The Iranian puzzle

If we can take out Iran’s nuclear capacity, we probably should. Fortunately, we don’t have to rush.

Kevin Drum and I were at the same blogger meeting with Wes Clark. As usual, I found myself wishing that he were as skilled and sure-footed a candidate as he is a foreign policy and military thinker.

Clark was chillingly detailed about the nature of a possible military intervention to take out Iran’s nuclear program: 14 days, 4000 air sorties, some special forces operations on the ground to penetrate the labs buried under schools and hospitals. He thought the whole thing could be done without many U.S. casualties, and that we could destroy Iranian command & control and put a major dent in its nuclear weapons acquisition process.

The problem, according to Clark, &#8212 in Iran as in Iraq &#8212 is what to do after “Mission Accomplished.” Bush Administration bungling has already taken America’s standing with the Iranian electorate from good to bad; a strike could easily take it from bad to worse. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already ridden anti-American sentiment from obscurity to national-hero status; an invasion that didn’t kill him could leave him stronger. And the idea of occupying Iran doesn’t even pass the giggle test.

But, given that the mission as described is militarily feasible, we need to ask ourselves whether, as citizens, we’re for it or against it, and, as Democrats, what we plan to say and do if (1) the President asks for another Congressional Use of Force Resolution or (2) he just orders an attack without waiting for a resolution. Alternatively, if the New York Times has it right and the Administration really intends to let Iran go ahead and nuke up, we need to decide whether to criticize that inaction.

Despite the likely political repercussions and my absolute confidence that, given the opportunity, the current ruling oligarchy in this country will f*** things up to a fare-thee-well, I find it hard to build a convincing case against taking action. The best arguments against invading Iraq were (1) the Ba’athists weren’t linked to any terrorist activity [Update: This is wrong. See correction.] (2) Iraq wasn’t, in fact, building nuclear or biological weapons; and (3) invading Iraq would weaken our capacity to deal with Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, all of which were, in various ways, much more dangerous to U.S. national security.

But Iran is linked to international terrorism, is in fact building nuclear weapons, and has a President who denies that the Holocaust took place and has announced that Israel is a “tumor” that needs to be “wiped off the map.”

I can’t share Atrios’s confidence that a nuclear-armed Iran would be deterred from using its new capacity. No, I don’t think Iran would bomb Nwe York. But assume that an Iranian nuke takes out Tel Aviv. Then what? Does Israel retaliate with nukes? Do we retaliate, on Israel’s behalf? Once Iran has sustained a nuclear attack, then what keeps the Iranian government from using a suitcase bomb to devastate an American city?

The current situation brings out in sharp relief the criminal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration in lying about the Iraqi nuclear program. Those lies make it harder to support anything the Administration proposes to do in Iran now. But since the Iranian nuclear program is about as open as it could possibly be, the question of intelligence accuracy doesn’t really arise.

It’s important to remember that the relevant time-periods here are years, not months; whatever we do about Iran, we don’t have to rush into it. We have time, for example, to get our troops out of Iraq, where they’re vulnerable to the Shi’a firestorm that might well erupt in response to an attack on Iran.)

The principle that it’s better to fight our enemies before they have nuclear weapons rather than after turned out to be misapplied in the Iraqi situation, but it still seems to me a prudent one. I would have preferred to draw the line this side of Pakistan, but it’s not too late to establish the rule that going for nukes constitutes an act of aggression and reliably attracts counterforce measures.

Update: Here’s a contrary view from an expert: Jo-Ann Hart, writing in Military Review.

Second update Just to clarify: Clark was describing an option, not endorsing it. His overall take was that the military results wouldn’t justify the political backlash. What was news to me is that we could actually do it.

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:

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