March 5th, 2012
11:17 AM ET

The Iran threat: Separating fact from fiction

By Reza Sayah, CNN

Many U.S. politicians and Israeli leaders call a nuclear-armed Iran the greatest danger to world peace.

“An Iranian nuclear weapon is one of the most frightening things we have to confront,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told his supporters in Iowa earlier this year.

In his speech to the U.S. congress last year Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The greatest danger of all could soon be upon us – a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”

The narrative by those who fear Iran most goes something like this: Iran is ruled by mad mullahs and a deranged president who are secretly building nuclear bombs and could be crazy enough to use them - therefore they must be stopped, even if it means attacking Iran first.

But top U.S. military officials and leading analysts say the frightening rhetoric about Iran doesn’t always match the facts.

One of the most alarming claims is that Iran poses an “existential threat” to
Israel. This view has been called into question by top U.S. officials, including the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, General Martin Dempsey.

“I also understand that Israel has national interests that are unique to them. And, of course, they consider Iran to be an existential threat in a way that we have not concluded that Iran is an existential threat,” Dempsey told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last month.

Neither Washington nor the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog have accused Iran of actually building bombs. U.S. officials say they believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear capability that could lead to production of a nuclear bomb. Iran’s leaders have called nuclear bombs “un-Islamic” and insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, powering plants to generate electricity. However analysts say the conflicting claims create an atmosphere of uncertainty that serves as a deterrent in a “keep them guessing” defense strategy.

But what if Iran had nukes?

Many U.S officials and analysts say they don’t believe the regime’s leaders are trigger happy.

“I've been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008,” Dempsey told Zakaria. “And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.”

“They haven't shown themselves to be suicidal,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What's paramount for Iran's leadership is to remain in power and so if you're a suicidal regime you usually don't survive for 33 years.”

Former senior advisor to U.S. President Barak Obama, Vali Nasri, said Iran’s leaders “have ambitions of grandeur, not ambitions of destruction.”

But hasn’t Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly said he wants Israel “wiped off the map”? Despite widely held perceptions and his often confrontational tone, neither he nor other Iranian leaders have threatened to directly wage war against Israel.

Analysts and Farsi speakers - the Iranian language - say Ahmadinejad’s initial statement in a speech in 2005 was misinterpreted. They say he was not calling for an attack against Israel, but the ouster of its government in favor of one Palestinian state, with Israel no longer recognized as a nation.

“Iran has consistently rejected Israel's existence since 1979,” Sadjadpour says. “They have supported groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah who agitate militarily against Israel and for that reason Israel fears were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, it would embolden Iran to double-down and support these rejectionist groups it has supported for all these years.”

“When he [Ahmadinejad] said ‘wipe off the map’ - that there would be an explicit military operation to do that - that’s not…what he said,” Nasr explains. “But the political intent of what he said is unambiguous, which is to deny Israel’s right to exist and to encourage the Arab’s to do so as well.”

An Iran with the capability to build nuclear bombs could also lead to a major shift in the balance of power, creating instability in what is already one of the world’s most volatile regions.

And that’s enough, analysts say, for Israel, the U.S. and their allies to be very worried.

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Topics: Iran • Israel • Military • United States

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