Attempting to think through a dilemma like the threat of a nuclear Iran is like trying to make one’s way through a windstorm. For most people, who have none of the inside information of those in various official roles, or the view from the doorway of the analysts with access, all of the details that leak, and the incidental events – the assassinations, the computer viruses, the IAEA visits – are like gusts kicked up by the local geography and spiraling across the street. Not much they can tell the casual observer about stormy origins or where things are blowing. And then there are, behind the gusts, the true, prevailing winds. Each aims to sweep you away. Each blows with the intent to catch you up in its forward motion, kick up and blind you with dust as it rushes to its predestination. But the prevailing winds, with a little meteorology, are identifiable. They can be measured and accounted for.
The most notable wind is the concern of Israel and the threat it feels. A countercurrent is the suspicion of those ideologically committed to construe Israeli interests and military affairs as malevolent. A third current comes from the U.S. right. There we have those, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for whom every U.S. opportunity for significance in the world is best expressed through military action; valor, for them, has never met its better part.
Closely aligned are those on the right for whom American Exceptionalism is a bluster in adversarial relations that will huff and puff and blow your house down. More generally, there is the right’s determination to cast any approach but bombs away by Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman – as weak-willed appeasement.
There are other winds still. There are those, for instance, who warn against the catastrophe of war. There are always those who warn against the catastrophe of war. They are always right. War is a catastrophe. The greatest war ever fought, in size and greatness of purpose – the Second World War – is also the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known. But to warn against war because one wisely foresees the special catastrophe of a coming war, against the conditions that would prevail in the absence of it, is a wisdom different in kind from the unvarying warning against war because what it will bring is always more easily foreseen than what will come in its absence. There will always be the Neville Chamberlains. There will always be a Cyrus Vance, not just warning with caution, but actually resigning, regardless of success or failure, because of a constitutional opposition to acting forcefully in defense of one’s interests.
There are those for whom caution is a cover for Iranian apologetics. As blustery conservatives will label Obama a naïve appeaser for having sought negotiations and not committing to war, the apologists for theocratic tyranny will claim Obama never really tried negotiations. This is a crosswind that has to smell crisp and clean, whatever the fury.
How to stand amid all these winds? How to think with a little clarity within the howling? Let’s direct an instrument.
One confusion is that of American interests and Israeli interests. Let it be reasonable to argue that they need not be identical or contrary, even while similar. Both the U.S. and Israel have reasons to oppose a nuclear Iran. How much imagination does it take to assess the concerns of Israel – so much smaller, so much closer to Iran, already set sail amid a sea of enemies – as more pressing and critical than those of the U.S.? There are many vital reasons – among them the chances of ultimate success – to wish the course and final actions of the two to be completely aligned. This reasonably leads Israel to prod the U.S. to a greater sense of urgency. Just as reasonably, the U.S. seeks to calm Israel and slow it to an American pace. Neither is wrong to do so. Their interests are similar, not identical, and this is not mathematics. If Israel, in its own assessment of its security needs, were to act unilaterally, it would not be a betrayal of U.S. alliance and support, but an independent state’s independent act in defense of its interests. Whatever the results, the U.S. would rightfully assess and respond to them in its own interests, and among those interests is the U.S.’s natural alliance with Israel and the varied reasons for it. One response is predicted by retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, a specialst in war-gaming at the National War College and elsewhere, who agrees with everyone else that despite Israel’s military mastery, it does not have the capability for a truly devastating attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
I don’t believe it possible for the US not to be pulled into finishing the job even if Iran does not choose to respond immediately. I’ve also written a paper on the logic.
No nation is likely to be pleased to be pulled into a course of action because of the actions of another state, and it would be natural to expect a wide range of responses and for those responses to align with those prevailing winds.
What of the U.S. acting on its own, or in consort, finally, with Israel? One war gamer, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, reported on this exchange with an Iranian dissident.
I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.
This observation is telling in an unexpected way. Why an Israeli strike would be “10 times worse” is not just an estimation of the consequences of a strike; it is significantly an expression of the conditions of the potential cause of it. Other than a few presumed recent assassinations, Israel has no historical record comparable to that of the U.S. as an adversary and imperial power that that has harmfully interfered in Iranian life and politics. That Israel might nonetheless, in one person’s judgment, produce so much greater present enmity than even the “Great Satan” itself is an expression of just the virulent religious and cultural hatred that leads Israel to fear the threat of a nuclear Iran to begin.
