BOOK REVIEW Beyond the bombast The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran by Yossi Melman and Meir
Reviewed by David Isenberg
Let's face it. Ever since the extent of the Iranian nuclear program became the
subject of public debate in summer 2002, the amount of ink spilled on the
subject could float a carrier battle group. The waves of ink have crested ever
higher since the election in 2005 of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran.
In the classic Shakespearean sense there has been much sound
and fury over the status and intent of Iran's nuclear program, but not a whole
lot of light has been shed. Much the same can be said about Ahmadinejad.
Most of the debate has been reduced to the repetition of cliches and polemics
by both those who mistrust the Iranian government and those who believe Iran
has an inalienable right to a nuclear power program.
Given Iran's leading role in the global oil trade and the global impact any
military attack on Iran would have, dispassionate, accurate analysis of Iran's
nuclear program, in terms of technical, political, economic, social and
cultural aspects is critical.
We've not seen much of it here in the West, even less in terms of books. But
finally we have one that promises to be the go-to book for the next few years.
authors, Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, have the distinction of being two of
the best-informed observers you've never heard of. Melman is an investigative
reporter with Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper. To those who follow the doings of
spy agencies he is known worldwide for his reporting on Israel's intelligence
operations. Meir Javedanafar is an Iranian-born Middle East analyst
specializing in Iranian affairs.
As much of the debate over Iran is driven by the fear, or paranoia, that Iran
might someday have and use nuclear weapons against Israel, having both Israeli
and Iranian perspectives from people who know each country intimately is
When it comes to a subject like a nation's possible nuclear weapons, parsing
technical capabilities is not enough. One must also consider the background and
personality of the political leaders, their life experiences and world view,
their geopolitical ambitions, the county's relations with other nations, and
the domestic politics of the country.
In all these areas this book stands out. The first chapter tracing
Ahmadinejad's life from birth through school and university studies, duties
during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, through his time as mayor of Tehran to
when he declared his candidacy for president, gives invaluable insights into
his personality and psychology.
Chapter three, detailing his religious beliefs and how they affect his views on
both governing Iran and dealing with the greater world, notably Israel, is
Chapter four details some of the domestic economic issues Ahmadinejad is
confronting as president and his battles with political rivals such as former
president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Economically, most Iranians are embattled enough,
so it is far from certain that Ahmadinejad can continue to count on popular
Chapters five and six detailing the origins and early development of the
Iranian nuclear program, while unavoidably covering some material that has been
covered elsewhere, offers some useful details about how long-lived the program
is, having started in the "Atoms for Peace" era in the 1950s.
In light of all the hand-wringing about Iran receiving nuclear help from other
countries, it is useful to remember that Iran received some of its earliest
infrastructures, such as the Tehran Nuclear Research Center, from United States
companies, courtesy of the approval of the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.
It is not well known that the US provided weapons-grade uranium from the late
1960s to 1979 after the Islamic revolution.
Chapter six is also useful in reminding people of how deeply Rafsanjani was
involved in reviving Iran's nuclear program in the aftermath of the war with
Iraq. He was far more of an "atomic ayatollah" than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Chapters seven through nine deal with recent times; the past few years since
the 2002 revelations about the scope of Iran's nuclear program. These are the
years of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, negotiations
over safeguards agreements, debate over the capabilities of the uranium
enrichment centrifuges at Natanz, and efforts by foreign intelligence agencies
to frantically try and obtain reliable and accurate information on the Iranian
nuclear program. It appears that as part of that effort, intelligence agencies,
both Western and Iranian, spend considerable time spying on the IAEA itself.
Chapter 10, is particularly appropriate, given rising oil prices, as it
examines the ability of Iran to threaten regional oil supplies transiting the
Persian Gulf. It also examines the impact of sanctions, which, paradoxically,
have helped Ahmadinejad strengthen his support via appeals to Iranian
nationalism. It also looks at some of the Israeli and American ideas regarding
destabilization and regime change. One might say that currently, both the US
and Israel, are in a back to the future moment, where they are trying to
desperately find a way to emulate the 1951 overthrow of prime minister Mohammad
The last three chapters look the prospects for preventive action against Iran's
nuclear program, Iranian retaliation options, and a concluding chapter on what
the future holds. While most public discussion of preventive action focuses on
military attacks, there are other options such as sabotage via covert
operations and even "leadership elimination".
The authors make it clear that while Israel might be able to do something it
would be very difficult and certainly not achieve a permanent setback. It
certainly wouldn't destroy Iranian nuclear know-how. They also point out that
Israel really doesn't have real freedom of action as any attack would have to
be coordinated with the US government and gain US permission
Iran, on the other hand has terror networks it can run in many parts of the
world and has significant, though not decisive, missile capabilities, which can
negatively affect the region
They conclude that "without dialogue and without a viable military solution,
the world might simply have to accept a nuclear Iran and live in the shadow of
a nuclear sphinx".
The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran by
Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar. Carroll & Graf Publishers, March 2007,
ISBN: 0786718870. Price US$25.95, 336 pages.
David Isenberg is a an analyst in national and international security
affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a member of the Coalition for a
Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the
Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.