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I've heard people like John McCain say that a military option isn't a great idea to deal with Iran but that a nuclear-armed Iran is worse. President Bush sets out as policy that he will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran. Seymour Hersh recently published a lengthy article in the New Yorker magazine regarding the administration's military planning for a war with Iran, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, also known as bunker busters. Let me explain why we can accept a nuclear-armed Iran if it comes to pass.

First, I have yet to see any evidence to suggest that Iran has a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Advocates of war with Iran use the same tired arguments they used in preparation for a war in Iraq. AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group), neocons in the Vice President's office, and civilian ideologues at the Pentagon play up the argument that Iran is headed toward nuclear weapon production in the very near future. For instance, these advocates claim that a nation like Iran has no need for a peaceful nuclear energy program:

That explanation makes no sense for a nation with 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves, US officials and some outside experts say.
Sounds smart, right? An oil and gas rich nation has no reason to produce nuclear energy. Only problem with this formulation is that the neocons contradict their own argument. While neocons promote the idea that Iran has no need for nuclear power plants, they also argue that economic sanctions, especially sanctions on oil and gasoline, will force the hand of the Iranians and persuade them to give up their nuclear program:
But while Iran holds the world's second-largest reserves of oil and gas and is the fourth-largest oil producer, it is in fact a net importer of refined oil products, including gasoline. And internal consumption of oil products in Iran is growing by 5.2 percent a year, far faster than its ability to increase refining capacity. This means that the levels of imports necessary to make the Iranian economy function will only increase over time. Thus, sanctions that prevented Iran from importing, say, refined oil products, including gasoline, could bring its economy to a grinding halt.

There you have it, the same neocons who argue that Iran is an energy-rich nation is just like the U.S.A., a gas-guzzler net importer of oil who is consuming greater and greater amounts of energy. So, what does this mean? Well, Iran clearly does need alternative sources of energy to meet their growing demand and supply imbalance. Suddenly, the need for a nuclear energy program becomes more clear. But beyond these arguments, the administration, outside groups, even the inept I.A.E.A., the UN's nuclear "watchdog" as we've come to known it, fail to provide any strong evidence of this alleged clandestine nuclear weapons program. Again, with Iran as with Iraq, we see this administration cherry-picking intelligence and looking to intelligence and facts to support their decisions, instead of the other way around. Supposedly, A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, who is under house arrest in Pakistan, is "singing like a canary" to the Pakistanis and our intelligence assets. Apparently, Khan sold nuclear information to the Iranians. However, according to Khan, he gave Iran this information at around the same time in the late nineties that North Korea received the same information that led to thier nuclear program and the half dozen or so nukes they have today. But according to all sources, Iran's program has gone on longer and has more advanced scientists working on it, yet Iran is much farther behind than the North Koreans. What does all this mean? It means we don't know enough about the Iranian nuclear program to determine the intention or progress of the program.

But let's assume for a minute that the Iranians do want nuclear weapons and that they are very close to constructing one, as their recent progress on uranium enrichment suggests (a quick note to the fact that Iran has declared all of its enrichment activities and centrifuge program to the IAEA; doesn't seem smart for a nation seeking secret nuke program to tell the world's anti-nuke agency about their plans). But even if they do, what are we worried about?

Many say that once Iran gets a nuke, they'll use it on Israel, or American troops in the region, of which their are 250,000 in range of the Iranian Shihab-3 missile, or on oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. What these ideologues fail to see is that the American nuclear deterrent would preclude Iran from using its nuke unless it was on a suicide mission. Even with the use of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, any nuclear strike on US interests could be easily traced to the Iranians merely because there are few coutries with nuclear capability who want to do us harm. Some neocons claim that because of Iran's Shi'a Islam, Iranians would not care about annihilation; this is a serious misunderstanding of Shi'i Islam, which believes in the return of the twelfth imam, al-Mahdi, to establish justice and usher in Judgment Day, though nuclear annihilation has nothing to do with this. The United States, once it makes clear that a nuclear strike by Iran will result in Iran's elimination, Iran would not dare use its nuclear arsenal.

Obviously, it would be preferable to have an Iran without nuclear weapons. But there is no good option for doing this. Diplomacy will fail frankly because the US and the West and the UN have lost enormous credibility, mostly due to the fallout of the Iraq War. Sanctions will fail simply because they always do; smart sanctions targeted toward leadership have a negligible effect and nationwide sanctions just make indigenous populations worse-off, angry, and more anti-American. Sanctions will complicate any goodwill we have in Iran, especially among Iranian youth, who have a great affection for American pop culture. Some neocons and realists believe that a covert and overt program of regime change by promoting public diplomacy, supporting rebel and dissident groups, and using American Special Forces and intelligence operatives to undermine the Iranian government from within can change the regime in Iran to a pro-Western, democratic regime. I wouldn't bet on it. Iranians are not as dissatisfied with their system as we say they are and don't feel brutally oppressed like those in other nations.

Therefore, the only other options available to stop the Iranian nuclear program short of the Iranians miraculously changing their minds is a military strike or invasion. Let me summarize what will happen as a result of a military option being exercised in Iran.

1) Striking Iran, whether it be a conventional air strike, tactical nuclear strike, or ground invasion, will invite retaliation against key U.S. interests in the region. The United States, as I have previously said, has 250,000 troops within range of the Iranian Shihab-3 missile. Even without nuclear weapons, the Iranians could easily harm our troops, killing thousands around the Middle East. Lobbing missiles into neighboring Iraq would be even easier. an attack on Iran would spark an uprising among the Shi'a population in southern Iraq. Our troops in Iraq would be sitting ducks trapped in a tidal wave of Shi'a furor. Because of this, our nation would need to escalate the conflict in Iran, probably by following up the air strike with ground troops and by increasing our troop levels in Iraq to combat the increased Shi'a backlash against us. The Iraqi government would break apart and refugees from Iraq and Iran would flow into neighboring countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, and destabilize these already fragile regimes. We risk bombings of our embassies, our oil facilities, our businesses, and risk endangering all other US citizens in the Middle East.

