I’ve been letting real life interfere with blogging to an intolerable extent recently, and I’m several posts backlogged. In particular, I owe responses to Andy Sabl, Matt Yglesias, and others on the question of what to do about Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons.
First, I should note that security policy isn’t what I do for a living; I speak as an amateur. That said, here’s how the problem looks to me, having reflected on the conversation:
1. Iran is in fact trying hard to build nuclear weapons.
2. There seems to be no reason to fear that Iran is close to its goal: the relevant time-frame is years, not months.
3. But predictions that Iran is many years (say, more than four) away from having deliverable nukes shouldn’t be made with much confidence. We’ve been surprised before.
4. Having many countries nuked up, especially countries with unstable or extremist governments, would create a very dangerous situation. That the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. spent forty years holding nuclear arsenals and growling at each other without actually using The Bomb doesn’t prove that we can do the same trick again with Iran (or North Korea).
5. The invasion of Iraq means that any country whose government is hostile to ours faces the risk of forcible regime change unless it is packing a nuclear deterrent. So the incentive to acquire nukes is stronger than it has ever been. India and Pakistan were allowed to nuke up with only trivial consequences. That set a bad precedent. We need to establish a different precedent: that trying to acquire nuclear weapons leads to, rather than avoiding, hostile military action by the United States.
6. The establishment of the taboo against using nuclear weapons wasn’t historically inevitable. The Eisenhower Administration wanted to treat them as normal weapons, usable as other weapons are usable. So does the Bush II Administration, with its drive to build “bunker-busters.” We needn’t imagine a truly crazy Iranian regime to worry about its actually using its nukes once it had them, only an Iranian regime run by someone as crazy as John Foster Dulles or Donald Rumsfeld.
7. A nuclear attack on a third party — most likely Israel — is more likely than an attack on the U.S. It’s not obvious to me that the U.S. would in fact respond to an attack on Israel by wiping out the cities in the attacking country, especially if the strike were carried out by some intermediary non-state organization. If it’s not obvious to me, it might not be obvious to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his successor as President of Iran.
8. Any attack designed to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capacity would inevitably kill hundreds or thousands of civilians. That’s bad. Any attack designed to retaliate for Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon would kill hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians immediately, and create long-term fallout problems that would kill uncounted numbers more, many of them not residents of the target country, and decisively break the nuclear taboo. That’s worse.
9. It’s sometimes worthwhile doing a bad thing to avoid some measurable probability of having to do a worse thing.
10. If massive retaliation against an Iranian attack on Israel were carried out by Israel rather than by the United States, that would be marginally less horrible for us but not much less horrible for the world. On the other hand, the threat from Israel would be more credible than the threat from the U.S. So threatening to give Israel intermediate-range ballistic missiles if Iran becomes a nuclear power might create a workable balance of terror between Iran and Israel, and we should probably issue such a threat (again, privately). That wouldn’t, however, keep Iran from nuking Tikrit in the next Iran/Iraq war.
11. Publicly threatening military action against Iran would help build support for Ahmadinejad and his fellow religious lunatics. If they can be bribed and cajoled out of nuking up rather than being threatened out of nuking up, that would be much better. But if bribes and cajolery fail, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re ready to strike.
12. Privately threatening military action will give the Iranian regime incentive to take our concerns seriously, something they otherwise have little reason to do.
13. We can’t attack Iran while we have 150,000 troops in Iraq as virtual hostages to a Shi’a call for jihad against the infidels. But accepting a rotten result in Iraq might be a relatively small price to pay for avoiding a nuked-up Iran. Maintaining our freedom of action in Iran is one more excellent reason not to try to create a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq.
None of this means that I favor military action against Iranian nuclear capacity. What it means is that military action might, in the future, become necessary to prevent Iran’s transformation into a new nuclear power, and, if that were the case, I would be willing to support an attack (non-nuclear, of course) as the least bad option in a bad situation.
Footnote It goes without saying that reducing our oil imports is an even more urgent national-security issue than ever in the face of the fact that the support our imports provide for world oil prices helps enrich the Iranian regime. Anyone who says he’s for national security and against an increase of at least a dollar per gallon in gasoline taxation is a bag of wind, and should be laughed at and ignored.
Update Bruce Moomaw asks what we should do if a conventional attack on Iran wouldn’t work and only a pre-emptive nuclear strike would do the job. My answer: drop back three yards and punt. The point is to maintain the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. I think it’s worth fighting a war to do so. But I’d rather risk losing that taboo than give it up for sure with a pre-emptive strike.
This is unlike the situation with the U.S.S.R. back when Bertrand Russell called for pre-emptive war. (Which is not to say that I think he was right even in that circumstance; I don’t.) Since Iranian nuclear capacity can’t possibly threaten the existence of the U.S., I can’t see how we could justify pre-emption either morally or on a pure calculation of national self-interest.