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Two Wrongs (Updated)

In his most recent column for Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria discusses the hyperbolic tendencies of the Right while describing the intentions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Zakaria rightly argues that we have exaggerated some of Iran's capabilities and intentions, while noting the absurdity in comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the likes of Joe Stalin or Adolf Hitler.

Zakaria gets a lot right, but here's what he gets wrong:

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

At the tail end of the column, Zakaria implores his readers to get a better understanding of Iran, a NAM country that we have essentially disengaged from over the past decade. This is perhaps true, but such an understanding is a two way street. Zakaria dismisses the hegemonic ambitions of Iran, with never a mention of their consistent financing of global terrorism. Not one mention of the corrosive and destabilizing role they play in Lebanon. No mention of the assassinations this regime has been linked to, or their constant bullying of neighbors, such as Azerbaijan and the UAE.

The kind of imperialism that Iran engages in is far more subtle, and is cultural, religious and ideological. Claims of a new caliphate are of course rather silly, but we have already witnessed the way Iran utilizes proxies and territory to expand their sphere of influence. An Iraq with no American presence would serve as a grand staging ground for insurgent groups like Hezbollah, and also allow the faithful in Qom to fulfill their role as stewards of the Shi'a faith in Iraq.

We mustn't assume that Iran is weak simply because we're stronger, or that they are Switzerland simply because they're not the Soviets or the Nazis. There's room between those two polarities for a lot of harm and destruction. But this either/or argument is the same logic used by bloggers like Juan Cole, who much like Zakaria seems determined to challenge exaggerations with more exaggerations. However, two disingenuous wrongs do not make a right.

Here's where Zakaria is spot on:

In a speech last week, Rudy Giuliani said that while the Soviet Union and China could be deterred during the cold war, Iran can't be. The Soviet and Chinese regimes had a "residual rationality," he explained. Hmm. Stalin and Mao--who casually ordered the deaths of millions of their own people, fomented insurgencies and revolutions, and starved whole regions that opposed them--were rational folk. But not Ahmadinejad, who has done what that compares? One of the bizarre twists of the current Iran hysteria is that conservatives have become surprisingly charitable about two of history's greatest mass murderers.

If I had to choose whom to describe as a madman, North Korea's Kim Jong Il or Ahmadinejad, I do not think there is really any contest. A decade ago Kim Jong Il allowed a famine to kill 2 million of his own people, forcing the others to survive by eating grass, while he imported gallons of expensive French wine. He has sold nuclear technology to other rogue states and threatened his neighbors with test-firings of rockets and missiles. Yet the United States will be participating in international relief efforts to Pyongyang worth billions of dollars.

This is fair, and the conflation of Ahmadinejad with the likes of Mao, or even Kim Jon Il, only muddies the conversation and makes the debate about Ahmadinejad as opposed to the entire Qom-controlled regime as a whole. While I understand Rudy's point (Communists have earthly goals, Ahmadinejad does not), Zakaria is correct to dismiss the comparisons of carnage and death unleashed by these 20th Century despots.


The Reality-Based Community on Zakaria:

The only reason Iran has any influence against us is because we have made a series of foolhardy, and eminently reversible, policy choices. If we didn't have 165,000 troops stationed next door, they'd have no ability to damage us militarily. If we were actually moving to reduce our reliance on carbon fuels and increase the cost of "dirty" energy in order to encourage renewables, their economic pull would gradually weaken.

The problem with this argument is that it obfuscates the role played by Iran in supporting and financing global terrorism for decades. This notion that Iran has been like Switzerland since 1979 is a disingenuous fairy tale.

Secondly, the day the last American troop leaves Iraq will signal the rise of Iranian hegemony. They've already said it, and they've already done it in other countries.

They want a weapon because it offers them an insurance policy against American invasion and prestige and pull in the world community. If anyone tells you they want a nuclear weapon in order to attack us, arm terrorists, or blow up Israel, they are a profoundly stupid person and you should stop listening to them immediately.

Pull in the world community? A nuclear armed Iran will only limit its global economic options, and will likely lead to more sanctioning (if not blocked by irresponsible regimes in Russia and China). The kind of pull it allows them is an exclamation point on every action they make in the Middle East. Yes, it serves as an insurance policy in theory. But they know the U.S. and Israel will never allow them to have the weapon, and they're fighting for the best pole position diplomatically.

They can't have the weapon without Russia and China harming their own economic interests in the West. Iran would need their cover, and they're unlikely to get it. But a nuclear Iran would certainly be a more brazen and ambitious one, and at that time, there'd be little we could do about it.

Believing that this is simply a matter of deterrence for them, or that they wouldn't provide the knowledge to their various proxies, would in fact be profoundly stupid.

Others Blogging It:

Crooks and Liars
Matthew Yglesias
Kevin Hayden

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