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Charles Cogan: Iran — They're Gaming Us?

Artistically and architecturally, the city of Isfahan is one of the urban jewels of Iranian civilization. It is a symbol of the beauty that Iranians have been able to render through their country’s history. But is Iran really ready to sacrifice all this glory (not to mention the lives of its citizens) in an attempt to annihilate Israel? Surely, Iranians know what would be coming at them in retaliation for such a rash attack, were it to take place. The recent turmoil following the disputed elections has somewhat changed the way we look at (and what we hope for) Iran, but realists must confront the reality that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will likely remain in office, and will almost certainly continue his bellicose attacks on Israel and the West. (Though with the credibility of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad having been somewhat damaged by the election campaign and its aftermath, we may see a temporary toning down of the rhetoric.) Nonetheless, it is never too soon to begin reassessing the Iranian nuclear question. Since the Iranian leadership would obviously prefer to avoid military annihilation, why are Ahmadinejad's Hitler-like rants tolerated by Khamenei? To curry favor with the Arab street, which is not, by nature, disposed to like Persians? To brandish the threat of a weapon of mass destruction attack in the region in order to intimidate the leaderships of moderate Arab states? It might appear to some that the Iranians are superior to the rationalist West in the matter of psychological thrust and parry. Take takiya, for example, the Persian word for the virtue of dissimulation in the face of a powerful enemy. This concept falls outside the rationalist paradigm of the Enlightenment, with its attachment to the truth. Could it be that, knowing the West’s penchant for rationalist thinking, pragmatism, and literal-mindedness, the Iranians are simply gaming us? Are they merely observing with some delectation our Pavlovian reaction to their threats? Clearly, using the fine art of takiya, the Iranians have been able to convince at least some in the West that their quest for a nuclear capability is only for peaceful purposes. Ironically, Tehran has much on its side in the nuclear argument. As a signatory to the porous Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium. But Iran's violation of the safeguards agreement and the capacity of its centrifuges to produce weapon material has provoked international concern. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad, with his apocalyptic rhetoric, has spoiled everything. The Israelis, ever mindful to “never again” fall prey to their enemies, now feel obliged to take his threats seriously. This is how wars begin. Charles G. Cogan was chief of the Near-East South-Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from 1979 to 1984. It was this division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

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