Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Not such a threat

I asked Arthur Silber to comment on my opinions about a possible war with Iran. He graciously replied and offered an important criticism:
With regard to Iran, everyone who is at all prominent in the debate about what we should do -- everyone, Democrat, Republican or otherwise -- insists that we have "to get the intelligence right this time." In other words: if we are convinced that Iran is actually trying to get nuclear weapons (even though all the best estimates indicate they still won't have even one for five to 10 years), then something has to be done. Usually, the proponents of this view add that something has to be done now, or very soon.

Just as I argued with regard to Iraq, I offer a resounding no. Once again, the decision is one of policy and judgment, and the intelligence will have nothing to do with it. Even if Iran had nuclear weapons in five or 10 years, many factors strongly argue against the likelihood that they would ever use them against the United States. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran's leaders are entirely suicidal: any attack that could be traced back to Iran would surely result in the large-scale destruction of that country. They know that, so do we, and so does everyone else. Given our current foreign policy of attacking and occupying any country on earth that our current leaders take a strong dislike to -- whether that country constitutes a threat to us or not -- it is hardly surprising that Iran and other nations want a nuclear deterrence of their own, to protect them from our lethal lunacy. Moreover, it is well-known, despite the fact that it is almost never mentioned in our polite political debates, that Israel has a very sizable nuclear arsenal. I should remind you that Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and that Iran is. If Iran and Israel both had nuclear weapons at their disposal, that might actually serve to stabilize the Middle East situation, and make a wider regional war less likely. This is not a complicated or controversial thought. It is blindingly logical and straightforward. (Obligatory point for the thinking-impaired: this is not to say that I view a nuclear Iran as a good thing. I don't view it as a remotely good thing that anyone has nuclear weapons, including us. [That is especially true, since we're the only country that has used them-- even when we did not have to, and even when we lied about the devastating human consequences.] I am simply suggesting that the results may not in fact be the End Times calamity that so many assume.)

It's a habit from the engineering side of my life, which is often useful in philosophy, to consider extreme cases in formulating and evaluating general principles. However, a war with Iran is not an abstract philosophical issue: It's a real issue with real human lives at stake, and it's as important to be accurate as it is to be general.

Iran is a long way off from acquiring any sort of meaningful nuclear weapons. Based on historical evidence, a nuclear-armed Iran is not even a major threat, and might (given the insane logic of MAD) actually stablize the region. Given the United States' aggression in Iraq and aggressive rhetoric towards Iran, self-defense becomes a compelling rational justification for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. And--unless one assumes that those pesky brown beings with that incomprehensible religion aren't actually (more or less rational) human beings--Israel, itself a nuclear power, seems well able to defend itself from a nuclear-armed Iran. Such temporal considerations are as important as (if not more important than) theoretical philosophizing.

Now, I am a philosopher, not a journalist or historian, so I'm going to continue looking at this issue from a more philosophical perspective. On the other hand, I'm going to heed Mr. Silber's criticism and make much more explicit where I'm making counterfactual assumptions for maximum generality and try to include my best understanding of the actual facts.


  1. I wanted to address this post earlier - indeed, I was intrigued before this - but real life has a way of interfering. I’ve been busy fighting with a school district and the police on behalf of a client. It’s interesting how life takes unexpected paths; my original intent in college was to become an intelligence analyst on terrorism and security matters - my undergraduate degree is in international relations with a specialty in peace and security in the Middle East. All of which is to say that, despite my current profession, I remain an interested amateur and have an educational leg to stand on when I start talking about foreign affairs.

    I remain something of a pragmatist when it comes to national security and diplomacy - I used to call it “liberal goals through realist means.” I came to the conclusion seven years ago, and still hold it today, that no interaction with a country, diplomatic or military, should ever be entered in to without a stark appraisal of possible outcomes and a cost-benefit analysis. In every sense - practical, moral, diplomatic, and strategic - a decision to wage war, especially pre-emptive war, must be made with a firm, clear, and frank accounting of the factors leading to that decision. Without this, the legitimacy and efficacy of a conflict, especially one our country begins, is in question. The consequences of the Iraq Invasion shows us what their absence can mean for a country: a further destabilization of its interests, a crippling of its military, and the squandering of its moral and diplomatic legitimacy.

    With respect to Iran, it appears that our leaders are prepared to do so again.

    The questions are: What threat to national security is mitigated by a pre-emptive strike, and what might result from them? While I am not against pre-emptive strikes as a matter of principle, I do hold that the case for them must include a casus belli - current Administration actions in Iraq appear to be fishing for one, either by fabrication or provocation - that directly threatens the security of our nation. So-called “existential” threats - philosophies inimical to our own - do not rise to that standard unless coupled with belligerent actions.

    In Iran, we need to address both what a pre-emptive strike would address and what would result from it. We know that our actions have profound resonance within Iran. Our support of the repressive Shah laid the ground work for a revolution that proved the old Orwell maxim that “...one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.” It is widely held in Iran itself that the Bush Administration’s rejection of diplomacy with the Khatami government led directly to its loss of legitimacy and the president’s further “axis of evil” nonsense contributed to Ahmahdinejad’s ascendancy (it is worth noting that Ahmahdinejad’s election was seen as a victory for the more hard-line, conservative ayatollahs on the Supreme Council, which controls foreign affairs in that country).