2) Israel is a sitting duck if we attack Iran. Once we attack Iran, they have nothing to lose. Attacking Israel would lead to the destruction of Iran and therefore, they would not think about doing it. However, after an air strike on Iran, we would force the mullahs into a corner, and then any attempt at rational action on the part of the mullahs is thrown out the window, who would certainly fire everything they have into Israel. Israel's Arrow missile defense system could certainly defend against most of the incoming missiles but a few would get by, killing thousands of Israeli citizens. This is if Iran resorts to state action. We should only be so lucky; Iran's control over Hezbollah and Hamas and other terrorist groups would bring a wave of terrorism on Israel and possibly on key US allies and interests around the world.

3) If you think oil prices are high now, just wait! Iran has three kilo class submarines in the Persian Gulf, which they could use to bomb ships and disrupt shipping lanes, leading to a huge drop in supply and the skyrocketing of oil prices and an oil shortage. Iran could also mine the Strait of Hormuz, which would make it impossible to ship oil out of the Middle East, leading to price increases of up to $100 a barrel. If you think $3 a gallon gasoline is high, wait till oil prices top $200 a barrel and gas is $10 a gallon. The global economy will tank.

So, you can see why I'm willing to have a nuclear-armed Iran. Plus, as I said before, an air strike alone will not do the job, and the Iranian retaliation will require an escalation of the conflict to the point where we will have to put 500,000 troops on the ground to occupy a country of 75 million people for an indefinite future. Then again, we may be greeted with flowers and candy. But you know what they say? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice... we can't get fooled again!


Jeremy said...

I agree that any action taken against Iran could have dire consequences, but I think you are discounting the inportance of nonproliferation. There is a general world consensus that Iran is behaving in a way to should not. Many people would not agree with your assertion that the I.A.E.A. is inept, in fact it recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for its non-proliferation efforts. Also, it would be very unlikely that Iran would respond militarily to a surgical air strike on its nuclear facilities. They may have three submarines, but they know that our navy could destroy those submarines before the day was done, and any military action by Iran would bring full retaliation by the United States. It is true that the leadership in Iran, which rests almost solely in the hands of Ayotolla Kahamanei, can sometimes act rashly, but it is unlikely that they would ever try and use direct military force against us for fear of massive reprisal. The United States army may not be the best at peace keeping, but when it comes to conventional warfare, we dominate everyone. The real fear with a nuclear Iran is that if other nations see that the international community, especially the united states, will allow a nation to develop nuclear weapons, then they would be more likely to go ahead. I think select sanctions would be a very good idea, especially on oil exports on which the Iranian government relies deeply. I also think a surgical airtrike in the future is not out of the question. I do think that the best scenario would be, however, to use any diplomatic means necessary to convince Iran that they have much more to gain from being a stable player in the international world than from being a rogue state. The problem is of course, that the ruling class in Iran uses anti-American sentiment as a legitimizing factor, and is therefore weary of capitulating to U.S. demand. I think that a nuclear Iran would be a grave threat to our security, and should be stopped. I agree, however, that the United States much use extreme caution so as not to excite even more anti-American sentiment in the region, and possibly destabilize even further the situation in Iraq.

OrSkolnik said...

Good points, Adam, but I have to disagree with your underlying claim that a nuclear armed Iran ain't so bad. Yes, if Iran does get nukes we'll probably go into Cold War-MAD mode and things will be fine, at least in the short term. But MAD only holds true as long as Iran follows rational actor theory; Ahmadinejad has made statements about the imminent end of the world. We could all draw Rapture parallels here, but as much as we might dislike Bush, he wouldn't use nukes solely to bring about the Rapture. I don't know if we can say the same about Ahmadinejad (though obviously he'd be following a different prophecy). Basically, I think it's safe to say that letting crazy people get the bomb is a terrible idea.

Things get even worse when you consider that Iran is a state-sponsor of terrorism. Yes, you can talk about the missing nukes from the former USSR, and you can talk about Pakistan's unstable government in a region known for terrorism, and both are extremely scary prospects. But does that mean we want to give terrorists more of a chance to acquire nuclear weapons? I don't know if Ahmadinejad would be stupid or fanatical enough to supply Hezbollah with a tactical nuke, but considering the level of religious fervor and sympathy to terrorism in Iran, there are a multitude of other ways Hezbollah could smuggle weapons-grade nuclear material out of the country. It's a bad idea to let crazy people have nukes, and it's an even worse idea to let unstable, fanatical governments that sponsor terrorism have the bomb.

So what can we do? Clearly, the military option is a bad idea. It has to be kept open, but as an absolute last resort, and ONLY if Iran builds nuclear weapons. I don't think diplomacy has failed here; we just have to keep our eyes on the prize of no nuclear weapons and stop making gestures as if we're going to topple the current regime. We'd like to, but it's just impractical, so let's stop making the situation worse by saying we'll topple Ahmadinejad. With a broad-based international coalition, we can make Iran a very reasonable offer: we won't push regime change, we'll let you have (heavily supervised) peaceful nuclear energy, and we won't institute further sanctions, but no nukes. This is something the entire Western (and most of the Eastern) world can get behind, and once that happens, Iran will be much more likely to follow.