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Nuclear Iran? No Problem!
Posted by: Dale Franks on Monday, February 27, 2006

MIT politcal science professor Barry Posen apparently thinks that all the brou-ha-ha over Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons is really a tempest in a teapot. To be sure, it's not a good thing, but, he's confident we can deter the Iranians from doing anything whacky.
Iranian nuclear weapons could be put to three dangerous purposes: Iran could give them to terrorists; it could use them to blackmail other states; or it could engage in other kinds of aggressive behavior on the assumption that no one, not even the United States, would accept the risk of trying to invade a nuclear state or to destroy it from the air. The first two threats are improbable and the third is manageable.

Would Iran give nuclear weapons to terrorists? We know that Tehran has given other kinds of weapons to terrorists and aligned itself with terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. But to threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target.

Anyone who attacks the United States with nuclear weapons will be attacked with many, many more nuclear weapons. Israel almost certainly has the same policy. If a terrorist group used one of Iran's nuclear weapons, Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon's origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran. No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity.

Some worry that Iran would be unconvinced by an American deterrent, choosing instead to gamble that the United States would not make good on its commitments to weak Middle Eastern states — but the consequences of losing a gamble against a vastly superior nuclear power like the United States are grave, and they do not require much imagination to grasp.

The final concern is that a nuclear Iran would simply feel less constrained from other kinds of adventurism, including subversion or outright conventional aggression. But the Gulf states can counter Iranian subversion, regardless of Iran's nuclear status, with domestic reforms and by improving their police and intelligence operations — measures these states are, or should be, undertaking in any case.

As for aggression, the fear is that Iran could rely on a diffuse threat of nuclear escalation to deter others from attacking it, even in response to Iranian belligerence. But while it's possible that Iranian leaders would think this way, it's equally possible that they would be more cautious. Tehran could not rule out the possibility that others with more and better nuclear weapons would strike Iran first, should it provoke a crisis or war. Judging from cold war history, if the Iranians so much as appeared to be readying their nuclear forces for use, the United States might consider a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Israel might adopt a similar doctrine in the face of an Iranian nuclear arsenal.


Prof. Posen's theory is nothing more than whistling past the graveyard. And the key weakness in his argument is highlighted by the very last sentence quoted above. Sure, if you assume that a nuclear Iran will follow the USSR's example, then it's easy to assume the corollary: that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred. Unfortunately, there's no way to ensure that the Iranians have any intention of following the Soviet example, and many reasons to argue that they will not.

There are two types of state that cannot be reliably deterred: a) states that are ruled by a single, powerful dictator, and b) theocracies.

I addressed the problems with deterrence in the one-man state context a few years ago.
When you rule a country, and are surrounded by sycophants who constantly assure you that you are the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, eventually you begin to believe it. How do you maintain a sense of proportion and rationality about your decisions when every decision you make, good or bad, is praised by everyone you meet as the wisest choice in history? If everybody around you constantly tells you that you're a genius, and your plans cannot fail, eventually, you begin to believe it yourself. At the very least, such an environment naturally compromises the ability to make realistic assumptions upon which to base decisions.

In such an environment, leaders don't respond to the regular usages of international law. Indeed, such leaders, entirely unconstrained by limits on their behavior within their native environment, may very well have difficulty recognizing that international norms are applicable to them. They simply don't receive the negative signals that other leaders do. They are sheltered from bad news by their subordinates, because no one wants to be shot for delivering bad news. Their plans never receive rational criticism or exposure to unpleasant facts, because no one wants to be shot for disloyalty.
In short, dictators often fail to correctly interpret the messages you try to send them. Convinced of their own genius, they tend to think you are merely posturing. Convinced of their invincibility, they assume you will not have the will to oppose them, even if you intend to do so.

Adolf Hitler is a perfect example of this miscalculation. After the debacle of Munich, when the Western democracies essentially gave him Czechoslovakia on a plate, Hitler began turning his attention toward Poland. Both the German and French governments strongly and repeatedly informed the Nazi government, both publicly and privately, that any German military aggression in Poland would cause Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Hitler ignored those warnings, telling his Generals, "I saw our enemies at Munich. They are little worms."

But, no matter what had happened at Munich, the political climate of the Western democracies had changed. Hitler, however, was unable to recognize that change, and by all accounts, seemed stunned when Britain and France declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. (Interestingly, the USSR, under Stalin, was a one-man state, and as a result, disastrously failed to draw the obvious conclusion in 1941 that Nazi Germany was preparing to invade the USSR. Indeed, early on the Morning of June 22, 1941, when a Soviet commander reported that he was under attack by German forces, the response from higher headquarters was that his report was impossible, and that he must be insane.)

Theocracies—and Iran, being run, ultimately, by religious leaders is a theocracy—are even more problematic. Their problem is not that the rulers aren't rational (although they may not be) but rather that they hold beliefs that transcend rationality. They simply don't care what messages you try to send them, because they feel that God will protect them, or, if not, that God has some ineffable plan that will make everything come out all right in the end.