But this presupposes an American willingness to perform a military strike. There are the currents that oppose it. If we leave aside Israel’s ideological and racial enemies and the Iran apologists, and we focus only on the warnings against war itself and its potential consequences, what is the meaning – what is the consequence – of accepting a nuclear Iran? It is as imaginable yet unpredictable as the course of a war that might follow from a strike. One argument is, in reality, to work from just that condition of imaginable consequences – the full range of complication, multilateral involvement, and material and economic harm – yet unpredictability: how much worse and uncontrollable the consequences could be than we can even imagine.
This is a fascinating ground for thought. The fiasco of Iraq and the long misdirection of Afghanistan after initial success fully support it. But it is always so. We never know what will come. That sounds banal. But imagine, since we are imagining, that we could have foreseen all the ends of the Second World War – the tens of millions dead, the incomparable physical destruction, with many fates only transferred from one tyranny, Nazi Germany’s, to another, that of Soviet communism. Were we able to foresee that awful price, how forcefully might so many more than just the Chamberlains have argued against the Churchills that an accommodation to circumstance – the implacability of a malevolent force – was the wiser, less awful choice. Unlike the unvarying knowledge of war’s dreadful cost, the course of accommodation, with the future always, in our imaginations, holding the possibility of better choices, is invariably less vivid and awful to that imagination.
Some argue from the example of the Cold War for the success of containment. But what is that example, truly? First, that one does not know the true meaning of unimaginable if one posits the U.S. fighting a war – after the long second world one – against the Soviet Union, and after the Chinese entry into Korea, against China too, as MacArthur pursued. We contained the Soviet Union and China because we had no genuine choice under the circumstances to do otherwise.
Second, and in practice, that for roughly forty years only, two great adversaries held each other in a terror of mutually assured destruction, and managed by that terror not to destroy each other. For only forty years. How often might the balance of that terror easily have been thrown off? We know of instances – Cuba most notably – when this example might well have become less exemplary. Is the Cold War, a single instance only of this strategy, a lesson in the reliability of containment or the world having managed four decades of good luck – a reason to sigh in relief? How likely it all might have gone another way.
So the idea of containment rests, perhaps, on no great bedrock. More, what will the choice of it assert in practice? There is no denying what it will say, more, proclaim: that the idea of nonproliferation is dead. Of the four nations known or believed to be nuclear non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two, India and Israel, may be viewed as special, democratic cases, and Pakistan and North Korea as two nations the world has good reason to wish without the weapons, but that for strategic reasons went unopposed. All four pose a threat to the NPT regime. Now Iran stands, and has stood for some time as the prime strategic and highly publicized challenge to non-proliferation.
Iran is also not a new challenge, as some now state, regularly remarking on a “rush to war.” Undoubtedly there are older discussions, than this one – also of war gaming – by James Fallows in the Atlantic, back in December, 2004.
Throughout this summer and fall, barely mentioned in America’s presidential campaign, Iran moved steadily closer to a showdown with the United States (and other countries) over its nuclear plans.
In June the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had not been forthcoming about the extent of its nuclear programs. In July, Iran indicated that it would not ratify a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty giving inspectors greater liberty within its borders. In August the Iranian Defense Minister warned that if Iran suspected a foreign power—specifically the United States or Israel—of preparing to strike its emerging nuclear facilities, it might launch a pre-emptive strike of its own, of which one target could be the U.S. forces next door in Iraq. In September, Iran announced that it was preparing thirty-seven tons of uranium for enrichment, supposedly for power plants, and it took an even tougher line against the IAEA. In October it announced that it had missiles capable of hitting targets 1,250 miles away—as far as southeastern Europe to the west and India to the east. Also, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected a proposal by Senator John Kerry that if the United States promised to supply all the nuclear fuel Iran needed for peaceful power-generating purposes, Iran would stop developing enrichment facilities (which could also help it build weapons). Meanwhile, the government of Israel kept sending subtle and not-so-subtle warnings that if Iran went too far with its plans, Israel would act first to protect itself, as it had in 1981 by bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.
That’s over seven years ago.
What might be the effects of speaking openly of containment, of a policy that openly acknowledges an unwillingness to bear the burden of enforcing nonproliferation? One well publicized Iranian war game exercise was conducted at Harvard in December 2009. Well publicized was how bad the outcomes were. Less publicized was the policy pursued by the war gamers who played the U.S. roles. Wrote David Ignatius,
My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence.
