Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why We Shouldn't Attack Iran Over Her Nuclear Program

Since everyone, including Hillary Clinton, is beating the drums for war with Iran, I guess I need to express my thoughts on why this would be a very wrong and bad move. I agree that the Iranian government is seeking nuclear weaponry and unless stopped is likely to built a handful or so of them in the coming decade. My disagreement comes in 1) the assessment of the danger, in 2) the assessment of the situation in Iran, and in 3) the assessment of the legitimacy of the casus belli (justification for war).

1) Assessment of the danger.

The claim that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be an intolerable threat to the US and her allies is plausible, but, I think, not really justified. This claim has two parts: 1) that the current Iranian government, under President Ahmadinejad, is unsusceptible to rational calculations of interest and hence cannot be deterred, and 2) that the delivery of nuclear weaponry by terrorists is an easy way for rogue states to escape responsibility and use nuclear weapons without being subject to retaliation.

Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust and envisioning a world without Isreal or America certainly sound "nutty" to us, but in fact are not "nutty" at all. Acute observers have made pointed out that Iran feels under pressure from al-Qaeda to maintain its reputation for extremism and rejectionism, part of its claim for leadership of the Islamic world. Amir Taheri has pointed out that stoking the Danish cartoon controversy was very helpful for Iran, because Denmark will occupy the rotating seat of the UN Security Council precisely when Iran's nuclear ambitions will come up.

Now, while all of these calculations are part of a reprehensible world view, they are eminently rational, that is, they involve the calculation of means to achieve their ends. Indeed I see no evidence that Iran is acting as a nutty country, but rather as a country that is rationally seeking to establish itself as the leader of the Islamic world and as such to bully and intimidate the West into making vast geopolitical concessions. What this means is, if we make it clear we are not going to be bullied and intimidated, then the Iranians will back down. The Iranian regime seems strange and bloodthirsty certainly, but is it stranger and more bloodthirsty than that of Mao or Stalin? Both of them retreated when confronted by determined opposition. In fact, compared to Saddam or the Taliban, the striking thing about Iran is the careful, calculated way in which it has gone about pursuing its aims without provoking massive retaliation. In the long run it makes Iran more dangerous (after all the mullahs are still in power, unlike them), but it also means that they respond to deterrence. Note too that one of the reasons for the regime's relative stability is that it is not a one-man affair; Ahmadinejad is not the dictator and not even the ultimate authority (that would be Ayatollah Khamanei). The collective nature of the regime gives it a "slow and steady" approach in pursuing domination in the Middle East.

But what about suitcase nukes? Iran could smuggle a bomb into New York and set it off and no one would know who did it. A regime with connections to terrorists is thus particularly dangerous, it is argued. I thought this argument was very powerful too until I read the comments of Wretchard at Belmont Club on this topic (here). In brief he argues that 1) only a very large number of nukes (100 or more) would cripple the US or Europe; and 2) smuggling that vast number of nukes is impossible; and 3) that if you could, the nukes would be out of your hands and could end up being used in totally different ways than you expect (the command and control problem). Let's say you supply it to a Hizbullah cell for use against New York. But Hizbullah decides they'd prefer to nuke Tel Aviv. But getting into Tel Aviv from Lebanon for a Hizbullah agent with a massive radioactive suitcase is not as easy as it sounds. Meanwhile another cell supposed to smuggle their suitcase into Washington gets detected. Result: US unharmed by a detected nuclear strike and then does what is necessary to wipe the Islamic Republic off the face of the earth. While this is not inevitable, it is a possibility Iranian decision makers can't ignore.

Overall, I am convinced that there is a very good reason why countries like Israel, Pakistan, or India, which have secret nukes and very bitter enemies, have never tried to use suitcase nukes on their opponenst -- it's just too risky. I wouldn't necessarily put it past figures with a history of reckless action, such as Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, or Kim Il-sung. But such recklessness is over all not characteristic of the Iran regime, which always prefers to kick defenseless people (like Jews in a Buenos Aires synagogue) not people who can fight back.

