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Attacking Iran Makes No Sense

Jeff has been taking some flack for his recent posts, so I think that I should to say a few things on the matter. The argument here is between those who think that the development of an Iranian bomb is absolutely and in all ways unacceptable and those who believe that, ideally undesirable as it is, it is a containable threat. Obviously, I don't accept the former view, and subscribe to the latter. Perhaps even to use the word "threat" concedes something that shouldn't be conceded, since it is actually quite implausible that Iran will be threatening the United States with any nuclear weapons that it might eventually acquire.

However, the question need not be one of Iran's economic collapse vs. its acquiring nuclear weapons. Still, it is fair to note that there are conceivably rational reasons for the Iranians to pursue alternative sources of energy given their stagnating refining capacity and gradually declining reserves. It would also be fair to mention that under international law and the ratified nonproliferation treaty about which our government professes to care so much (when it isn't subverting it with the Singh government in India), Iran can legally develop the technology for nuclear energy. It would also be worth mentioning that most nations around the world do not assume that Iran is preparing to build a nuclear weapons program, and this assumption is one shared by a very few governments. Americans seem to take such a claim for granted largely because the government has told us that it is so, and we have frankly been down that road a few times too often in the last decade for me to endorse such claims without some skepticism.

Jeff is, of course, quite right that the Iranians pursued the bomb before the Revolution (with, it might be added, Israeli assistance) and would pursue it in the future were the Ayatollah and his minions dead in a ditch somewhere. Iran has strategic interests and a desire for a nuclear deterrent no less compelling than its neighbours to the east. We do not merely humour and tolerate these other proliferators, who are in much more gross violation of the supposedly sacred NPT that we invoke today, but we offer them favourable deals on weapons and nuclear technology. Given Iran's longstanding rivalry with Pakistan and historic resentments towards Russia, I think we make a real mistake if we fixate on an Iranian nuke as a response simply to Israel's arsenal. Of course it is a play for regional power, but it is also an attempt to adjust the balance of power in South Asia, which has turned against Iran significantly in the last few years (the fall of the Taliban notwithstanding).

In the end, the problem is simply one of practicality: can anything realistically be done to prevent Iran from developing the nuclear technology that it probably will, like Pakistan and India before it, use to develop nuclear arms? The answer is: no, not really. The attempt would mean general war in the Persian Gulf, ultimately to our detriment and severe harm to the global economy. I do not even delve into the morality of unprovoked military strikes against Iran. It simply makes no sense from the perspective of our long-term interests, taking those interests as defined by internationalists.

Comments (12)

The Unites States' arrogating to itself the exclusive privilege of interpreting, applying, amending, and abolishing ratified treaties at will is, well, all-too-typical of an entire mode of governance, at home and abroad. One could probably write an entire book on modern American government and policy employing this as a metaphor; this is, after all, what is done with the Constitution itself. The tendency is no less pernicious in foreign affairs, since it amounts to a form of permanent executive review for all international accords - now we heed, now we do not - and results, in the end, in effective nullification of treaties and agreements. Why should any other nation assign significance to the NPT if the United States chooses to whom it is, and is not, to apply?

And yes, I have overemphasized the rational reasons Iran possesses for developing nuclear energy; I did so largely because our own government does not distinguish between what Iran is permitted to do under the NPT and what it is not permitted to do, and the medium-term consequences of this for Iranians will be ugly. Assuming that war is not one of the short-term consequences, in which case they'll be a lot worse, and not only for Iranians.

"I do not even delve into the morality of unprovoked military strikes against Iran."

Well, no. Of course not. That would show weakness. If we start worrying about sissy stuff like right and wrong, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Foolishly give morality the upper hand and the terrorists will laugh and make merry as they watch us do to ourselves that which the most infernally inspired jihadis could never have accomplished on their own. Perish the thought! Stamp "Made in America" on your agenda and it is Good, *ipso facto*, case closed. Next question.

Rodak, I think you do Daniel what is *from your own perspective* an injustice. If you read his personal blog with any frequency you will find that he has *very strong moral opinions* on strikes against other countries. I myself am inclined to think that the strength of this isolationism (which, I gather, is also rather typical of the magazine Chronicles) is somewhat exaggerated, so I do not mean to endorse it. My own isolationist sympathies are a good deal more defeasible. But in any event, I think you would find, Rodak, a fair bit of agreement with Daniel on this issue, as on several others.

I won't comment to any great extent on the allusions and attempted parallels between Iran and Israel in this post. I think them quite objectionable. My own objections to Iranian nukes are not based on an abstract principle of non-proliferation but on the nature of Iran.

