Iran and the bomb

The excellent documentary by Al Jazeera reviews the evidence that the Iranian government is working on nuclear weapons.  Unlike, say, CBS’s 60 Minutes, Al Jazeera goes beyond the usual English-language sources and the default assumptions of American journalism.  The documentary provides strong circumstantial evidence that Iran obtained nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan, shows that a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report condemning Iran is based in part on a forged document, and concludes that it is impossible to say for sure what the Iranian government is doing.

My own guess is that the Iranian government probably is trying to acquire either nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons capability.  This is based partly on circumstantial evidence but more on the logic of the situation.   But I don’t claim to know, and I easily could be wrong.

My question is:  Why is the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons a worse threat than the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, Communist China or other countries?  I’m old enough to remember that there were people who seriously advocated “preventive war” against those countries.  And while we Americans, thankfully, rejected those arguments, they were stronger in the case of Russia and China than they are in the case of Iran.

Both countries were totalitarian dictatorships which were much worse than the authoritarian governement of Iran.  Both were avowed enemies of freedom and democracy as we Americans understand them.  The governments of both countries were rivals of the U.S. government for world power, and both supported anti-American political movements across the world.

Moreover the Soviet Union, unlike Iran, was able to develop the nuclear missile capability to destroy the United States as a functioning society (which power is retained by the Russian Federation today).  Mao Zedong, at the time China acquired nuclear weapons, made statements that sounded a lot crazier than anything Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is saying.  Mao for example said that it wouldn’t matter if hundreds of millions of Chinese were killed in a nuclear war because hundreds of millions would be left.

But we Americans were able to co-exist with these two countries through a combination of deterrence and diplomacy.  There were two good reasons for not attacking Russia and China before they had the capability to retaliate with their own nuclear weapons.

First, it would have been a crime against humanity.  If Presidents Truman or Eisenhower had ordered such an attack, they would have made themselves mass killers on the same scale as Stalin and Mao, and an infinitely greater scale than Osama bin Laden.

Second, it wouldn’t have worked.  The Russian and Chinese nations would still have existed, and would have been more determined than ever to acquire nuclear weapons and strike at the United States.  Deterrence would not longer have worked because, if a nation is going to be attacked no matter what its leaders do, the fear of attack will not influence its leaders’ actions.

This would have meant that the United States would have had to repeat its attack every 10 or 15 years, with increasing murderousness and decreasing effectiveness—what an Israeli called “mowing the lawn” in the case of Iran.  Thankfully our Presidents in the early Cold War era had sense enough to refrain from going down that path.

Paul Pillar, who was the U.S. national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, wrote in the current issue of The Washington Monthly that deterrence would work with a nuclear Iran just as it worked during the Cold War.

The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred. On the campaign trail Rick Santorum has been among the most vocal in propounding this notion, asserting that Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that it believes “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom.  Newt Gingrich speaks in a similar vein about how Iranian leaders are suicidal jihadists, and says “it’s impossible to deter them.”

The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior.  More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one.  They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife.

Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves.

In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival. The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, because it saw them as a counterrevolutionary threat.  The assassinations ended when they started inflicting too much damage on Iran’s relations with European governments.  Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests.  The principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.

Acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a bad thing.  The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the harder it ultimately will be to bring nuclear weapons under control.  Acquisition of nuclear weapons would add to the power and prestige of the Iranian government at home and abroad. President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran might motivate Arab nations to acquire nuclear weapons in self-defense, but I think Arab nations are more worried about Israel’s nuclear weapons than they would be about Iran.

Whatever the consequences of a nuclear Iran, the consequences of war with Iran would be much worse.

When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.

No one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be, and that is the main problem with any proposal to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program.  But the negative consequences for U.S. interests are likely to be severe.  In December, Secretary Panetta identified some of those consequences when he warned of the dangers of war: increased domestic support for the Iranian regime; violent Iranian retaliation against U.S. ships and military bases; “severe” economic consequences; and, perhaps, escalation that “could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”

Click on We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran for Paul Pillar’s complete Washington Monthly article.

Click on The Horrors That Would Be Unleashed By a Strike on Iran for an article by Marsha B. Cohen, who teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at Florida International University, on the human consequences of an attack on Iran.

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