Moreover, I think the American government and public would in fact attribute any nuclear explosion that clearly damages anti-Iranian countries to Iran and treat it as an Iranian attack regardless of whether formal proof was forthcoming or not. Think of it this way: if we're willing to consider attacking Iran now, when it's not sure even that she yet has any nukes, could any Iranian leader be confident that an untraced nuclear explosion in Tel Aviv or London or Washington would not lead to massive retaliation, even if Iran's tracks were successfully covered?

2) assessment of the situation in Iran

Anyone who thinks an invasion of Iran would be as easy as the invasion of Iraq is seriously deluding themselves. The simple differences in scale are formidable enough:

Iraq: 26 million people; 170,000 square miles
Iran: 68 million people; 630,000 square miles

Add to this the fact that in Iraq there was a minority regime, that at the beginning of the war had already lost 1/3 of its territory (Kurdistan) , and couldn't fly in the southern third. Saddam had to suppress massive rebellions against his rule in the wake of the 1st Gulf War, leaving a massive legacy of bitterness and a majority convinced that the regime was based on hostility to themselves; by contrast Iran's Islamic Republic has never faced any significant armed rebellion and is based in the Farsi-speaking Shi'ite Muslim majority. It has a history of nationalism and independence going back millennia.

One might wish it were not so, but it is generally the fact that telling someone, 'You can't have this job because you're from X ethnic or religious group', raises much more intense and politically effective opposition than killing someone's uncle because they opposed the regime or censoring newspapers. Saddam did all three on a massive scale, but in Iran they only do the latter two, and that far less pervasively. The unpopularity of the Saddam regime was due to its minority-rule nature as much or more than it was due to its purely dictatorial nature. In Iran we will not have that benefit except in outlying areas (possibly Khuzistan and Azerbaijan), and not certainly even there.

What about the Iranian opposition? I would argue that this opposition is strong and powerful in peace time, but basically useless to us in war. The Islamic republic claims to be both Islamic in an ideological sense and also for that reason more populist and less corrupt than other governments. From the death of Ayatollah Khomeini until Ahmadinejad, however, it was economically pursuing a corrupt form of crony capitalism. Opposition to the regime thus developed along two lines: 1) a smaller, most urban and educated core of people who oppose the whole system of Islamic governance, and 2) a larger, less educated or wealthy group who might like the system in the abstract, but hate crony capitalism and the corruption that goes with it. Ahmadinejad has temporarily won over the second group with his populist rhetoric and attacks on corruption.

The first group has been cowed, and are perhaps still hoping for external deliverance. But it is, due to its social position, totally incapable of raising or helping any military force against the Iranian regime. (Think: this first group are sociologically similar to liberals in the US -- secular, urban, educated, skeptical of great crusades or jihads -- could such liberals in the US raise any real rebellion?) Like liberals in the US, they are strong when the country feels secure and respected but weak when the country feels threatened. In the long run they will eat away at the intellectual foundations of the regime. But faced with an invasion, many of them will swallow hard and support the government, and the rest will simply retreat further into their shell of alienation and purely verbal opposition. The second group (the "Reagan Democrats" of Iran) will rally to the regime, and their rallying will be much more important in time of war when calloused hands and cannon fodder are much more important than the desire for pop music and free speech.

As in the Soviet Union, we can overthrow the regime only by exerting economic pressure (especially dropping the price of oil), pointing out the failures of the ideology, and refraining from exercising a direct military threat. Remember what we are looking for in the Middle East is the emergence of people who don't feel that politicized religion, or politicized ethnicity with the attendent us vs. them attacks on the outside world are the way to create a good society with honest leaders. The idea that war is the best model for beneficial social action is precisely the idea of human motivation which Islamism, like most agricultural ideologies, prefers. People come to reject it only when they try it in practice and see it betray its original ideals -- the result then is not another armed revolution but the kind of collapse, like that of Puritan England in 1660 or of the Soviet Union in 1991, that marks the real demise of the whole politics-by-civil war style of government.

