Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Monday, December 20, 2004
Am I going to learn to stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb?

I read Franklin Foer's piece on the neocon split over what to do about Iran in TNR this past weekend. The only thing unconvincing about it is the suggestion - never fleshed out - that someone else would have handled Iran better - that is to say, that the Bush team's paralysis over Iran is due to conflict within the team rather than due to the lack of any good options.

Also on my recent reading list: James Fallows' piece in the Atlantic Monthly where he arranges a sort of pseudo war-game to try to figure out whether there are any good options with respect to Iran. The consensus of his panel of experts (which cover most of the spectrum though they tilt Democrat): no. Fallows is no friend of the neocons or of this Administration. But he predicted a lot of the problems we've seen in Iraq, and pre-war the pro-war crowd pretty much ignored all such commentary, something I complained about at the time (see this post from October, 2002).

And now, today, John Derbyshire is speculating in The Corner that Iran is inevitably going to get the bomb, implying the matter is more want of will than want of means, but not really pointing to any particular means to achieve the desired end.

I don't really doubt the will, not profoundly. Bush has said that he will not permit an Iranian bomb, and various commentators "in the know" have said he means business. And one thing we've learned about Bush: when he says he's going to do something, he does it.

So what are we to do about Iran?

Basically we have four options:

First, we can negotiate with the current regime and try to get them to cut it out.

Needless to say, I am not convinced that the odds of success at this endeavor are very high. It's already quite late in the day, Iran's incentives to get the bomb (and hence their incentives to cheat on any deal) are very large, and the practical difficulties of enforcement of any such deal are huge. Iran is pretty far along, has much of the necessary equipment in place, and even if a sanctions or inspections regime were put in place it would inevitably leak. At least two nuclear powers - Pakistan and North Korea - would have no compunction about cooperating with Iran to surreptitiously continue a program they had formally renounced. Russia should probably be added to that list, and maybe even France and China. Iran is wealthier than North Korea, has a larger land area, has more connections around the world, and is under less intensive scrutiny; if North Korea could get the bomb, it's hard for me to see what would stop Iran from doing so. So even if we dangle the perfect combination of carrots and sticks to convince them to do a deal, I don't see it achieving more than a 1 or 2 year delay in their acquisition of atomic weapons.

Second, we can attempt to change the regime by means other than invasion, and then negotiate with the new regime.

Bluntly, I think this is a fantasy. Yes, most of the population hates the regime. But the country is not on the brink of revolution, and it's not at all clear to me that if push came to shove the regime wouldn't survive any attempt to overthrow it. China circa 1989 looks much more likely to me than Russia circa 1991, if comparable events transpired in Iran tomorrow. That is to say: the regime would crush any serious challenge by force, and would emerge stronger than it was before. We underestimate the degree to which force works, and to the extent that Iran feels itself threatened from the outside this will weaken internal opposition and strengthen those elements in the military inclined to support the regime. This is particularly true if the regime can point to actual outside meddling in their affairs as the justification for internal repression; China didn't have that excuse, and they got away with it anyhow.

In any event, it's not at all clear that a successor regime, even if friendly to the U.S., wouldn't also be inclined to develop nuclear weapons, and a nuclear Iran would certainly make Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia far more inclined to go nuclear themselves, which would put us back where we started.

Third, we can attempt to surgically eliminate their nuclear program.

The problem is that the Iranians have not been fools; they have learned from Iraq's experience in 1981, and have multiple, parallel programs located in different parts of the country, many of them hardened and therefore tough to take out with a conventional air strike, and some of them located in population centers. I think the general, though not universal, consensus is that a surgical strike has limited odds of success. And the diplomatic fallout would, of course, be huge. We'd have used force, unprovoked, against another country because we suspected they were developing weapons that we didn't want them to have. If you think the Iraq war has shredded our international credibility, this would be much worse.

Fourth, we can attempt to change the regime by force.

But as we've learned with Iraq, this is neither cheap nor easy, and Iran is much larger, much more populous, and has a much stronger national identity. They'll fight harder and longer, and will be even less inclined to submit to an American-installed regime. I have no doubt that we could defeat the Iranian military quickly in the field. But we would not thereby control the country. War is the extension of politics by other means, and while I can see how we'd achieve a military victory, I don't see how we'd achieve a political victory, and absent the latter the former would be entirely hollow.

You could, of course, argue that we should be prepared to use any degree of force, including even nuclear weapons to utterly destroy the country's capacity to make war, and that we should certainly be prepared to spend the blood and treasure to truly conquer the country, not just to defeat it militarily. This would, of course, be utterly immoral. We have no just cause for such action, nor would such action be proportionate. It would also, obviously, terrify the rest of the world into more substantial efforts to "balance" America than we've seen to-date, which would do enormous long-term harm to our national interests.

I don't say it wouldn't be effective in eliminating the Iranian nuclear ambition. It's very hard to try to be a nuclear power when some of your cities are smouldering radioactive ruins. It's also very humbling to have your country thoroughly devastated by conventional means. One of the reasons we're having so much trouble in Iraq is we didn't kill enough people, or devastate the country enough. We could impose our will on Germany and Japan because they were utterly defeated: millions dead, cities flattened, economies destroyed, real debate about turning Germany into pastureland or dividing it up into multiple countries. By contrast, when Prussia defeated France almost effortlessly in 1870, they achieved almost none of their political objectives but left the French determined to get their revenge. But of course our objective in the Iraq war was to liberate them and punish their leadership, not to crush a nation that had attacked us with enthusiasm. Fighting a total war in Iraq would have been immoral as well as non-strategic.