In any event, I've made it clear in the other thread that I haven't made up my mind on what means are legitimate for stopping Iran from getting nukes and that I'm certainly not advocating that we run out and invade the country. That has major drawbacks and may well not be a just war if the drawbacks would not likely be outweighed by the benefits. If a surgical strike or very limited attack would be effective--which I don't have the information to know--I'd be open to saying that that was justified. But other means should be pursued vigorously. One recent word (not from a very reliable source, unfortunately) is that we have suggested to Putin not putting the ABM shields into operational order in Poland, etc., until Iran has a working nuclear program and that Putin has been interested in therefore ceasing his aid to the Iranian nuclear program. This sounds reasonable to me, and I hope it works. If it were possible (it may well not be) to sabotage the program from somewhere inside the country, that would be reasonable. If sanctions could stop the nuclear development (that may not work), I'd be for them. And so forth. In any event, I think the matter a serious one and think it...rash (this is putting it mildly) to launch the scorn I have seen in some quarters against those who think it a serious matter.

Rodak: Lydia is right. Given your own position, you are nuts to attack Daniel on this. Nobody talks about every aspect of a question in every post, and explicitly setting particular issues to the side for the sake of discussion is necessary in order to have a discussion at all. We aren't God, so we can't talk about everything all at once.

For myself, I usually find myself rather lost on this subject (which is why I don't say much). I generally concur that as a practical matter there isn't much we can do beyond deterrence without shooting ourselves in the foot: nuclear weapons are a matter of physics combined with knowledge and resources; of the three the only one it is possible to contain in the abstract is resources, but in practice I think that just means endlessly killing them all before they can get it done, then moving on to the next guy trying to do it, all in the context of nukes becoming ever-easier to make because of technological advancement. But I also find that the deterrence case gets hidden (from my perspective) in a background noise of overstatement. I think part of what made the Iraq war possible, to be frank, was the hyperbolic overstatement and pooh-poohing of risk coming from the opponents of the war. I think a nuclear armed Iran is a very, very dangerous proposition. But I'm not convinced that there is much we can (even if I tossed moral concerns over the side) do about it directly without instigating the very thing we wish to avoid, yet which may happen anyway even if we don't instigate it.

How is that for conservative pessimism?

I have very little doubt Iran will acquire nukes, just as North Korea did. As odd as it may sound, societies aren't that far apart in some important respects. NK had a need for nuclear energy too. Of course that could have been offset by Kimmy's personal wealth of 4 plus billion dollars.

The assessment above strikes me as ignoring the possibility that Iranian leadership and society doesn't have "supremacy issues." I think they do. Suppose for the sake of argument that Iranian ideaology is similar to National Socialism in so far as it is using concessions and diplomacy as temporary tools in preparation for a first strike. ISTM that they do not see such a thing as morally problematic. What then?

As for what the majority of nations think, this depends on the reasons for what these nations think does it not? Does Peru have an adequate intelligence force to come to warranted conclusions on Iran? How about the Poland? And it is not as if the representation in the UN is the result of democratically elected states. Many sates are repressive and non-democratic. So I am not so much concerned with what they judge to be the case nor do I know why I should be.

As for American hegemony and futzing with treaties, while it is not ideal, I prefer it. Pax Americana is better than dominance by the Rus or China. Sometimes people imagine that if the US backed off the world would become a place of multi-lateral decisions, free and fair. I take that to be something that will always stay in the imagination given human nature.

So in my worthless judgment the best thing to do is pressure Iran diplomatially and vocally threaten the with complete nuclear annihilation should they attack Israel. The American public would never support more until they nuke Israel or we get nuked. Everyone hit the snooze button after 9/11 anyhow.

"Rodak: Lydia is right. Given your own position, you are nuts to attack Daniel on this."

I wasn't (or didn't mean to) attack Daniel personally in what I wrote. I, in fact, agree with what he said. But...
What I meant to attack was the concept that a Christian (as opposed to a secular, pragmatic, practioner of *real politik*) would *first* consider what "makes sense," and only then (if ever) consider what is morally right. That seems to me to be precisely ass-backwards thinking.
If a thing isn't right, you can't do it; and this regardless of whether it will work for you, or not.
So I was not attacking Daniel, but only the basic suggestion that what he proposes can be considered *without* "delve[ing] into the morality of unprovoked military strikes against Iran" first.
I make no apology for taking that position.

Normally, I don't even bother to talk about whether wars of aggression "make sense," because they are inherently unjust and immoral, as I have maintained for quite some time. I don't put pragmatic concerns ahead of whether or not a policy can be justified morally.

I was leaving these points out of the post because I assumed, obviously wrongly, that everyone already knew my strong views on the injustice of attacking other countries, and because I wanted to explain why an attack would not achieve the goals that some of its supporters think that it will achieve. For the sake of argument, I left the question out of this post. I appreciate Lydia and Zippy's comments on this point.

If there were any parallels between Iran and Israel, they were actually quite unintended. I don't mean to direct "scorn" at anyone who takes the matter seriously. Obviously a new state acquiring nuclear weapons is a dangerous proposition, and it seems to me that everyone involved in the debate takes this for granted. Where we differ, clearly, is over the extent of the danger and how to respond to it. To say that a threat is containable doesn't mean that it's small, and containment takes persistent work and readiness to ensure the maintenance of the peace.

By "scorn," Daniel, I was referring to some comments on your own blog about "Persophobia" and also to a TAC article by someone else (about Rick Santorum) that you had linked approvingly from there, not really to anything in this piece. As to parallels between Israel and Iran in the main piece, I realize now that I was reading far too hastily and mentally switched "neighbors to the east" and "neighbors to the west," for which my apologies.