Even worse, theocracies can hold apocalyptic beliefs, that require some massive holocaust to occur so that God can exert a personal suzerainty over his creation, bringing about some millenarian end state.

Compare this to the USSR. After Stalin's death in 1953, the USSR completely reconfigured the government to prevent another strongman like Stalin from taking power. The General Secretary was the public face of Soviet leadership, but the government was actually run by the politburo, whose membership contained the three major centers of power in the Soviet state: the army, the party, and the security services. So, when Khrushchev pushed the USSR too close to the brink of war with the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Politburo deposed him.

This made the leadership of the USSR much more collegial and oligarchic than it often appeared to outsiders. It meant that opposing viewpoints could be debated, and the interests of different power centers could be represented at the highest echelon of the USSR's government.

Second, the USSR always paid at least lip service to the pieties of "international law. Certainly they twisted the intent of "international law" when doing so served their purposes. But they were always prepared to justify their actions within that legal framework. When Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1980, for example, they did so at the "request of the legitimate Afghan government" (Never mind that they were the only people who accepted the Afghan government of legitimate, or that it had been installed by having the leader of the previous government snuffed). They were outrageously cynical, perhaps, but they always operated with some justification of international law, even if the justification appeared transparently spurious.

Third, the state ideology of the USSR was a mitigating factor. The Soviets operated under the assumption that an apocalyptic nuclear wouldn't be necessary, unless the West initiated it. The Soviets assumed that the Western governments would eventually be brought into the Soviet camp through the historical inevitability of the revolution bought about by the class struggle. They were certainly willing to help the revolution along where they safely could, but they avoided direct confrontation with the West, being both afraid of the extraordinarily devastating consequences that possible in such a confrontation, and being confident that, ultimately, the West would destroy its own capitalist systems through the revolution of the proletariat, making such confrontations unnecessary. In short, it was irrational for them, in their own terms, to provoke a confrontation that might jeopardize the revolution when the historical inevitability of the class struggle was already working in their favor.

A brief digression: We often think of the USSR in terms of Red Storm Rising: a massive Soviet assault on Western Europe through the Fulda Gap. Post-Stalin, that was never really likely. Indeed, Soviet Military exercises in Eastern Europe always began with the Assumption that NATO forces would attack East Germany and that the Warsaw Pact would have to blunt the initial assault, then counter-attack. And, to be fair, NATO's policy of "Forward Defense" did look awfully ominous from the Soviet point of view. After all, a truly defensive posture would've required a defense in depth. Doing that, of course, would've meant implicitly giving up much of West Germany in case of a Soviet attack, something that was politically unpalatable to Germany's government. So, we came up with the oxymoronic "Forward Defense", with all our troops based close to the inter-German border. From the Soviet side, that looked a lot less like a defensive posture than it did forward deployment for an attack.

In looking at the Cold War USSR and modern Iran, the differences should be obvious. Iran's government is run by secular leaders, perhaps, but those leaders serve at the pleasure of the Mullahs. And Iran's current president is a member of a millenarian subset of Shia Islam. By all accounts, he believes that a major conflict must be provoked in order to bring about the advent of the 12th Imam, a messianic figure who will spread Islam to the world.

So, drawing parallels between the USSR and Iran seems to me to be a perilous business indeed.
 
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Theocracies—and Iran, being run, ultimately, by religious leaders is a theocracy—are even more problematic. Their problem is not that the rulers aren’t rational (although they may not be) but rather that they hold beliefs that transcend rationality. They simply don’t care what messages you try to send them, because they feel that God will protect them, or, if not, that God has some ineffable plan that will make everything come out all right in the end.

Even worse, theocracies can hold apocalyptic beliefs, that require some massive holocaust to occur so that God can exert a personal suzerainty over his creation, bringing about some millenarian end state.
This seems to be the fulcrum on which your entire argument pivots. But I don’t think the evidence for it is very strong. When thinking about religion we need to step beyond folk psychology or philosophical analysis and look at it as it actually manifests in the world.

You would be right if religious people started from a clear set of axioms and reasoned consistently and rigorously from those in everything they did, but I should think it doesn’t need pointing out that this is not generally in evidence. From an anthropological point of view it isn’t really easy to predict people’s behaviour based only on their religion. People have a remarkable penchant for ad hoc rationalizations and will reinterperet or conveniently ignore previously stated beliefs as the circumstances require.

Moreover, rationality isn’t a static trait. People are systematically more rational in matters that have tangible and immediate consequences for themselves than they are when their statements have no consequences, or consequences which won’t be felt immediately. Rapid nuclear annihilation is a pretty immediate and severe consequence.

Now, there are obvious outliers like suicide terrorists who do seem to reason in the way you describe. These are people who are willing to kill and die for an idea. But this is not a unique thing; kamikaze pilots were willing to do the same, and to a lesser extent so are patriotic soldiers in any army. They’re able to do this in a large part by subsuming their identities within something bigger than themselves. The relevant question is whether those in the upper levels of the government of Iran are likely to be these sorts of people.