So: if we fight a limited war, we'll fail, and if we fight a total war, we'd be monsters, and would be treated as such by the rest of the world. I mean, think about what we're talking about: we're worried that Iran will get a nuclear weapon, then use it for blackmail (to increase their influence over the local region) or, in the worst-case, give it to terrorists who would detonate it in, say, Tel Aviv, or even New York, killing hundreds of thousands. To prevent that possibility, we should be prepared to wage a war of comparable destructiveness? How is that moral? I can see the point of threatening terrible consequences to deter the use of nuclear weapons against us, even on the battlefield. But to actually initiate such destruction to prevent the possible acquisition of such weapons? We're too many steps removed.

I will admit, there was a point, when the North Korean crisis was burgeoning, when it made sense to me to contemplate using the most devastating weapons to eliminate the North Korean army and thereby the regime. I didn't actually say we should do anything like that, but I thought we needed to examine all the options, including eliminating an army whose only purpose was to threaten terror bombardment of South Korean civilians, and thereby deter even a much more measured and justified attack on North Korea's nuclear reactor. But: there is a difference between destroying an army and destroying a city; North Korea was openly threatening nuclear war against America and our allies; and the post-Kim political situation in North Korea would be trivial compared to Iran (because, among other reasons, South Korea would perforce take on the task of political reunification, however expensive it might be and however they might like to avoid that cost so long as there is an excuse). And even then, I thought it was essential that we lay the diplomatic groundwork for a confrontation, lest we turn the entire East Asian region against America with devastating economic and, ultimately, geopolitical consequences for the U.S. (because China would fill the void left by a departing America). North Korea was a very hard problem. Iran is much harder: we have considerably less justification for war and a much lower chance of achieving our political aims through military force.

So what, precisely, is Bush too chicken to do?

I want to point out, as an aside, that it's unclear to me how Bush's war in Iraq has meaningfully contributed to our inability to deal with Iran. If we need to militarily occupy countries like Iraq and Iran for a lengthy period, we need probably another 1 to 2 million men under arms - which is doable, but expensive - or even more (and more than that would surely require a draft). That we've initiated nothing like that kind of buildup means that we never intended and still do not intend to do that kind of duty. And to wipe out the Iranian army and seize the capital probably doesn't require a huge army. So Iraq didn't make choice #4 impossible. Meanwhile, no one is seriously disputing that Iran is hell-bent on nukes and getting close, in spite of our massive intelligence failure in Iraq; and diplomatically almost no one supported the Iraqi war, so had that war not happened what makes anyone think we'd suddenly have lots of support for war with Iran? The war with Iraq has done nothing to bring about an Iranian counter-revolution, one of the many reasons floated for the war (and one I bought, to some extent). But it's also not clear to me how it has made dealing with Iran more difficult. Iran was always difficult.

To date, there have been five clear diplomatic anti-proliferation successes: South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In all of these cases, the reason diplomacy worked was that the external threat that prompted the desire for nuclear weapons was itself neutralized or at least abated. You could probably add South Korea, Japan, Germany and Turkey (at least so far) to this list, as in these cases the American nuclear umbrella was the decisive factor in militating against their own nuclearization. You could possibly add Libya to the list as well; it's not clear what balance of carrot and stick induced Qaddafi to make a deal (and we don't know whether he'll keep that deal) but the Iraq war probably played a significant role, which would mark Libya as not a pure "diplomatic" solution - indeed, it's arguably the only "military" antiproliferation success (again, so far).

The only case - apart from Libya - where military force appears to have prevented nuclearization is Iraq. Israel eliminated their nuclear program in 1981; ten years later America eliminated their second nuclear program (which we didn't know they had); and twelve years after that America invaded again in large part because of fears that Iraq was once again progressing towards nuclear weapons (which this time they were not). That record does not inspire confidence in our ability to prevent nuclear proliferation by direct military action. But the nuclearization of China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea suggests that diplomacy is unlikely to work as well where the regime in question quite rationally seeks nuclear weapons to deter a real external threat. Iran is a similar rational case (which is why even a post-mullah Iran is likely to seek nuclear weapons). So the only clear ways to prevent nuclear proliferation are to extend the American nuclear umbrella over the country in question, or negotiate a climb-down in the context of an actual reduction in the external threat, or be prepared to invade the country once a decade. Which of these seems like a plausible approach to Iran? None, to my mind. Which means they are likely to go nuclear.

I think Bush really means it when he says that we are determined to prevent that outcome. But I'm really unclear on what we can do. It is hard to see how diplomacy will be effective, and hard to see what military options we have that are both likely to succeed and will result in less harm to American interests than an Iranian bomb.

Believe me, I'm not happy about this conclusion. While I think it's unlikely Iran would be so foolish as to hand nuclear weapons over to al-Qaeda (mushroom clouds over Chicago are more likely to be the product of Pakistan's nuclear labs - and by the way: what are we going to do about them?), I think an Iranian bomb would have terrible consequences for American interests in the region, not to mention for Israel and hence for the Jewish people. Iran would surely try to blackmail European and Middle Eastern countries into supporting their agenda. They would operate more boldly in Iraq and Afghanistan to undermine American efforts there. They would openly support Shiite rebellion in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing east, to gain control over that enormous resource. They might directly attack Israel, and would certainly threaten it; nuclear war between Tehran and Jerusalem is not at all inconceivable, and nuclear war anywhere would have terrible economic, political, ecological and strategic consequences, apart from the sheer massive numbers of deaths, including deaths of allies. Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would all probably fast-track their own nuclear programs in response to an Iranian bomb, which would mean more risk of nuclear conflict in the region and more risk of the bomb ultimately winding up in the hands of undeterrable terrorists. I'm not downplaying the Iranian threat. I just don't know what to do about it.

Do you?