Finally, what about air strikes? The military opinion I've seen in the papers is that the whole nuclear network of Iran is far too dispersed to be taken out by any conceivable air strike. So if we do it, we will 1) justify the regime's acquisition of nuclear weapons in the eyes of most of the world; 2) create a further incentive for the Iranians to hurry up their production; 3) discredit the opposition, and generate a nationalist climate of opinion that will play to the strength of ideological populists like Ahmadinejad; and 4) not stop the nuclear preparations.

If it could be done, it might be worth it, but I very much doubt whether air strikes would be anything more than a useless provocation.

3) Assessment of the casus belli

Can the United States invade a country simply because it is acquiring nuclear weapons? In the old laws of war (which I much prefer), such a claim would have been laughed at. In the new laws (based on the UN Security Council), anyone who thinks the UN will authorize war is dreaming. The reality is we have no legitimate casus belli to invade Iran -- a sign that the regime there has been far too cautious to give us one (the embassy seizure might have been a good one, but we let it slide).

So what should we do?

Basically, wait and wage long-term economic and ideological warfare on the regime. While Islam has far, far greater staying power than Marxism, the Iranian Islamic republic's ideological system is no more durable than Soviet-style Communism. In the long run, the mix of private property and free trade with ultimate control by a shadowy network of mullas leads to corruption, abuse of power, and hypocrisy that reveals the religious and ideological pretensions of the regime as the hollow facade they are. Ahmadinejad's bully-the-rich populism can rescue the regime temporarily, but in the long run it will work as well Hugo Chavez's or Robert Mugabe's similar style: that is, only as long as oil prices remain high. Without oil money, the booty for the militia thugs will dry up, capital flight will destroy investment and the fire-breather radicals will settle into office, like the previous wave of radicals before them, as kleptocratic paper-pushers scrambling for larger slices of the shrinking pie.

Somehow bringing down the world price of oil would really help, just as it helped destroy the Soviet economy. In the 1980s Saudi Arabia cooperated in destroying Communism by flooding the world with oil, and so slashing the price of the Soviet Union's main export. Will Saudi Arabia help this time?

Sanctions? I suppose they might have some effect, but not nearly the effect of simply getting oil prices down. And that method will hit the regime where it hurts in a way that doesn't leave any visible US gov't fingerprints for rabble-rousers to exploit.

Continued vocal support for dissidents of all sorts in Iran is of course both good policy and good morals, but we should make it clear we are rooting not for a violent overthrow of the mullahs (which isn't going to happen anyway) but a peaceful transition to pluralism and real democracy, and that not in our time, but in their time. In other words, the dissidents are our long term hope and ally, but they must not be treated simply as tools for our short term security policy.

Ideologically, the US needs to make a two things clear publicly:

1) The problem is not "Iran with nukes," but "the mullahs with nukes." Democratic, post-Islamicist Iranians need to know that if and when popular disbelief brings down the regime, we will no more isolate Iran for holding onto nukes than we isolate India for holding onto hers. It might not be our optimal scenario, but a democratic country with nukes is not a threat to us or our interests.

2) We will treat any "suitcase nuke" explosion anywhere in the West (and that includes Israel) as a direct attack on us by the mullahs and will be followed by the annihilation of the regime. If the mullahs don't want to be overthrown, they'd better make sure no one brings a suitcase nuke into Israel or the US or Europe. (My comments about the difficulty of invading Iran are based on a US public feeling as it does now. A public after a nuclear explosion will be willing to do whatever it takes to eliminate the danger.)

Will this absolutely, positively eliminate the danger of any nuclear attack on the United States? No. But the proponents of a military strike or invasion have to recognize that their program of action won't either and will involve much more certain destruction to the US in the form of an unwinnable and unjustified war. Absolute security is impossible in this world, but if do the right thing and trust on God, we will be as secure as we need to be.

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