Will sanctions persuade Iran to stop building nuclear weapons? No such question can be answered with finality, but it is more likely that the Obama administration’s graduated sanctions will accelerate Tehran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The Obama administration, according to news accounts, is aghast that Israel might take preemptive action rather than give sanctions time to work. Sanctions, though, are more likely to prompt Iran to stake everything on the nuclear card. The last time the West dealt with a similar case, the prospect of economic collapse and the fear of regime change motivated the outbreak of World War II.
Iran is planning to double its defense budget even though its currency is collapsing. These are related events: in the medium term, the free-fall of Iran’s rial constitutes a transfer of wealth to the government from what remains of Iran’s private sector. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, “The government, which receives oil revenue mostly in dollars and euros, is profiting from the rial’s decline, analysts said. ‘Their income is in dollars, so a strong dollar helps them to buy more rials to pay their bills,’ said one prominent economist, who asked not to be identified, for fear of reprisals.” At least for the time being, sanctions strengthen the relative position of the regime, while undermining its long-term staying power — unless, of course, Tehran begins a new set of regional wars under a nuclear umbrella.
An important insight into the character of the Iranian leadership can be gained from Adolf Hitler’s speech to the German army’s top commanders at Obersalzberg on Aug. 22, 1939, a week before the invasion of Poland. Hitler began by explaining that he initially had wanted to attack the Allies in the West but that circumstances compelled him to take Poland out first. The question, then, was why begin war at that particular moment. And the answer had two parts: economic weakness and the threat of regime change.
We have nothing to lose, but much indeed to gain. As a result of the constraints forced upon us, our economic position is such that we cannot hold out for more than a few years. [Hermann] Goering can confirm this. We have no other choice, we must act. … At no point in the future will Germany have a man with more authority than I. But I could be replaced at any moment by some idiot or criminal. … The morale of the German people is excellent. It can only worsen from here.
Hitler, by his own account, acted out of fear: fear that the German economy would collapse under the burden of his military expansion, and fear that he “could be replaced at any moment.” I quoted this speech in a 2005 essay, adding, “Within a generation, both Iran’s oil and demographic resources will be exhausted. Impending demographic collapse, I have argued in the past, impels Iran towards an imperial design (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13). Iran’s elderly dependent population will soar to nearly 30% from just 7% today by mid-century, the consequence of the country’s collapsing birth rate. The demographic disaster will hit just as oil exports dry up during the 2020s. To break out of the trap, Iran must make an all-or-nothing bet during the present generation.”
Just like Hitler, Iran has nothing to lose. Hitler was convinced that the Aryan race was doomed to corruption and extinction unless he restored its preeminence by force; Ahmadinejad knows with certainty that Persian will become an extinct language in a few generations given the present fertility trend. The UN’s “medium variant” forecast for Iran puts the present fertility rate at just 1.59 (which means about 1.35 for Persian-speakers given the higher fertility of Iran’s minorities), and the “low variant” at just 1.34. That’s as low as the baby-bust European countries. Iran is dying a slow death. In my book (How Civilizations Die) I report the horror and panic among Iran’s rulers over its prospective extinction.
What Hitler imagined in his nightmares, Ahmadinejad fears in the full light of day. Hitler told his commanders in August 1939 that they had nothing to lose; Ahmadinejad knows with certainty that he has nothing to lose.
In 2005, surgical strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity would have been comparatively easy. After seven years of deep digging, the logistical requirements are quite different. Senior planners at the Pentagon say privately that it would be very difficult to destroy centrifuges in bunkers, and that aerial attacks would concentrate on killing the political and military leadership as well as destroying command and control. Perhaps there is a covert capability that could put suitcase bombs into the tunnels leading to the bunkers; I know nothing about such things. It seems likely, however, that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons would be a messy and bloody business rather than a well-defined surgical operation. It is too bad the West did not have the good sense to correct the problem in 2005. However much it costs in Iranian blood and well-being, it’s still worth it.
Note: I have had to trash many posts in response to this story. Please be advised that I will approve any posts, no matter how hostile, provided that they have some substantive argument, and do not contain personal insults or obscenities.