Since World War II, successive crises have tied American security ever closer to the events and players of the Middle East. There was the tripartite war against Egypt over the Suez Canal in 1956; the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973; Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979; Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, precipitating the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In The Sixth Crisis, Dana Allin and Steven Simon argue that Tehran's nuclear drive—and the possibility of a preemptive Israeli strike—constitutes a crisis as momentous as any of these.
Allin, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Simon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, take a broad approach, both regionally and historically, in discussing the looming Iranian challenge. The book begins with a detailed account of the technicalities and politics of Iran's nuclear program. Following chapters are devoted to the possible Israeli response; tensions between Arab leaders who fear Iran and Arab publics who detest Israel; the history of diplomatic efforts to counter Iran's nuclear drive; and finally, an assessment of President Obama's strategy to "rebuild America's position in the Middle East."
The wide-lens treatment is intended, no doubt, to convey the authors' dispassionate, moderate sensibilities. The more information one has, the less likely one is to rush to simplistic judgments, and so on. Allin and Simon seek to establish themselves in the reliable middle, between neoconservatives, "for whom reality devolves to a war against 'Islamo-fascism,' " and anti-Zionists, "who see Israel at the root of all Middle East evil." If those poles seem unsophisticated to some, the authors have found enough willing takers among a certain foreign policy set. The New America Foundation's Peter Beinart and Steve Coll and former national security officials Samuel Berger and Richard A. Clarke have spoken enthusiastically about the book's objectivity, its sober analysis, and its myth-busting achievements.
What does the authors' objectivity look like in practice? The book's endorsers are correct that both Allin and Simon are serious analysts equally adept at discussing technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program and the complexities of military planning. But when the authors turn their attention to Iran itself, things begin to go awry. Allin and Simon are compelled to relay how ordinary Iranian citizens held spontaneous candlelight vigils in solidarity with America after the 9/11 attacks but not how the country's Supreme Leader and revolutionary cadre cheered the attacks or facilitated the transit of 9/11 hijackers. They point out that the country assisted America in its battle against the Taliban but not that it undertook operations to murder U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. The authors condemn George W. Bush for including Iran in the Axis of Evil but ignore the regime's embrace of anti-American rhetoric and conspiracies.
In other words, Allin and Simon's dogged attempt at objectivity becomes, before long, an exercise in ideological tunnel vision. There is so much moderation on hand that the authors end up projecting a portion of it onto the country they are supposed to be analyzing. The Iran of The Sixth Crisis is, at best, half real.
The errors pile up as the authors cover ever-more-complex ground. Allin and Simon commit the common mistake of assigning their own sincerity to Iranian reformists. They assume, for example, that "liberal cleric" Mohammad Khatami was ingenuous in his attempts to ameliorate conflict with the United States, even as he pushed the throttle forward on Iran's nuclear program, Holocaust denial, and support for terrorism. As even Laura Secor, a left-wing commentator, noted in the New Yorker, "Iran's reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state. It sought not to dismantle or secularize the Islamic Republic . . . but to improve it." Iran's reformers endorse the same theocratic structures that underpin the Islamic Republic today. They object to what they see as dishonest manipulation of those structures. In fact, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, rather than condemning the nuclear weapons program, the reformers claim credit for it.
Partisan sympathies lead the authors into areas of irresolvable cognitive dissonance. They seem to understand that Barack Obama's "extended hand" to Iran has been left hanging, but they feel compelled to defend the president's Iran policies all the same. Hence they first dismiss linkage—the idea that to resolve Iran's nuclear challenge, the White House must force Israeli concessions on the Palestinian question—before arguing in the very next sentence that "there is nonetheless an indirect linkage at work," citing the alleged radicalizing effect of the Israeli occupation of territories claimed by Palestinians.
In truth, Islamist terrorism did not start with Israel's creation, nor will it end with Palestinian-Israeli peace. Allin and Simon do not understand that it is not hatred of Israel that motivates Islamist terrorism but rather hatred of Western culture. This hatred runs through the Sunni Islamism of Osama bin Laden and the Shiite fanaticism of the Iranian regime and its regional proxies. Indeed, it is impossible to access Iran's nuclear motivation without grasping the noxious mix of paranoia and anti-Western vitriol that permeates the Islamic Republic's leadership.
Allin and Simon suggest a characteristically moderate combination of diplomacy and containment to counter the Iranian threat. But like too many Western realists, Allin and Simon approach diplomacy with the utopian notion that engagement always enables both sides to bolster interests; they cannot countenance the fact that adversaries may simply seek to checkmate America and Britain. They castigate Bush for having failed to work with Russia on a solution to Iran's nuclear drive. But if the crisis continues, Moscow stands to gain billions of dollars in arms and nuclear-materials sales. Moreover, it could also benefit from a strike on Iran, as both antipathy toward the U.S. and the price of oil would skyrocket.
The reputation and credibility of the United States does not factor prominently in the strategic thinking of Allin and Simon. "It is hard to imagine that Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon capability would inspire Gulf Arab states to renounce American protection," they declare. Yet Allin and Simon do not discuss where American troops should be based, Iraq's posture after the withdrawal of the American forces this year, logistical arrangements, or pre-deployments of weapons and munitions.
An Iranian bomb—or an Israeli strike to prevent it—may very well constitute a sixth Middle East crisis. Without doubt, the diplomatic, economic, and military strategies necessary to counter the Iranian bomb will be costly and complex. If they are to be successful, however, they must be calibrated to reality. The Sixth Crisis is not. If the authors have found a dearth of consciously moderate Iran analysis, perhaps that's because the horrifying idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon demands to be taken seriously on its own decidedly immoderate terms and not used as an opportunity for ideological posturing. The real value of The Sixth Crisis is in demonstrating how naive and unrealistic are the intellectual foundations of Obama's approach.