War Stories

Are We Really Going To Nuke Iran?

Decoding our options.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 

What are we to make of Seymour Hersh’s bombshell, in this week’s New Yorker, that not only is President George W. Bush keen to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities but that several higher-ups in the White House and the Pentagon would like to do so with nuclear weapons?

According to Hersh, an “option plan,” presented this past winter by the Pentagon to the White House, calls for the use of B61-11 nuclear bunker-busters against Iran’s underground sites, especially the Natanz facility, which houses the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium and which is reported to be dug 75 feet beneath the earth’s surface. (If it really is that deep, and if Bush wanted to destroy it and not just disable its operations briefly, a non-nuclear bomb wouldn’t be powerful enough.)

Hersh also reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to remove the nuclear option from “the evolving war plan for Iran,” but the White House insisted on leaving it in. The chiefs will soon give Bush “a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran.” Some officers are thinking about resigning if he rejects their views.

Is this for real? Is President Bush or anyone else in a position of power truly, seriously thinking about dropping nuclear bombs on a country that poses no direct threat to the United States, possesses no nuclear weapons of its own, and isn’t likely to for at least a few years? Pre-emptive war—attacking a country to keep it from attacking us or an ally—is sometimes justifiable. Preventive war—attacking a country to keep it from developing a capability to attack an ally sometime in the future—almost never is. And preventive war waged with nuclear weapons is (not to put too fine a spin on it) crazy.

The only time the United States ever used nuclear weapons, in 1945, was at the end of a world war that had been raging for years. And at the time, the bombing was seen as an alternative to an invasion of the Japanese mainland that might have killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. In the 60 years since, the world has declared and observed a clear threshold between the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons. To violate that threshold—for a purpose that falls far short of pre-empting an imminent threat or protecting our national survival—would not only be immoral; it would incite outrage across the Middle East and the Muslim world; it would inspire vast recruitment drives by anti-American terrorists (and any resulting sequels to 9/11 would be seen, even by our friends, as just deserts); and it would legitimize nuclear weapons as everyday tools of warfare and spur many nations into building their own arsenals, if just to anticipate and match their neighbors’ impending arsenals.

In short, it would be a disaster of head-spinning proportions.

So, again, is this for real? Are Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney really thinking about nuking Iran? If they’re not, and assuming that Hersh’s sources are good (as they usually are), what are these nuclear options, debates, and war plans all about? Here are a few possibilities:

The Madman Theory. In his first few years as president, Richard Nixon tried to force North Vietnam’s leaders to the peace table by persuading them that he was a madman who would do anything to win the war. His first step, in October 1969, was to ratchet up the alert levels of U.S. strategic nuclear forces as a way of jarring the Soviet Union into pressuring the North Vietnamese to back down. A few years later, he stepped up the bombing of the North and put out the word that he might use nukes. In neither case did this ploy have any effect whatsoever. Nor is there much reason to believe it would make the Iranians shake in their boots. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran today returned the volley by dismissing the report as part of a “psychological war” campaign. The danger of this rhetorical escalation (if that’s all it is) is that it can spin out of control. If Washington and Tehran are playing a game of global chicken (as I speculated last week), upping the stakes with nukes is like loading the front bumper with a barrel of dynamite and a crying baby.

The Madman Theory, Variation B. If Iran is immune to such pressures, our European allies might not be. Many of them already regard Bush as a religious zealot and Cheney as a warmonger. If they believe that the White House might really resolve the dispute with Iran by dropping nuclear bombs, they might suddenly start pushing for sanctions—a move they’ve stopped short of, mainly to protect their own trade relations with Tehran—as a comparatively moderate way of pressuring Iran to stop enriching uranium. Whether or not this is Bush’s intent, there’s evidence in Hersh’s piece that the escalation might have the same effect. The Europeans, Hersh writes, are “rattled” by “their growing perception that Bush and Cheney believe a bombing campaign will be needed.” He quotes one European diplomat as saying, “We need to find ways to impose sufficient costs to bring the [Iranian] regime to its senses. … I think if there is unity in opposition and the price imposed”—in sanctions—”is sufficient, [the Iranians] may back down.”

Bureaucratic Politics. Nowhere does Hersh contend that Bush has decided to use nuclear weapons. He writes that the idea was in “one of the military’s initial option plans” (not that it’s part of some final plan), and that the White House won’t take the option off the table (not that they’ve put it on the table). A debate is heating up, but it hasn’t been settled. It is a long-standing practice for Washington insiders to use press leaks as a means of publicizing debates and rallying support for their positions. Hersh’s main sources for this story—”current and former American military and intelligence officials”—are all opposed to the nuclear option. One source, “a Pentagon adviser on the war on terror,” is quoted as saying that high-level support for using nukes is “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” The same source also says that “if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.” The Madman Theory presupposes that at least some of Hersh’s sources are using him to disperse disinformation. The Bureaucratic Politics Theory posits that they’re using him to promote one faction within the government. The two theories are not mutually exclusive; a mix of both might be operative.

The Three-Options Theory. Another possibility is that Bush is going to launch some sort of raid on Iran, and if people think he might drop nuclear bombs, they’ll be relieved—they’ll consider it a relatively moderate gesture—if he confines the attack to conventional bombs. It’s a variation on the game that national-security advisers sometimes use in laying out options to their bosses. Option 1: Declare all-out war. Option 2: Surrender. Option 3 is the course of action that the adviser wants to pursue. Hersh’s story might be serving the same purpose. Option 1: Nuke ‘em. Option 2: Shut your eyes and do nothing, like the Europeans would prefer. Option 3: Attack Iran’s facilities, but with 2,000-pound smart bombs, not 5-kiloton nuclear bombs.

Or … Or maybe there’s no gamesmanship going on here, maybe Hersh is simply reporting on a nuclear war plan that President Bush is really, seriously considering, a “juggernaut” that might not be stopped. If it’s as straightforward as that, we’re in deeper trouble than most of us have imagined.