The Reckoning

The Threat of a Nuclear Theocracy, Act II

carrier flight deck

An American warplane poised to take off from the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images

As the U.S. debate over Iran’s nuclear program has heated up, an issue of war and peace is being framed in a very dangerous way. The United States, with all its other problems right now, must get this right, because all options on Iran’s nuclear program are laden with risk, and the truth is very inconvenient.

The debate—roughly sanctions and diplomacy versus airstrikes—fails to acknowledge some important facts, the most important of which is that neither a military option—short of the lunacy of an all-out invasion of Iran—nor diplomacy will guarantee that Iran won’t soon gatecrash the nuclear club.

I am under no illusions that Iran is trying to develop the ability to build a nuclear weapon. But the ability to build one and the intention of using it remain quite different things—and this, too, is entirely absent from the U.S. debate.

Obama, ironically, finds himself in the same kind of fix George W. Bush faced when he argued that the lack of a “second 9/11” proved his counter-terrorism policies were working, or, indeed, that waiting around for absolute proof of Saddam Hussein’s WMD would be a reckless disregard of his duty to protect American lives.

Bush, as we know, had a tendency to focus on the downside risks of inaction; the risks involved in taking action apparently got little thought. Obama has a lot more time for incremental approaches, whether the topic is financial reform or health care legislation.

So, does the lack of an Iranian nuclear weapon nearly a decade after the CIA and the Israelis said that one would be produced within two years prove that Obama’s diplomatic approach is working?

That would be wildly optimistic. But neither has it failed.

The more important thing to focus on, however, is what is not being discussed. No one—not in the Obama administration, certainly not on the pro-war right—wants to concede the fact that, regardless of which course is taken, the question of whether Iran goes nuclear or not depends a great deal more on what Iranians decide than on any action by the U.S., Israel, or the international community. Once again, our inability to come to terms with the limits of American power mean that, for the third time in just over a decade, a war debate is playing out during an election year—when money, sound bites and political considerations will be given a great deal more influence on the answer than any sane person should hope.

Republicans, who have started debating foreign policy of late (I missed the meeting where they actually decided to have a foreign policy), sing largely from the same hymnal, with Ron Paul the isolationist exception. Prodded by a cadre of former Bush administration officials penning op-eds spiced with words like Armageddon and appeasement, the hawks have maneuvered the White House into the unenviable position of having to prove a series of negatives:

  • that Iran has declined to take the final steps to weaponize its nuclear program due to fears of tighter economic sanctions (and domestic unrest);
  • that airstrikes by the U.S. or Israel targeting Iran’s hardened nuclear facilities would fail to destroy the program and spark a potentially devastating backlash internationally and strengthen hard-liners domestically;
  • that, failing all else, a nuclear-armed Iran would not strike at Israel and will prove just as prone to deterrence as the old Soviet Union.

This plays well for GOP candidates speaking in the red tribal homeland. Yet, to my mind, each and every one of the “negative proofs” listed above happens to be true, even if Obama can’t muster the logic, the focus, or the guts to explain them to the public.

Understanding the Risks

What’s more, the downside risks of launching or even green-lighting a military strike against Iran are enormous. Unlike Iraq, Iran does not need WMD to strike back hard against the United States. Its potential ability to shut down Gulf oil production, its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, its Shia Iraqi allies in the Mahdi Army, and the fact that the warlords of relatively quiet western Afghanistan look to Tehran for inspiration—all these factors loom as possible retaliatory scenarios. 

The Obama administration, on the defensive, has held a series of news conferences—including one led by Defense Secretary (and former CIA chief) Leon Panetta—laying out some of these downside risks. But no one in senior policymaker circles has had the courage to lay out the broader argument against the military options: that even if diplomacy succeeds only in isolating Iran and it ultimately creates a nuclear arsenal, it still remains subject to destruction many times over if it were to use it.

At the risk of sounding like late Cold War vintage Sting, (“Don’t the Russians love their children, too?”), I do not believe Iran poses anything like the mortal threat to Israel and the recent wave of op-ed pieces suggest.

In cold-blooded military terms—even leaving aside the fact that the U.S. would respond to any nuclear attack on Israel with disproportionate attacks on Iran, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal will deter any such move. Iran’s leaders know that, as small geographically as Israel may be, a crude Iranian weapon could not destroy the entire country. Israel’s own nuclear arsenal has been carefully designed to survive such an attack. (I realize I’m now sounding like Dr. Strangelove—early Cold War vintage, but these are dark topics.)

Iran also knows that a nuclear attack on Israel is an act of national suicide. I do not believe the Iranian regime is suicidal.

MAD Dog Theory

But what about Ahmadinejad’s promise to “wipe Israel off the face of the map?” Several problems exist with the idea.

Firstly, scholars of the Persian language say that his oft-cited words have been mistranslated and taken out of context. Ahmadinejad was actually quoting the revolutionary regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khoemeni, not making a policy statement. (Read here for more on this dispute). 

But let’s take the bluster at face value. A more important point is that Ahmadinejad has lost most of his control over Iran’s military and intelligence agencies. Following his rigged re-election in 2009, the Green Revolution very nearly swept the entire Islamic regime into the Persian Gulf. At that point, Ahmadinijad became a figurehead and Iran’s true power, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reasserted control by unleashing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Thus did the elected president of Iran learn the same lesson that the liberal, educated urban elites of the Green Revolution did: Voting does not make you a democracy.

But what if Iran gave a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. This, certainly, worries counterterrorism experts. But this could not shield Iran from retaliation. Nuclear detonations can be forensically traced to the source nation—the job of the National Nuclear Security Administration, by the way, which is part of that forgettable government department (Energy) that Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to shutter.

The Ambiguity Bomb

Should all this make Israel feel any less concerned about the risk of a nuclear Iran? Perhaps not, and it is much easier to assess these risks from my chair in New York than one in Israel (or, say, Riyadh).

Yet for all the reasons above, then, I am convinced that Iran will be subject to deterrence. Indeed, if you view things from the standpoint of a regime desperate to cling to power and worried about a collapsing economy and threats from all around it, it also stands to reason that Iran will stop short of testing a nuclear weapon. After all, a nuclear test would only would provide added justification for a U.S. or Israeli attack, and it might spark Iran’s own regional rivals—the Saudis, the Turks, possibility even the Egyptians—to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Particularly with regard to the Saudis, this is something Iran is keen to avoid.

Ironically, Iran most likely is seeking to emulate the Israeli model of nuclear proliferation. In the 1960s, through espionage and scientific effort, Israel secretly built a nuclear arsenal whose existence is officially denied to this day. “Strategic ambiguity” is the Israeli term for this stance, and while it remains an irritant in Mideast relations, it has served Israel very well. No one—least of all the Iranians—doubts the existence of a large, sophisticated Israeli nuclear arsenal.

So as familiar voices promote the case for war against Iran, imagine yourself in Tehran: What serves your interests better:

  • testing a nuclear weapon and deepening Iran’s economic isolation and domestic unrest?
  • launching a crude device at Israel and committing national suicide?
  • or pursuing research right up to the point of weaponization, leaving your enemies to wonder just how many you might have stored in deep underground bunkers?