Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Iran and Irrational Security Strategy, Part II

Part I of "Iran and Irrational Security Strategy" illustrated that despite the Bush administration's claims that America "may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran," the Islamic republic is, in fact, a third rate economic and military power at best.

Part II explores the probability of Iran developing nuclear weapons, and the probable consequences if it does.

The Middle East Nuclear Equation.

The only nation in the Middle East currently known to possess nuclear weapons is Israel. The country's nuclear weapons program was exposed to international scrutiny when photographs of the Dioma nuclear weapons plant taken by an Israeli pacifist were published by the British press in 1996. In August of 2000, overhead satellite imagery showed that Israel could have made enough weapons grade plutonium for as many as 200 bombs. How many ready nuclear weapons Israel has at its disposal right now is anybody's guess, but it has infinitely more nukes than Iran does presently, which is a number we can reliably peg at zero.

In his January 2006 State of the Union speech, Mister Bush strongly inferred that Iran is pursuing development of nuclear weapons, an assertion that has been echo chambered by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other Bush administration luminaries.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Mister Bush's rhetoric "baseless propaganda" designed to take away Iran's nuclear technology program, which the country's leading officials have long maintained was aimed at developing peaceful, energy supply purposes.

It's a sad state of affairs when a president of the United States has as little credibility as a president of Iran, especially when the president of Iran is a world-class trash talker like Ahmadinejad. But Mister Bush has earned a reputation as a major league trash talker as well, and has no one to blame for that state of affairs but himself (dead or alive, with us or against us, bring 'em on, cut and run, total victory, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11…).

Still, high profile conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer and Thomas Sowell support the Bush position. In January of this year, Krauthammer said Iran was "probably just months away" from the "point of no return" of Iran having a nuclear bomb. In February, Sowell repeated the "point of no return" mantra.

But keep in mind that Krauthammer was a member of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC) group that exhorted Mister Bush to remove Saddam Hussein from power through military invasion, and Sowell is a associated with the American Enterprise Institute and Stanford University's Hoover Institution, conservative think tank partners of the PNAC that helped form the Bush II Iraq policy.

At this point in time, Krauthammer and Sowell have believability issues that rival Mister Bush's and Ms. Rice's.

(Note: Condi Rice is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution. She was a professor of political science at Stanford from 1981 to 2000.)

There's no definitive proof that Iran doesn't seek to develop nuclear weapons. But as Lew Rockwell's Charley Reese pointed out in January of this year, there's no proof that it does.

Those skeptical of Iran's stated peaceful intentions question why an oil rich nation would seek to develop nuclear energy. But the answer is that Iran would be foolish not to. As Reese says, "Oil is their biggest and most valuable export. The less they use for domestic purposes, the more they will have to export." More importantly, perhaps, is that the world's developed nations will continue seek to wean themselves from dependence on oil, and it would be strategic folly for Iran to let itself be one of the last oil countries to get in the nuclear energy game.

But What if Bush is Right?

There's a first time for everything. Mister Bush could be right about Iran's intention to develop nukes, even if he's only right by accident. But if he is right, what are the consequences? As Reese puts it, the Iranians are…
…surrounded by nuclear powers – Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India and the U.S. (through its heavy presence in the Persian Gulf and Iraq). So maybe they do want to develop a nuclear bomb. Personally, I don't care if they do. Having lived most of my life with 30,000 nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them in the Soviet Union, I'm not going to worry about the Iranians having six or seven.

What can Iran do with six or seven nukes? As Barry R. Posen of the New York Times wrote in February, it could put nuclear weapons to three "dangerous purposes," but isn't likely to.
Iran could give them to terrorists; it could use them to blackmail other states; or it could engage in other kinds of aggressive behavior on the assumption that no one, not even the United States, would accept the risk of trying to invade a nuclear state or to destroy it from the air. The first two threats are improbable and the third is manageable.

…We know that Tehran has given other kinds of weapons to terrorists and aligned itself with terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. But to threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target.

Anyone who attacks the United States with nuclear weapons will be attacked with many, many more nuclear weapons. Israel almost certainly has the same policy. If a terrorist group used one of Iran's nuclear weapons, Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon's origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran. No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity.