From another perspective,
“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.
Reports Sadjadpour of his war game,
We didn’t limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing several civilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.
He offers this further account of calculation based on perception.
But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’d often heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.
This assessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.
A Tel Aviv war simulation around the same time, also based on threats and sanctions, achieved similar negative results. A third war game, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, had Israel conduct a strike.
[O]ne of the Brookings war game’s major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.
Some members of the “Israeli” team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran’s nuclear program “was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response,” said one participant.
Sadjadpour makes the same point.
Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.
President Obama has well argued that the only way to ensure a lasting end to an Iranian nuclear weapons program is if the Iranians choose to give it up themselves. Regime change could increase that likelihood, but that is not foreseeable. If we accept that the Israelis are the eighty pound gorilla in this debate, they clearly accept that there is still some unspecified amount of time left to see if that end can be achieved. Every effort should be made. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings offers a complex calculus in consideration of this end. But if it fails?
Amid all the arguments pro and con, the weakest by far are any individual’s assertions, however ostensibly expert the source, of what is “unbelievable” or “irrational” as prospective action by any party or of how any party is, on the contrary, a rational actor despite supposed caricatures otherwise. The history of civilization is littered with the debris of national acts and policies no rational and moral person would have anticipated before they were committed and pursued, and the world and some peoples the loser for them. To argue, from such casual and personally held inductions about how Israel’s enemies might rationally behave, that Israeli leaders and the Jewish people, in light of both their long and recent history, should risk their very existence – again – before the nuclear power of a religiously inspired and anti-Semitic enemy is to make an argument careless of history and without moral seriousness.
Who dares cry not seventy years later of the Jew’s hysteria, and what scent is it on that wind?
That is the Israeli view. From the U.S. perspective, to commit to a nuclear Iran by confessing an unwillingness to prevent it will be to offer the most toothless face ever to grin submissively at the post-war nuclear world. The advocate of this position needs to simulate across the world the outcome of widespread nuclear proliferation at the end of any credible regime to prevent it. Or offer a credible argument for why that would not be the outcome.
- U.S. Defense Chief to Israel: We’d Hit Iran Harder Than You (wired.com)
- ‘Mossad, CIA agree Iran has yet to decide to build nuclear weapon’ – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News (2012indyinfo.com)
- Steve Sheffey: Don’t Let Republicans Divide Us on Iran (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Internationalist Cover for Anti-Semitism (sadredearth.com)
- Framing Israel (sadredearth.com)
- Trita Parsi’s Three-Card Monte Argument Against Iran Sanctions (sadredearth.com)
- Existential Threats and Slanted Arguments (sadredearth.com)
17 thoughts on “Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma”
As usual, a sober analysis, Jay, free of hyperbole or hysterics.
I don’t have much to add, but would appreciate if you could expand on one passage. You wrote:
“Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman”
For now I’ll just say I disagree, but if you could explain your reasoning for this claim I’d sincerely appreciate it.
Adam, let me start by being clear about the comparisons. “Most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation” means since G. W. H. Bush. and the great, though not flawless success of the Gulf War. Not least was the wisdom and restraint not to go on to Baghdad and the establishment of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Clinton had Kosovo, but was otherwise feckless. G. W. Bush’s military record is simply a disaster, surpassed only by that of Vietnam, the beginnings of which, along with the Bay of Pigs, are most of JFK’s military record. Johnson and Vietnam speak for themselves, and there is no reason to detail Carter, so in comparison to Democratic presidents we need to go back to Truman. Obama has managed the war against terrorism resolutely, forcefully, and to dramatic measurable effect, across multiple zones of war. The special operations under his presidency, and there have been many, have been executed decisively, courageously, and successfully. Left a legacy of two extraordinarily mismanaged wars, Obama has acted thoughtfully to pursue their ends through measured policies. Even in Afghanistan, where he committed more personally, he made a reasonable effort to see if the misdirection of six years could be turned around, but he did so without betting the house. All events indicate his careful bet was the smart one, and he will now manage us out of the failure we grasped from initial victory, transitioning away from misguided nation building to the continued fight against Islamist terrorism. All this, by the way, when he would have preferred to be guiding the U.S. away from the ill-considered imperial aftermath of the Cold War.