TOPICS : To contain Iran, keep military options open

For Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to snare an invitation to speak before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recently, after threatening several times to destroy Israel, is what’s known in military parlance as a successful “information op.”

In a mass-media age, symbolism defeats substance. Thus, the harsh reception Ahmadinejad received at CFR is less significant than the fact of the reception itself. CFR’s august status attaches added symbolic value to its deeds.

The council reception, along with interviews that Ahmadinejad gave journalists and his speech at the UN, helped make him more of a fixture on the world scene, thus ratcheting up his perceived legitimacy. All in all, it was a small Iranian victory in a new form of conflict that strategists call “combination warfare,” something that Tehran may be better at than Washington.

Combination warfare, a term coined by US Air Force colonels James Callard and Peter Faber, acknowledges that in an age of intensive military, media, financial, and other activities, battle must be joined in a coordinated fashion on several fronts to create sustained and shifting pressure on the adversary.

Iran’s power structure, armed with an admirable Persian gift for subtlety and manipulation, has restricted its own domestic organs of dissent so that it is well positioned to lay siege to media and political elites elsewhere. Its president both shocks and fascinates Western journalists; sophisticated mullahs at Davos, Switzerland, have made deals with international businessmen; Iranian intelligence agents encourage Islamic power demonstrations that undermine Europe’s resolve; and Iran’s diplomats follow a strategy of delay and partial concessions that evaporate. The goal is to buy time while Iran’s scientists work 24/7 to develop a nuclear capability to alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

It was the delegitimisation of force that provided the bedrock for appeasement in Europe in the 1930s. Europe was still recovering from a continent-wide war that had cost too many lives and caused untold destruction for no demonstrable result, and that was the product of decisions made by a closed political elite. The idea that European governments could wage another conflict was seen as preposterous. There was no choice but to reach a diplomatic arrangement with the Nazis. Appeasement was not only the product of cowards but also of eminently reasonable men. Adolf Hitler had not threatened to annihilate the Jews, and Germany’s reasons for reoccupying the Sudetenland were based on principles of self-determination.

Ahmadinejad is not Hitler, but for diplomacy to matter against a governing clique with the willpower of Iran, it must be backed up by the credible will to use force, which

requires military planning. But that is just what the administration’s critics fear. By delegitimising even the possibility of a military strike, they render diplomacy impotent as an alternative. — The Christian Science Monitor