While there is a contingent of hardliners who might fit the bill, their power is pretty limited and signs seem to point more toward pragmatic cynics having much more control. Ahmadinejad, for instance, is actually pretty impotent — he couldn’t even get his first several picks for oil minister appointed and in the end had to pick someone that satisfied the more pliant faction. The structure of the Iranian government is reasonably similar to that of the Breznhev-era USSR — people tend to overestimate the unity there, while the power is spread out over the ruling council, the expediency council, the parliament and the IRGC.

As for the rest, I fail to see a substantive difference of kind between the cynicism of the USSR and the cynicism of Iran. The USSR was worse in degree by just about any metric you want to use.

So yeah, I remain unconconvinced that Iran is a special case.
 
Written By: Matt McIntosh
URL: http://conjecturesandrefutations.net
I’m afraid I’m with Matt. I do think that a nuclear Iran is going to be a Bad Thing, but I also think that they can be successfully contained if need be. Especially if we can keep longer range missiles out their hands.

I read an article on Mid East strategy a while back which essentially stated that Ahmadinejad is not as crazy as he looks. What he is trying to do is balance two things (1) a need for Iran to regain it’s place as the Islamic ideological trendsetter (2) a need to get the US off their backs.

One, Iran was founded in revolutionary and extremist fervor. Then it was forced to sacrifice a lot of that with the Iran-Iraq war. They needed to bargain with outsiders in order to procure arms and survive as a nation. Now the Sunni fundamentalists have taken the reigns as the lead Islamic nutjobs. Iran wants that ideological leadership back in the hands of Shiites. Hence all the religious posturing and the taking a hard line with the US.

Two, Iran has concluded from US relations with North Korea that the US won’t attack nuclear armed nations. He’s bracketed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and he doesn’t like it. So he’s doing the same "We’ll Nuke LA" gambit that the NorKoms are using, only he’s employing it with Israel. Since Israel is a far more popular target among Muslims, it’s a win-win.

This doesn’t mean that the Iranian Imams are crazies. They didn’t get to be Imams by being crazy, they got that way by being good at Islamic religious politics. In fact they have shown themselves to be quite reasonable in the past under the proper conditions.
 
Written By: Jeff the Baptist
URL: http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com
I agree completely with Barry Posen and I think your analogy to Hitler’s Germany is lacking. President Amedenijad does not have ultimate authority in Iran as Hitler did in Germany. Even if he did, he does not have the Ace in the hole that Hitler had. Hitler’s Germany, at the time, was leading the world in nuclear weapons development and the rocket development to deliver the weapons from afar (not to mention that Germany was also one of the world leader’s in conventional weapons and overall military strength). Iran is merely the latest car to hitch itself to the nuclear train. Other nations will hitch in the future, but for now Iran is the caboose.

Iran is, as you accurately point out, a theocracy. The council of 11 Imams rule supreme with one leader that has veto power over all others. The unstable Ahmadinejad is not on the council though. Since I’m not hearing saber rattling from any council members, it leads me to believe that Ahmadinejad is the council’s saber rattling tool. They are using their President to scare the world into leaving them alone. There’s no indication that the supreme council actually intends to do what Ahmadinejad suggests. In fact, his rhetoric has been criticized as over-the-top dangerous from other prominent Iranian government officials. The Imams are tyrants, but I don’t judge them to be suicidal. As Posen points out, the consequences for them acting first is almost surely total destruction.

That’s just my guess and the consequences of being wrong are extremely high, but that applies to anyone’s guess. No matter what policy the US adopts, it will be a huge gamble.

Such is the basis for the proposal that follows.

There is no preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons short of a first strike from the US or a US led coalition. Therefore, it would be wise to issue the ultimate threat to Iran now – any attack on Israel, or any terrorist attack of a nuclear nature, anywhere in the world, would result in Tehran’s immediate and total destruction. We will assume that a nuclear terrorist attack had weapons origins in Iran and will make that assumption without investigation. France’s Chirac has alreay set the precedent without diplomatic blowback. If he can get away with such a threat, so can we.

In addition, we should start to foment internal revolution in Iran if we haven’t already started. If we have, the effort should change from covert to overt. My gamble is that Iran would back off under such threats and internal revolution is more likely to succeed if the Iranian people constantly hear that the US (and hopefully, the rest of the world) has their backs.

In response, Iran can threaten to withhold oil supplies, but unless the rest of OPEC agrees to join, the market price would be only negligibly affected. OPEC will not agree, because, let’s face it, the oil producing Middle East must sell their oil. It is their only source of capital.

They could also ramp-up Shiite insurgency in Iraq, but I believe we and the Iraqi military (such as it is) can handle sealing the Iraq/Iran border. Yes, it will take more troops in Iraq, but we can afford it. Besides, such a move is likely to meet with greater world support and participation than what we received for the Iraqi invasion.
 
Written By: Doug Purdie
URL: http://www.onlybaseballmatters.com
I think your analogy to Hitler’s Germany is lacking.
That’s interesting, since I didn’t make an analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany.
 
Written By: Dale Franks
URL: http://www.qando.net

 
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