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Iran: The Threat

At a moment of serious challenge, battered by two wars, ballooning debt, and a faltering economy, the United States appears to have lost its capacity to think clearly. Consider what passes for national discussion on the matter of Iran. The open question is whether the United States should or will attack Iran if it continues to reject American demands to give up uranium enrichment. Ignore for the moment whether the United States has any legal or moral justification for attacking Iran. Set aside the question whether Iran, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently claimed in a speech at West Point, “is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons.” Focus instead on purely practical questions. By any standards Iran is a tough nut to crack: it is nearly three times the size of Texas, with a population of 70 million and a big income from oil which the world cannot afford to lose. Iran is believed to have the ability to block the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world’s oil must pass on its way to market.

Keep in mind that the rising price of oil already threatens the world’s economy. Iran also has a large army and deep ties to the population of Shiite coreligionists next door in Iraq. The American military already has its hands full with a hard-to-manage war in Iraq, and is proposing to send additional combat brigades to deal with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yet with all these sound reasons for avoiding war with Iran, the United States for five years has repeatedly threatened it with military attack. These threats have lately acquired a new edge.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are the primary authors of these threats, but others join them in proclaiming that “all options” must remain “on the table.” The option they wish to emphasize is the option of military attack. The presidential candidates in the middle of this campaign year agree that Iran is a major security threat to the United States. Senator Hillary Clinton in the last days of April threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran—presumably with nuclear weapons—if it attacked Israel. Senator Barack Obama dismissed Clinton’s threat as “bluster” in the familiar Bush style but agrees that Iran cannot be permitted to build nuclear weapons, and he too insists that a US attack on Iran is one of the options which must remain “on the table.” The presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, takes a position as unyielding as the President’s: Iran must abandon nuclear enrichment, stop “meddling” in Iraq with support for Shiite militias, and stop its sponsorship of “terrorism” carried out by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Any of these threatening activities, in McCain’s view, might justify a showdown with Iran.

Sometimes the President’s threats are chillingly explicit. In April the administration released details of the intelligence that explained an Israeli air strike last September on a large, blocklike building in which Syria, with the help of North Korea, had allegedly been building a nuclear reactor. Releasing this information, Bush said in April, was Washington’s way of “sending a message to Iran and the world for that matter about just how destabilizing nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East.”

The message to Iran was clear—stop or run the risk of a similar attack. Left ambiguous was the question of attack by whom—Israel, which proved itself willing with the attack in Syria, or the United States, which has more planes and missiles at its command? The kind of attack Iran might expect has been spelled out in news stories over the last few years. Some Iranian nuclear research sites are buried as much as seventy meters underground, and there are scores, perhaps hundreds of sites in all, so any serious American effort to destroy Iranian nuclear programs would require intense and numerous strikes by US bombers and missiles. For a time some administration officials lobbied to include the use of nuclear weapons in the strike options for attacking Iran’s protected nuclear targets, but vigorous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff scotched that possibility two years ago.

Yet even conventional bombing attacks are acts of war; unprovoked they are acts of aggression. Iran has said it would respond to an attack but without specifying how. Possible counterattacks might target shipping in the Persian Gulf, or US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, or something else the US has not anticipated. Such an exchange could not long be confined to tit for tat. An all-out American bombing program might force Iran to capitulate, or it might not. The next step would be invasion, destruction of Iran’s conventional army, occupation of Iran’s capital, and change of Iran’s regime, which has long been an openly declared policy objective of the United States.

Is there anyone outside the US government who thinks it makes sense to invite trouble on this scale? Even some insiders are of two minds. “Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need,” Gates said in his speech at West Point, “and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table.”

Forgive me, but why? The military option is a threat; if the threat is carried out it promises widening war and the possibility of failure on the scale of disaster. Why does a policy of courting disaster have to remain on the table?

Nothing in the modern affairs of nations has been more exhaustively analyzed and debated than the utility and dangers of nuclear weapons, and yet the dangers posed by Iran with a bomb have been barely discussed. They are treated as a given. The core idea is that Iran cannot be trusted because the country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had one. This is not the first time such arguments have been made. Some Americans, including Air Force generals, believed in the late 1940s that a preemptive war against the Soviet Union was justified by the peril of Moscow with a bomb. Twenty years later the Russians, in their turn, were so alarmed by the prospect of Beijing with a bomb that they quietly proposed to the Americans a joint effort to destroy the Chinese nuclear development effort with a preemptive attack.

The world’s experience with nuclear weapons to date has shown that nuclear powers do not use them, and they seriously threaten to use them only to deter attack. Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all acquired nuclear weapons in spite of international opposition. None has behaved recklessly with its new power. What changes is that nuclear powers have to be treated differently; in particular they cannot be casually threatened.

More recently the examples of Iraq and Libya have suggested that international sanctions work more effectively than military threats to persuade nations to give up bomb programs. As is now well known, American fears of Saddam Hussein with a bomb were unfounded. In early 2003, when the US was loudly insisting that only military invasion and regime change could keep Saddam from acquiring a bomb, the United Nations arms inspector Hans Blix said that whether the danger was real or imaginary could be determined by international weapons inspectors in a matter of months. In the event, the Americans themselves, after a year spent ransacking Iraq for evidence of nuclear weapons activity, announced that Saddam’s bomb program had been completely shut down a dozen years previously, in 1991. But despite the success of sanctions against Iraq the United States continues to speak as if only threats or actual attack might block an Iranian bomb.

Official reluctance to spell out why Tehran more than other nations cannot be trusted with a bomb has been matched by reluctance to consider why Tehran might want one in the first place. Iran’s nuclear weapons program began under the Shah in the 1970s, sputtered for a time after the revolution, and was then revived after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 which evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The Iranian government flatly denies that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, hell-bent or otherwise. Recently the CIA released its own conclusion that Tehran had abandoned any formal R&D effort to design nuclear weapons and fit them to a delivery system.

But whether or not that is or remains true is in one sense irrelevant; the hard part—say 90 percent of the challenge—in manufacturing nuclear weapons is making fissionable material, and in that Iran appears to be well on its way to success with its new, more efficient design of centrifuges for uranium enrichment. So set aside the question of whether Iran wants an enrichment program to make bomb-grade material or only for the production of electricity; if they get either, they could get both. It is a relatively—stress relatively—simple task to turn highly enriched uranium into a weapon. Iran with highly enriched uranium poses almost the same threat as Iran with a bomb. What we ought to ask, then, is why Iran wants its own production capacity for making the stuff of bombs?

What US officials say, when they say anything at all, is that Tehran wants a bomb in order to dominate the Persian Gulf region and to threaten its neighbors, especially Israel. This is a misreading of how other nuclear powers have made use of their weapons. As tools of coercive diplomacy nuclear weapons are almost entirely useless, but they are extremely effective in blocking large-scale or regime-threatening attack. There is no evidence that Iran has a different motive, and plenty of reason for Iran to fear that attack is a real possibility.

Indeed, the Bush administration, far from trying to quiet Iran’s fears, makes a point of confirming them every few months. These threats are not limited to words, but are supported with practical steps—the presence of large American armies just across Iran’s borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dispatch of the world’s largest fleet of warships to cruise along Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline. The Bush administration further accuses Iran of “meddling” in the affairs of its neighbors, of supplying weapons and training to Iraqis who kill Americans, and of being the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism. Fear that Saddam Hussein might provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups was the leading American justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the same concern is often cited about Iran.

The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the whole country listens to the administration’s threats with breath held, wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush’s restraint for their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system could do that.

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