Monday, March 13, 2006

Attacking Iran

Some people obviously really want to go to war with Iran. War has its own kind of momentum and madness. If Congress or the Democratic Party don't start injecting some hard-headed thinking about this situation into the discussion, we may soon be expanding the Iraq War into Iran. The picture William Arkin gives in the posts I previously referenced is that the civilian leadership is determined to attack Iran, and only the military's concerns about the inevitable problems has any liklihood of holding them back.

If this were a novel, there would be some literary value in having the world's hyperpower overreach to the point that it undercuts itself and winds up with the opposite of what it's trying to achieve.

But real lives are at stake here. It's sometimes said that the neocons and the Bush administration didn't invade Iraq, they invaded the Iraq of their ddreams. If the rush to war contunies, we're about to attack the Iran of the warmongers' dreams.

When it comes to programs benefitting workers or unemployed single mothers, consrvatives are insistent about recalling the "law of unintended consequences". But in the neocon fantasy world of purgative violence and wars of liberation, that "law" doesn't function.

In the comments to a recent post, Neil raised a question that was Graham Allison posed Sunday in the Boston Globe (The nightmare this time 03/12/06).

Allison writes:

[Barry] Posen's attempt to deal with a third concern - namely, Iran's transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists who might use them - is less satisfactory. Relying on the Cold War logic of deterrence, he asserts that "Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon's origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran."

Worry, yes. But Israel and the US have to worry even more about an Iranian president who denies the Holocaust and asserts that "Israel must be wiped off the map." Might he not also believe that he could sneak a weapon to Al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah with no fingerprints?
There is no answer to this question other than perpetual war. And, eventually, nuclear war initiated by the United States. Which, of course, is the only nation so far that has actually used atomic weapons in war.

I hope to post in more detail about this on other occsions. But it's important for everyone to understand that the posing of the question in that form comes out of a certain kind of logic that emerged from one part of the group of strategic theoreticians that John Kenneth Galbraith called the "nuclear Jesuits". One of the most important mentors for the neocons in strategic theory was Albert Wohlstetter, father-in-law of Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle.

Cutting to the chace of a complex set of calculations, Wohlstetter argued for an approach to nuclear strategy that called for the US to control all variables in the nuclear confrontation to the point of have negligible or zero risk from the other side. As Fred Kaplan put it in The Wizards of Armageddon (1983), all the iterations of nuclear war-fighting strategy foundered on the question of, how do you use nuclear weapons? The answer always comes up the same: the likely costs outweigh the foreseeable benefits.

Unless you achieve zero risk from the other side, which is what the Wohlstetter theory aimed to do. In the US/Soviet confrontation, that plays out essentially only one way: achieve an extremely reliable missile-defense system and then take out the enemty's nukes in a first strike. In a later post, I'll try to elaborate a bit more on the fundamental insanity of that.

But there are no "zero risk" situations when it comes to war, terrorism and nuclear weapons. That argument reminds me of a Zen-inspired financial-advice book I read years ago, that sais that "money is an illusion" and that if a person makes their goal chasing the illusion of money, rather than a concrete goal that money can facilitate, they may wind up becoming a kind of illusion themselves. Something like that has happened to the neocons and much of the Republican Party. They're practicing foreign policy and starting wars with a land of illusions as their reference point.

The seriousness of proposed acts of war to disable Iran's nuclear capability can easily be judged by how well their advocates address the real and immediate risks flowing from an attack. A good quick measure: when a pro-war politician like the great Maverick McCain - or Hillary Clinton - encourages military action against Iran without also reinstating a large-scale draft and expanding the regular Army, they are being incredibly reckless. Because Iranian attacks (direct and indirect) on the 135,000 US troops in Iraq in response are a virtual certainty.

Allison is perfectly right in the following argument:

Could rogue elements within Iran's nuclear or security establishment divert nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to other nations or to terrorists? Stop and think about what we have learned recently about the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan. Over the decade of the 1990s, he became the first global nuclear black marketer, running what Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called a "Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation." His network sold to Libya, North Korea, Iran, and others, nuclear warhead designs, technologies for producing nuclear weapons, and even the uranium hexafluoride precursor of nuclear bomb fuel.
What he says is true. But is it justification for the US to make war on Iran? Even though Iran is almost certainly as much as a decade away from actual nuclear weapons capabilities, there's more justification for attacking them than there was for attacking Iraq. Which is what many war critics said at the time: Iran is actually more likely to build nuclear weapons and also has more operational connections to international terrorist groups than Iraq, we said.

