More on Iranian nukes

No, I’m not convinced that Iran is as deterrable as the Soviet Union was.

Andy Sabl thinks my willingness to consider a military strike against Iraq is batsh*t crazy, and Matt Yglesias agrees, though he’s too polite to say so. They could well be right. I don’t claim to be an expert on Iraq, or on security policy generally.

But their arguments don’t fully convince me.

First, they assume that an Iranian attack on Israel would lead to massive retaliation, either by Israel or by the U.S. I’m not certain of that. First, I’m not convinced that Israel has the requisite intermediate-range delivery systems Second, I’m not convinced that a U.S. administration would really be willing to break the taboo on the use of nukes in order to retaliate, especially since doing so would place U.S. cities at risk from a still-nuclear-armed Iran. Third, what if Tel Aviv goes “bang” and starts to glow in the dark but Iran doesn’t claim responsibility? Are we, or the Israelis, going to be sure enough that it was Iran to kill millions of innocent Iranians in response?

Now of course a reasonable Iranian government wouldn’t even want to take the risk. And I take Matt’s point that the current Iranian president probably isn’t as crazy as he sounds. But Bruce Moomaw (in an email I quote with his permission) makes what seems to me the key point:

How many times must this be repeated? The danger has never been that a strong and stable Iranian dictatorship will start a nuclear war, or that one nut at the head of the government will be able to find enough suicidal lunatics in his own military staff to actually obey his command to start a nuclear war for no good reason. (When Hitler, in the last days of WW II, ordered the German Army to burn Germany to the ground, all his officers simply ignored him.) The very great danger &#8212 as should be obvious &#8212 comes when:

(1) That dictatorship becomes so WEAK and wobbly, and fearful of a popular revolt that might kill a good many of its officials, that it gets quite rationally desperate enough to make threats with its Bombs, in order to raise the cash to stay in power, that would be totally insane for the officials of a democracy who don’t fear getting massacred when they lose power &#8212 whether it’s trying to stick up its neighbors or (if it gets really desperate) selling Bombs on the black market. (One Japanese political scientist says that the North Korean officials he comes in contact with are constantly bringing up the fate of the Ceaucescus. If they aren’t doing so, they’re idiots.)

(2) That dictatorship actually collapses chaotically, allowing some of its Bombs to fall into the hands of God knows who. We were incredibly lucky in this respect with the downfall of the Soviet Union. We won’t always be so lucky, and we only have to fall off the tightrope once.

By the way, preventing a tyranny from getting its hands on the Bomb in the first place is not QUITE the same thing as starting a nuclear war with a tyranny that already has it. Bertrand Russell, lest we forget, spent years before 1949 urging the US to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Stalin’s USSR to keep it from getting its hands on the Bomb. He may very well have been strategically and morally justified in doing so &#8212 and Truman might have followed his advice if the OSS hadn’t insisted that Russia couldn’t possibly get the Bomb before 1960, and Truman hadn’t somehow convinced himself that they would “never” get it. I don’t think that we need to use a nuclear strike to keep Iran from getting the Bomb &#8212 yet.

Moreover, Andy’s point that the people in Iran who actually have their hands on the nukes may not obey the orders of the President of Iran is only half reassuring, since it applies to attacking (or supplying bombs to terrorist groups) as well as refraining from attack, and nutty lieutenant-colonels are more common than nutty presidents.

Andy’s other point &#8212 that lots of innocent Iranians would die in even well-targeted strikes, and the result would be hostility directed against the U.S. on the part of people who might otherwise not be hostile &#8212 remains completely valid. But it seems to me to apply two or three orders of magnitude more forcefully to nuking Iranian cities in retaliation for an Iranian strike on Tel Aviv than it does to a non-nuclear attack to take out Iranian nuclear capacity.

I recall that all right-thinking people around the world denounced the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. In retrospect, the Israeli decision looks pretty good to me.

As I said in my original post, I see no reason to rush into anything. But the day may come when inaction is even more insanely risky than action.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “More on Iranian nukes”

  1. Iranian Guano Fetish

    Andrew Sabl has a really good post responding to Mark Kleiman's paranoia on Iraq. Myself, I'm thinking it is Groundhog Day all over again. It's going to be a great summer. But just to add a bit here, I must…

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