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May 19, 2008

Is Iran A Serious Threat?
Posted by Michael Cohen

So over the weekend, Barack Obama said the Iran is not a "serious threat" to the United States in the same way that the Soviet Union was . . . and now John McCain is all a twitter. According to McCain:

Senator Obama claimed that the threat Iran poses to our security is "tiny" compared to the threat once posed by the former Soviet Union.

Obviously, Iran isn't a superpower and doesn't possess the military power the Soviet Union had.

YES! YES! YES! Obviously that is the case. The Soviet Union possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States and a military capable of invading Western Europe. Iran 's military can't be mentioned in the same breath as the Soviet military and of course Iran has no nuclear bombs. So what's the problem here? The notion that this is even a controversial statement is crazy.

But it's worth reading the rest of McCain's statement to see how he portrays the Iranian threat:

But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant. On the contrary, right now Iran provides some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill our soldiers. They are the chief sponsor of Shia extremists in Iraq, and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. And their President, who has called Israel a "stinking corpse," has repeatedly made clear his government's commitment to Israel's destruction. Most worrying, Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The biggest national security challenge the United States currently faces is keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed. They might not be a superpower, but the threat the Government of Iran poses is anything but "tiny."

Can we all get a little perspective here? Yes, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons that would be bad, but as the most recent NIE on Iran's nuclear program showed, they are nowhere near achieving that goal. Iran is a regional threat, no doubt about it; they threaten our allies and they are a destabilizing force in the region, but a "dire" threat even close to being on par with the Soviet Union is simply absurd.

Later, McCain intimates that if Obama were to meet with Iranian leaders it would "reinforce their confidence." Call me crazy, but I think continually claiming that Iran is a dire threat to the US might also increase their confidence.

Tell me again, who is showing "inexperience" and "reckless judgment?"



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Actually, Sen. Obama is showing inexperience and Sen. McCain is showing reckless judgment.

Obama proclaims his willingness to engage in direct talks with Tehran without specifying what he wants out of those talks, what he thinks the Iranians want, what he is willing to give up, or at what point he is willing to break off talks if they are becoming unproductive. Nor does he give any sign of wanting to test the extent of factional divisions within Iranian politics. Early in the campaign Obama indicated a willingness to sit down with Ahmedinejad, surely not the place to start communications with the Iranian government. Perhaps he has thought better of that idea since.

McCain, on the other hand, has adopted the posture of the President he is trying to replace. Bush points with alarm, so he points with alarm; Bush is preoccupied with the Iranian threat to Israel, so McCain is preoccupied with the threat to Israel. If McCain saw Bush as the same simpering mama's boy he campaigned against in 2000 instead of as his Commander in Chief I doubt he would be so determined to copy all the details of the administration's posture in this area. Perhaps he is unwisely being scheduled for too many campaign events after clinching the GOP nomination; if he took some time away from the campaign trail to contemplate his central problem this November -- running as a Republican to succeed an historically unpopular Republican President that most Americans do not like, trust or respect -- he'd be better at not sounding so much like Bush does. But at this point I'm not surer of this than I am of Obama.

Obama proclaims his willingness to engage in direct talks with Tehran without specifying what he wants out of those talks, what he thinks the Iranians want, what he is willing to give up, or at what point he is willing to break off talks if they are becoming unproductive.

That's not inexperience. It would be extraordinarily foolish for Obama to make these kinds of statements before the fact, Zathras. That's like saying he shouldn't sit down to play poker unless he first tells his opponents how much he is hoping to win, what are the maximum losses he is willing to sustain before he withdraws from the game, how high he will go on any given hand, which plays should be interpreted by his opponents as bluffs, what he believes his opponents' bottom lines to be, etc. That's giving away far too much.

All Obama should say is that he believes there is at least a reasonable chance that the US can best protect its interests by talking with the Iranians about a range of outstanding disagreements and difficulties, and that we should therefore explore the diplomatic path fully.

I agree though that talking with Ahmadinejad personally is not the place to start, mainly for domestic political reasons. On the other hand, I don't think much of Ahmadinejad's political and diplomatic skills, and tend to think Obama could easily maneuver him into a bad diplomatic position, and then take him to the cleaners, if the two ever did talk.

As for McCain, it is hard for me to tell if he really does believe all of the stuff he is saying, or if he is just a prisoner of the his base, and their hysterical nightmare fantasies about the Evil New Caliphate and the invading Euro-Muslim hordes and whatnot. It could be that he knows Obama has been an object of suspicion from the most deeply committed Zionists - both Christian and Jewish - so has just decided to make a political move for that important part of the electorate by pandering to their extreme notions about the Persian-Hitlerian Nuclear Empire.

The post above displays what Sen. Obama has going for him right now. There is no evidence -- none, zero, an absolute goose egg -- that Obama is only saying we ought to talk to the Iranians because he thinks that to be more precise than that would be "extraordinarily foolish." What evidence there is suggests that he proposes to talk to the Iranians because President Bush does not want to talk to the Iranians, or at least does not want to be seen doing so, and Bush is unpopular.

But there is always the audacity of hope on the part of Obama's supporters that his career to date noodling around in the Illinois legislature, giving speeches to adoring crowds and writing books about himself has prepared him to be a geostrategist. For now, anyway.


You claimed that Obama was showing inexperience, and your evidence for that was that:

Obama proclaims his willingness to engage in direct talks with Tehran without specifying what he wants out of those talks, what he thinks the Iranians want, what he is willing to give up, or at what point he is willing to break off talks if they are becoming unproductive.

My claim was that it would be extremely foolish to specify in advance the things that you seemed to be suggesting Obama should specify. I would add here that one doesn't need to be an experienced world leader to understand how foolish it would be. Any simpleton with an ounce of experience of negotiation in the real world knows that you don't put all your cards on the table and specify all of your yellow lines and red lines in advance of the negotiation. The average middle level business manager knows this, and the average state legislator would know these things as well. My "faith" in Obama, then, amounts only to a conviction is that he is not an utter moron, and possesses at least an average intelligence with rudimentary knowledge of the art of negotiation. You seem quite certain, on the other hand, that Obama does not even possess this rudimetary level of common sense, and that his failure to send the signals you strangely suggested he should send can only be because he is doesn't even rise to the level of dumb.

However, it is interesting that when Obama was asked by the Associated press last year to name a "hidden talent", his answer was "I'm a pretty good poker player." There were a few stories about this talent last year, but then the campaign apparently discouraged further investigation. There was this interesting Chicago Sun Times story though.

Personally, I would be happy if Obama went right after a high-profile sit-down with Ahmadinejad, since I suspect Obama will be very popular globally following his election, in his first year at least, and thus his ability to exert diplomatic pressure and forge an advantageous grand bargain" might never be higher. However, I suspect that for US domestic political reasons this might not be doable, and the diplomatic track will have to start elsewhere in Iran.

I admit that my summary above of Sen. Obama's career serving time in the Illinois legislature and indulging his penchant for autobiography neglected his experience as a card player. I understand he plays basketball too, and therefore has an innate understanding of the importance of a strong defense.

Neither here or anywhere else have I ever referred to Obama as a moron, and I do not know that he has no talent as a geostrategist. I also do not know that he cannot fly to the moon or perform heart surgery, but the fact that he has never done either is evidence I think it imprudent to ignore.

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