the House, and explicitly names Iran as operating the special forces groups that are killing American soldiers, and there is not much news made. It’s incredible to me that they are trying to start a war with us, and we’re not noticing. Were you surprised at how little attention that received?

MR: I was very surprised. Look, I can tell you that when I’m talking to officers, senior commissioned and non-commissioned officers going to these regions, and I do it about four times a month when I’m teaching my classes and so forth, that’s first and foremost on their minds, are what the Iranians are doing, because it’s all well and good to open the pages of the newspaper over a Sunday coffee back in the United States, and talk about this in the abstract. But when you’re dealing with guys that are going into areas of operation where these special groups operate, or are doing logistics, or are doing medicine, or are doing engineering, whatever the whole myriad of missions which our military units have, they’re facing this, it’s very real, and it’s shameful that the media doesn’t realize it.

HH: And what is their strategic purpose? To drive us or to bleed us?

MR: It’s…I’d actually say to bleed us, especially ahead of the U.S. election.

HH: Yup.

MR: Look, the way I would put it is in 2003, we had the strategic advantage. We had troops in Iraq, we had troops in Afghanistan, and the Iranians were a little bit frightened. But the more some politicians got up, and for very short term political reasons, talked about how desperate they were or we were to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq as quickly as possible, the Iranians thought hey, we can change our greatest strategic liability into an asset. We can sort of, we can interfere here, and make…I mean, basically, prevent the Americans from doing a withdrawal, we’ll bleed them both militarily and politically.

– – – –

HH: I’m joined by Michael Rubin, who I think ought to be one of the most featured guests on the television and radio, because Iran ought to be at the center of this election, ought to be at the center of all of our conversations. But unfortunately he’s not, because we’re sleepwalking through this election. Michael Rubin, are you amazed at the lack of conversation about Iran in the political arena?

MR: I am. A lot of the discussion about Iran is really less about Iran, and more about inside the Beltway politics, which is very, very dangerous, because the Iranian threat is growing, and the nuance is important.

HH: And so the key part here is how to talk about it. Does Iran follow our politics to the extent that they believe that John McCain is a menace to them, and they will do what they can to get him elected, do you think?

MR: They will do what they can to hurt John McCain ahead of the election.

HH: That’s what I meant, yeah.

MR: The Iranians are extremely sophisticated.

HH: And so do you think that means a Tet-like offensive in Baghdad and around as we get close to the election in November?

MR: I believe that there will be an upsurge in violence for two reasons. One is that, and the second is that while it’s not on the headlines now, there’s supposed to be the provincial elections in October, which will be too tempting a target for the Iranians. It will be coming just a month before the U.S. elections.

HH: Now I spoke yesterday with Fred Kagan from Berlin, who believes that the Iraqis are becoming quite antagonistic towards the special groups that Iran is funding, and quite antagonistic to the Iranians. Does that square with what you are hearing, Michael Rubin?

MR: Yes. Even though the majority of Iraqis may be Shia, one shouldn’t conflate or assume that all Shia get along. Just remember, during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, that most of the conscripts, most of the people at the front, were Shia in the Iraqi Army, and they didn’t pick up and defect to Iran, because nationalism meant more than religion.

HH: All right, that’s a good point. Now let’s talk about Israel. Will Israel allow Iran to reach nuclear stage, or go critical, as they say, without at least attempting to stop it?

MR: Israel’s got no good option. This isn’t Osirik, the Iraqi nuclear reactor which Israel bombed in 1981. If we were going to hit, if we, the United States, were going to hit Iran, we’re talking probably around 400-1,000 sortees. Now Israel can’t do that by surprise, which means that they’re going to take tremendous loss if they do this, and they’re going to have to go over Saudi Arabia, they’re going to have to go over the Persian Gulf and so forth. The Iranians are going to know they’re coming. That said, if they feel that the United States and Europe aren’t serious about the Iran nuclear program, that we’re neither preparing to stop it nor to effectively contain and deter it, they may try to do it, because they feel that the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat.

HH: Well, after what they did in Syria, whatever that was, and whatever they took out, it seems to me that they have drawn a clear line in the many sands of the Middle East, that they will not allow a state hostile to their existence to have these sorts of weapons. But having said that, if they launch that because the Bush administration is coming to an end and the don’t see any, or they’ve been told we’re not going to do it, and the Vice President was just there, what does Iran do after those strikes?

MR: What you would have is an Iranian response by proxy. First of all, Hezbollah, under UN auspices, has rearmed. And not only have they rearmed the missiles which they had used or were destroyed in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, but now they have missiles that from Lebanon, from Syria, can hit Tel Aviv. They can hit basically anywhere in Israel they want. Iran will also likely launch its own attacks, and I think we would see terrorism worldwide. Remember, the Iranians have already shown that they have a pretty sophisticated network. They’ve been able to stage attacks from Baghdad to Buenos Aires.

HH: And so looking ahead, Michael Rubin, with a minute left here, what do you expect is, what should America be prepared for in the short term, I mean, within the next 24 months in that region?

MR: In the next 24 months, I think things are going to get worse, then they’re going to get better. The only way to have stability is for the Iranians to take us seriously, to understand that there’s lines in the sand, and that we mean it. But what the Iranians see now is that they can keep poking us, poking us and poking us, and that we’re not going to respond. And so what most worries me is that the Iranians are going to be with overconfidence, not judge the U.S. correctly, that if there’s military conflict, it’s not going to be ordered by Washington. It’s going to be in response to something atrocious, which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have done in Iraq or elsewhere.

HH: On that very sober note, Michael Rubin, I want to thank you for continuing to write at Nationalreview.com. It’s very important stuff you post at the Corner. It’s where I get all of my information and pointers, so I appreciate that very, very much, and we’ll keep reading you at Nationalreview.com. From the American Enterprise Institute, it’s Michael Rubin.

End of interview.

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