Because many of Iran's neighbors lack nuclear weapons, it's possible that Iran could use a nuclear capacity to blackmail such states into meeting demands — for example, to raise oil prices, cut oil production or withhold cooperation with the United States. But many of Iran's neighbors are allies of the United States, which holds a strategic stake in their autonomy and is unlikely to sit by idly as Iran blackmails, say, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that these states would capitulate to a nuclear Iran rather than rely on an American deterrent threat. To give in to Iran once would leave them open to repeated extortion.

Playpen Policy

The National Security Strategy is reviewed and published every four years by the National Security Council (NSC). As Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post reported on March 12th of this year, today's NSC is largely populated by the "X" Generation of conservatives.
Understand them -- and where they came from -- and suddenly President Bush's Middle East forays, grand democratic experiments and go-it-alone strategies take on a different look.

That's because nearly a dozen thirtysomething aides, breastfed on "Sesame Street" and babysat by "The Brady Bunch," are now shaping those strategies in unexpected ways as senior advisers at the National Security Council, the White House's powerful inner chamber of foreign policy aides with routine access to Bush…

…Their adulthood has never included a fellow superpower or the need to reach accommodation with an enemy--a Cold War concept none of the NSC's Gen-X crowd can get their heads around. Instead, their history begins with Sept. 11, 2001. It is the measuring stick they use when discussing their generation's challenge and the sole lens through which they envision the future…

…[I]s it any wonder that some of the generation's best conservative minds serve a president who has staked his legacy on transforming the Middle East by force of arms?

One of these "best conservative minds" of the X Generation is 36-year-old Meghan O'Sullivan, who serves as NSC's deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and who doesn’t think weapons of mass destruction were a factor in the Cold War. Another is NSC's 32-year-old assistant for legislative affairs Michael Allen who says things like, "Arms control, what's that?"

These are the kinds of folks who crafted the official U.S. security document that says we "may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran."

With or without a fistful of nuclear weapons, Iran poses no direct military threat to the United States. It is not capable of attacking Israel with conventional forces. Iran could conceivably strike Israel or other U.S. allies in the Gulf region with one or more nuclear tipped Sabab-3 ballistic missiles, but the retaliation strikes from either Israel or the U.S. would be massive enough to turn Iran into the world's largest solar panel, and Iran knows that.

A preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear weapons sites would be preferable to retaliation, but preemption requires reliable intelligence that the nuclear weapons sites actually exist, and where they are. If we want reliable intelligence, given our intelligence communities' track record, we'll need to rely on the Israelis to get it for us. And as long as we're relying on the Mossad for intelligence, let's rely on the Israeli Air Force to execute the preemptive strike.

An Iran with a small nuclear arsenal is more of a challenge than an Iran without one. But it's no bigger challenge than China and North Korea, both of whom have nuclear weapons and systems capable of delivering those weapons on our friends in Japan, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

If Iran is the nation that presents our greatest national security challenge, we don't have much of a security challenge. So why are we spending over half a trillion dollars a year on national security?

Maybe we should pack our gang of young conservative political scientists on the National Security Council back off to college where they can study up on history, and a few other things besides. And perhaps we should make the conservative little rascals coming up behind them stay in college until they, um, actually, learn something about what went on between nations and societies that happened, like, totally yesterday.

And let's hope they don't go to Stanford where they'll have to listen to lectures from Professor Emeritus Condoleezza Rice.

Or, God help us, from Honorary Doctor of Political Science George W. Bush.


  1. The only war with regard to us and Iran is the PR conflict being aimed at the American public.

    Let's hope it remains the only one.

    When will they start running the "wolves prowling, coming to eat you UP!" ads, I wonder?

  2. Anonymous10:20 PM

    "Pre-emptive strike is not the monopoly of the United States." ~ Him Dong Too

    You gotta love what follows: "The United States urged North Korea to return to international nuclear negotiations instead of making inflammatory statements."

    The playground is getting mighty crowded. Are there enough nukes to go around?

    Enjoying this series, Jeff. Thanks.


  3. Did I call it or did I call it?!?

    N. Korea chimes in, right on cue...!

  4. Yep, you called it. The whole security strategy is lunacy. Unless, of course, we're looking to maintain a state of constant war.

  5. Of course it can't make itself dependent on international suppliers. That would negate the whole point of of having atomic energy.

    It would be the same as being dependent on foreign oil.