Meanwhile, via VFR, word comes of the following incredibly weird idea from the Bush administration. So far, it's hearsay, but if true, what the dickens is wrong with Bush and Rice?


The claim is that Bush intends to attack Iran by next summer to stop its nuclear ambitions and intends to "pay for" this attack by pushing through a "temporary" Palestinian state this fall. (What's a "temporary state"? Never 'eard of it.)

Now, my intention here isn't to argue the question of a Palestinian state. My own views on that are probably extremely well-known to everyone who reads this. But is there anyone here, on any side of either of those things (a strike against Iran and a Palestinian state) who thinks one of these things can be paid for by the other? My guess is that those of us appalled by one and considering it out of the question would, even if we favor the other, are open to the other as a possibility, or whatever, never dream that one could pay for the other. Who can Bush's audience be? Is there anyone important in the Middle East who is likely to greet such an exchange with joy, to say, "Well, I don't like X but I'll turn a blind eye to it because you're achieving Y"? Help me out here, because it looks to me like if this report is true it is even crazier than most of Bush's foreign policy ideas.

That's a fair point, Lydia. I have fallen into a bad habit of describing a pretty broad swath of people by the "Persophobe" label, and I should be more careful. There are some people (e.g., Hanson, Ledeen, N. Podhoretz, Horowitz and, yes, Santorum) who seem to me to fall into a category of people who express irrational hostility to the Iranians that goes well beyond reasonable concern about real-world threats, and when I have talked about Persophobes I have had these sorts in mind. In the same way, I think that there are real Russophobes who are critical of Putin because they don't like Russians and want to see them weakened, but I do not mean to imply when I talk about Russophobia that it applies to everyone who criticises the Russian government.

I think it was Michael's article on Santorum that you are referring to. Granted, I have been pretty hard on Santorum, but I really do think his assessment of threats from other countries cannot be relied on when he speaks without irony about Iran and "world mastery" in the same sentence. I realise that Santorum and Ledeen don't speak for everyone concerned about Iran's nuclear program, but they tend to be in the forefront of the debate.

The WND story is remarkable. I have a hard time believing its claims. Of course, you're right that it doesn't make sense and the "trade" or "payment" notion is bizarre, and a "temporary" state is no state at all, which would make it appear worthless to anyone who might be inclined to accept it as part of such a bargain. Ceding parts of Jerusalem is so far past the traditional red lines of what Washington and Israel have been willing to allow in previous negotiations that it seems incredible. It's also pretty hard to believe that Bush would go along with this. Olmert's government is already teetering on the brink. A move like this would probably bring his government down. Also, the source is said to be a senior Palestinian intelligence officer, but why would we be tipping off Palestinian intelligence men about an attack on Iran?

"...I wanted to explain why an attack would not achieve the goals that some of its supporters think that it will achieve."

I'm not trying to give you a hard time. The point I was trying to make is that, given your position that "I don't even bother to talk about whether wars of aggression "make sense," because they are inherently unjust and immoral," convincing the "opposition" not to support an attack on Iran because it wouldn't "work" is not the best argument to put forward.

Consider this, from Simone Weil's essay "God in Plato":

"If a person wants to steal but resists doing so, there is a great difference between resisting from obedience to the great beast* or from obedience to God. The trouble is that one can easily tell oneself that one is obeying God and in reality be obeying the great beast. Because words can always be made to serve no matter what."

*She speaks here of society, described by Plato as "the great beast" in The Republic.

It seems to me that if our reasons for opposing a preemptive attack on Iran are moral reasons, then the force of our persuasion should be focused on the moral, rather than on the utilitarian, sensibilities of those whom we endeavor to bring around to our "side." If we convince them not to act in such-and-such a way because it won't be effective, we will have deterred them, but we won't have modified their basic mind-set.

I think you're right, Daniel, that the story is implausible, and you make a good point about the improbability of America's confiding its plans for Iran in a Palestinian official. The bit about Jerusalem, however, has been discussed in many articles in the past few months, all indicating some sort of willingness to consider it in the Olmert camp. Haaretz has said this repeatedly, and (though I can't recall where I read this next bit) Olmert got into a yelling argument about it on the floor of the Knesset. I speak here only to how likely it is that Olmert will offer it, not to whether he should do so in my opinion.

To back up your worry, Lydia, I saw Charles Krauthammer on Fox News saying that he didn't think the current administration would leave office with the Iranian nuclear capability intact. He didn't say what he was basing this on. If he's right, I hope he will also kindly tell us, in advance, whether Bush plans a surgical strike or a full invasion. The latter seems too insane to be possible, but I guess if he did it once he could do it again.

there are conceivably rational reasons for the Iranians to pursue alternative sources of energy given their stagnating refining capacity and gradually declining reserves.

Considering the occasionally genocidal pronouncements coming out of the current Iranian regime, I can't tell you how little I am moved by this. If the regime changes, I'll change my tune.

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