But look at that paragraph again. The worst proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in today's world is Pakistan. (In fact, Allison's quote sounds far more alarming about Pakistan, though that's clearly not what he intetended.) And Pakistan's government is far more likely to have Al Qaeda sympathizers or active collaborators than Iran, even at the present time. If hardline Islamic parties take power there, that would increase the risk even more. This isn't a rhetorical argument. The US needs a consistent nuclear nonproliferation policy. As part of the post-9/11 effort to line up Pakistan as an ally in the GWOT (global war on terror), the Bush administration dropped the sanctions the Clinton administration had imposed because of Pakistan's proliferation in acquiring its own nuclear weapons.

That very same argument applies to every nuclear power: Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Britain, France, the US, Israel, and North Korea (if they really have nukes). Every one of them. And of all those countries, we know Pakistan to already be the worst proliferator. Israel was also reported to have assisted South Africa in developing nuclear weapons.

I'm also not making a "slippery-slope" argument. The United States has a real interest in nonproliferation. Everyone that advocates attacking Iran should be aware that every time the US attacks a country on alleged nonproliferation grounds, which we already did with Iraq, we make the general proliferation problem worse. There are three nations in the world that have given up nuclear weapons: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union (both had nuclear weapons on their territory that their governments could have chose to keep), and South Africa after the establishment of major rule.

Does anyone remember the US invading or bombing those countries? Or even threatening to do so?

Allison also writes:

Israel will not ask for American permission before attacking Iranian nuclear facilities at Isfahan and Natanz. But the US will be blamed throughout the Middle East as a hidden coconspirator. Retaliation by the Iranian government and by those who sympathize with Osama bin Laden will target not only Israelis, but also Americans and American interests, including oil-tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf.
I remember a friend of mine using a similar argument to justify invading Iraq. I thought it was the most convoluted thing I'd ever heard. If Saddam does such-and-such, then Israel might decide to use a nuclear weapon on Iraq, and this would probably lead to general Middle Eastern war against Israel which would cause even greater problems. So, the argument was, we need to invade Iraq and fight an endless and ultimately hopeless guerrilla war there that leads to civil war and the serious damaging of the US Army and Marine Corps over the long term. And also create a major new recruiting cause for jihadist terrorist groups. We see now how brilliantly that's working out.

This is the same argument. Israel will not ask for American permission? Maybe, maybe not. But Israel flat-out doesn't have the military capacity to take out Iran's nuclear facilities unless they plan to initiate a nuclear war themselvs. And you know what? The United States is under no obligation to defend Israel if they initiate such a war. The US has offered to negotiate a mutual defense pact with Israel in the past, and Isreal refused. A mutual defense treaty would require a precise definition of the boundaries to be defended, and Israel was reluctant to compromise its options for annexing Palestinian land.

The US is a strong if informal ally of Israel and the US. And presumably we would be willing to intervene in some way to preserve the pre-1967 borders of Israel. But we should never be an unconditional supporter of anything Israel chooses to do, especially something that extreme. If Israel wants to start a war on its own, they should expect to fight it on their own. If they aren't prepared to do that, they shouldn't start a war. (And, no, this doesn't apply to the 1967 war when Israel initiated hostilities in a genuine pre-emptive war, facing a massive Egyptian military buildup with repeated, explicit threats of war against Israel.)

The bottom line on this is that if the United States wants to reduce the nuclear threat, including that from terrorist groups, real nonproliferation based on international cooperation is the way it has to be done. That's the only way that's ever been successful. And the Bush administration is steadfastly opposed to such cooperation, even on nuclear nonproliferation. Surely for the Richard Perles and John Boltons of the world, attacking Iran based on a nonproliferation pretext has a particular benefit in that it further reduces the possibilities for an effective international nonproliferation regime.

And getting back to successful nonproliferation and disarmament requires several actions that are pretty well known but are not consistent with a "nonproliferation" military attack on Iran: settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; settling the Kashmire dispute (between nuclear-armed India and nuclear-armed Pakistan, neither of which can be expected to disarm as long as the other has operative nukes); United States jettisoning the Bush Doctrine of preventive war; the end of the incredibly expensive Star Wars/"missile defense" boondoggle; and, the largest nuclear powers (the US, Russia, China) reducing their own nuclear arsenals and foregoing from destabilizing developments like "small nukes".

Aside from all the other likely bad effects of attacking Iran, the damage to international nonproliferation is a longer-run consequence, but by far the worst predictable negative effect.

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