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Attacking Iran


Thanks to billmon for the map. Pocket nukes were found here.

I can’t decide whether I’m being alarmist when I worry about an imminent U.S. attack on Iran, or whether I’m in denial when I tell myself, “Not yet.” Some would argue that the decision has already been made, and the rollout phase has begun. In an appearance three weeks ago on CNN, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner told Wolf Blitzer that covert operations have been going on inside Iran for 18 months. And a recent deployment will put a new naval strike group in the Persian Gulf around October 21.

Sometimes I tell myself that I shouldn’t care, for the simple reason that there is nothing I can do. It’s out of my hands, just as the war in Iraq was out of my hands. The Bush team knows what they are doing in playing to our prejudices against “Islamic extremists,” sometimes known as “Islamo-fascists.” Who would want to defend the President of Iran, a radical who “denies the Holocaust” and wants to “wipe Israel off the map,” to use the favored formulations of the New York Times? Isn’t it a given that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons? If we do nothing, won’t it be just a matter of time before these dangerous people have nukes? Won’t they just turn around and give them to Hezbollah to use against Israel? Won’t they use them as a sword over our heads in Iraq and the whole Middle East? Maybe they’ll go so far as to give a spare nuke to international terrorists, for use here in the U.S.?

So much of this story is false that I don’t know where to begin. Others have made the arguments better than I could, and they’ve been making them for months or years. Perhaps we could start, though, by defining the two major prongs of the case: that Iran is determined to have nuclear weapons and is close to attaining them, and that its leaders are so extreme and irrational that dialogue is impossible. In other words, we have a technical argument about how far along the Iranians are in the quest for nuclear weapons, and a moral argument about the nature of the regime. If it turns out that the alarmists are right on both counts, then attacking Iran becomes not just permissible, but morally necessary to prevent a greater evil, nukes in the hands of “Islamo-fascists.” The discussion then shifts to strategy and tactics. How long we should try diplomacy before declaring it moot? What are the advantages of air strikes versus “boots on the ground”? Should we consider using “tactical” nukes against underground facilities?

We’re already having that discussion, and it’s an unhappy one for several reasons, not least because no military option can give the West what it wants, a guarantee that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons. Unless the facilities and the know-how are completely wiped out, or the regime is changed to a more compliant one, then an attack may actually backfire, creating a resolve for nuclear weapons that wasn’t there before. Moreover, all the options involve huge downside risks. A ground invasion would be impossible without reinstating the draft, because our forces are already stretched thin in Iraq, which has 27 million people versus 69 million in Iran. An air campaign offers no guarantee of reaching all the intended targets, for the simple reason that if a secret program exists, then we don’t know where all the targets are. And we would also need to eliminate the brains behind the program, which means targeting civilian scientists. If the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is any indication, attacks on civilians would provoke a huge backlash against the U.S. Finally, hostilities, once begun, would be impossible to contain. We should expect the consequences to range from a sharp spike in the Iraqi insurgency, to skyrocketing oil prices, to attacks on our Gulf State allies, to a merging of the various Mideast conflicts into all-out regional war.

As for the possiblity that the U.S. would use “tactical” nuclear weapons to penetrate the deepest Iranian bunkers, the less said the better, except to mention that Physicians for Social Responsibility has estimated the consequences at 2-1/2 million deaths. The fact that this is even being debated in Washington shows the level of depravity to which our leaders have sunk. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, since these same leaders have already justified warrantless wiretaps, torture, detention without trial, and secret prisons, all in the name of a war on evil.

Let’s step back for a moment from this grim scenario and pretend the decision hasn’t already been made. The rightness or wrongness of attack is still up for debate. So what are the arguments in favor? The first is that we can’t afford to wait for diplomacy to take its course, because the Iranians are just playing for time. Our hands are tied with diplomatic maneuvers, while they continue their research at an accelerating rate. Meanwhile, the “point of no return” is just months away—but this doesn’t mean the actual production of a nuclear weapon, but simply the technical know-how to do it, a much lower threshhold. Even the most alarmist scenarios don’t imagine that Iran can produce a nuke before the end of the decade, and it could take a lot longer than that for all the kinks to be worked out. The alarmist argument conflates theory with action, knowledge with results. And it conveniently sidesteps the question of whether the Iranians even want a bomb.