    Knowing, then, that our actions can have profound implications for Iran and regional stability, let’s answer our questions:

    What threats are we mitigating? I personally contend there are none. Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not threaten the United States or its interests. Not only is the threat not imminent (a key requirement for pre-emptive strikes), but Iran is not interested in irradiating its own backyard. The Carter Doctrine (using military assets to protect our access to the Persian Gulf) does not come in to play here. This administration is not serious about mitigating nuclear proliferation in general or in preventing terrorists from seizing radioactive material - one need only look to their blase reaction to the A.Q. Khan black market or to their empty rhetoric in regards to North Korea to discern this. Nuclear proliferation per se is clearly not a casus belli in their eyes. Given past inaction, it loses its legitimacy to the national populace and the international community.

    Many supporters of the Iraq Occupation, and by extension of taking military action against Iran, cite Iran’s material, financial, and spiritual aide to insurgents in Iraq. Again, look at our actions - within Iraq, we are clearly supporting the government of Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki’s government is beholden to Shia sectarian interests - namely the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Bush Administration would have you believe that Iran is aiding insurgents on the one hand while the Bush Administration sends our soldiers into harm’s way on behalf of a government beholden to those same insurgents’ political wings. Clearly, then, the rhetoric does not match the actions, and actions being the measure of a country’s perception of a threat, Iran does not rise to the level of a threat.

    Absent reasonable casus belli, let us turn our heads to the results of military action, both regionally and in Iran proper.

    Iran has dreams of regional hegemony. This lies behind their support for Hezbollah, SCIR and Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq, and the evangelizing agitators spreading fundamentalist Shia gospel in Syria and the Palestinian Authority. Syria plays along with Iran because its Baathist, Hashemite leadership fears a popular Shia uprising. This is why Saddam’s Sunni Baathists so ruthlessly repressed the Shia in Iraq (please note there is a long-elided distinction between Syria and Iraq’s Baath parties). Recent Hezbollah agitations in Lebanon have coincided with increases in American rhetoric towards Iran; while the Bush Administration rattles its sabers, Iran is doing the geostrategic equivalent of lighting a match and holding it next to a fuse. The message is clear: Do not mess with us - we’ll take this whole place down. Iran needs to do little within Iraq to secure its interests. The Bush Administration is already doing that for them. There are even indications that they’ve made common cause with the Kurds in the north of Iraq. If Iran has politically co-opted the U.S.’s principal ethnic allies (Shia and Kurds), and yet the Bush Administration continues to act on their behalf, the president is doing yeoman’s work on their behalf without Iran having to lift a finger. All Iran needs to do is encourage its allies in Iraq to lay low and cooperate with the U.S. for a while - a Sunni purge can come later.

    As late as 2003, the Bush Administration had an excellent chance to provide aid to moderating, liberalizing forces within the younger generations of Shia and the ethnic minorities of Iran. They squandered these in favor of ideological rhetoric. The Persian street was largely pro-American in outlook until they were “lumped in” with al Qaida and Salafist violent non-state actors. With our military bogged down in Iraq, the only option for “intervening” in Iran comes from the air. However, air strikes are not useful! During the NATO intervention in Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic’s dissenting opposition within Serbia itself became virulently anti-American for a time, as a result of air strikes. No matter how precise, the nature of infrastructure targets means civilians will be affected. In Serbia, a possible source of revolution became a loyal opposition in the face of American bombardment. The same thing would happen in Iran; the U.S. would be left without internal dissent to encourage into revolution, and simply further alienate potential for regime change. However materially succesful, an air war would be disastrous for American regional diplomacy for at least a generation.

    In terms of nuclear proliferation, there are both dangers and potential benefits. Should Iran obtain “the bomb,” they still cannot threaten the U.S. However, it would scare the pants off the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, prompting a Cold War style proliferation regime within the Middle East. This is not desirable, but it is also proven to be fairly stable. Indeed, a sectarian war with nuclear implications could lead to the Sunni states seeking common cause with Israel and shoring up Lebanon’s fractured nascent democracy (something the U.S. should be diplomatically encouraging anyways). The U.S.’s actions in Iraq will already lead to a Shia stronghold in the Middle East, between Iran and Iraq. It is vastly preferable that the sectarian conflict remain low intensity or of a “cold war” nature. This can be accomplished by outspending Iran in Lebanon and Palestine (much as Reagan outspent the Soviets, only with a far different focus) and treating with Syria (whose Hashemites want nothing more than to stay in power and fear their prominent Shia community).

    The worst case scenario stemming from an air war against Iran is that Iran is given its own casus belli. 150,000 U.S. soldiers might be able to defeat the million-plus strong Iranian Army, but can it do so while also facing a guerrilla war from the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army? To say nothing of the Baathists in the Sunni Triangle and al Qaida in Anbar? There are too many factors at play, and too many gruesome outcomes.

    War is never desirable, but sometimes necessary. In the Middle East, war with Iran is neither necessary (lacking a legitimate threat to our security) nor potentially productive (no outcome of such action will remotely benefit us).

  2. A very impressive post, James. Take out a few of the personal comments, add a few footnotes, and I think it would be worthy of any professional publication.

    At the very least, I hope you'll publish this on your own blog. It deserves better than to be buried in a comment.

  3. I could have just, you know, actually checked James' blog.


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