So do they? Throughout the international community, the experts seem convinced that they do. Indeed, the French and the Germans are almost as concerned as the Americans about this, in sharp contrast to the runup to the Iraq war. A recent article by James Fallows in the Atlantic stated flatly that it’s so, beginning with the line, “Now that Iran unquestionably intends to build a nuclear bomb….” But it cannot be stressed enough that there is no evidence for these fears. Following a tipoff by Iranian dissidents, the IAEA did discover an underground bunker that the Iranians had previously been hiding, however that facility is now open to inspectors, and only limited, extremely low-level tests have taken place there. The IAEA itself has refuted alarmist attempts to turn this into something that it’s not (emphasis mine).

    U.N. inspectors investigating Iran’s nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday [September 13] about a recent House committee report on Iran’s capabilities, calling parts of the document “outrageous and dishonest” and offering evidence to refute its central claims. […] Among the committee’s assertions is that Iran is producing weapons-grade uranium at its facility in the town of Natanz. The IAEA called that “incorrect,” noting that weapons-grade uranium is enriched to a level of 90 percent or more. Iran has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent under IAEA monitoring.

What do the Iranians themselves say about their motivations? All along they have been solid in their insistence that the only goal of their research is peaceful energy production. This is precisely why they are so stubborn about it, because it is a right guaranteed to all nations by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And they have gone further, with top political and religious leaders renouncing nuclear weapons on several occasions. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put it on October 13, 2003:

    The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form.

Former president Hashemi Rasfanjani said the same thing on December 3, 2004:

    I also say unequivocally to those who make false claims: Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, but it will not give up its rights. Your provocation will not make us pursue nuclear weapons.

The following year Ayatollah Khamenei went further, declaring in a statement to the governing board of the IAEA (as paraphrased by IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, emphasis mine):

    The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons….

A fatwa is a very serious matter in Islam. It is an interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a high religious authority, and is binding on Muslims in the same way that a papal declaration is binding on Catholics. Of course, religious authorities are human beings and their interpretations do not always agree. But since Ayatollah Khamenei is also the supreme political leader of Iran, it is safe to say that a fatwa from his hand is official state policy. For him to declare that Islam forbids nuclear weapons should really end the argument. We must be willing to accept what he is saying at face value, unless we are willing to believe that the orthodox leader of a theocratic state is cynical enough to twist the words of God for political ends.

But haven’t things changed since the election of Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new president? Doesn’t his ascendancy represent an eclipsing ot the old guard, and the passing of the torch to a new, more radical generation? With such a firebrand in power, isn’t the idea of fatwas somewhat quaint? Actually, no, as his own words make clear. At a news conference during his appearance last month at the United Nations, he said this (emphasis mine):

    I am at a loss in understanding what else we need to do to provide guarantees. […] We have not hidden anything. We are working transparently. […] The bottom line is, we do not need a bomb, unlike what others think. Regretfully, some believe that the nuclear bomb can be effective in international relations. They are wrong, because the time for nuclear bombs has ended. We know that. These nuclear arsenals will not benefit anyone. […] And let me say that at the same time, we are Muslims. And based on a decree given by the leader of the Islamic republic, moving toward having a nuclear bomb is banned and forbidden. Therefore, no one has the right to move in this direction. In our country, it is not permissible.

Remember, this is a man who believes in the Afterlife and the Last Judgement, as all good Muslims do. And there is no worse sin than to lie in the name of one’s religion. Whatever you may think of Ahmadinejad, I don’t think anyone has questioned the sincerity of his faith. Nor do I see any room in the above words for Clintonesque evasions. So unless you want to believe that he condemned himself to Hell that day, maybe we should take him at his word. Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

In a future post I will examine the other prong of the argument against Iran, the notion that its leaders are too extreme to be trusted.

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