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September 25, 2007

(Do You Want To) Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran?

Maybe there's more to this interview that Matt Stoller conducted with Wes Clark, but I'd really like to see the follow-up to Clark's (somewhat surprising) contention that we can't live with a nuclear Iran. Most are in agreement that, all things considered, it would be better to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that public diplomacy and direct engagement are the optimal methods of keeping them from weapons. The question is what if diplomacy fails? It may well, after all. Given America's apparent desire to overthrow Iran -- down to Bush having a prominent bomb Iran maniac over for tea in the Oval Office -- it's not crazy for Tehran to decide their regime's survival is only assured by nuclear capabilities. And in that situation, the question is simple: Is this worth going to war over?

The Democratic campaigns, particularly Hillary's, keep rhetorically implying that it is worth war with the "all options on the table" formulation. Simultaneously, they're relying on liberal activists to either know or assume that they don't really mean that and are simply trying to look tough. But this is one of the most dangerous foreign policy eventualities on the next president's plate, and it's crazy that voters are being asked to cast a ballot without any firm information on what the candidates think.

September 25, 2007 | Permalink


Somewhat surprising? You'd expect the man who wants to be Hillary's vice president to say that a nuclear Iran would be kosher?

In any case, Wes Clark's progressivism has long been exaggerrated by Stoller and others.

Posted by: david mizner | Sep 25, 2007 11:54:01 AM


I know I'm not the first person to say this, and it's horrifying to think about, but don't you think that the most likely explanation for the "failure" to provide "firm information" to voters is that the Democratic candidates, especially Clinton, are quite willing to go to war to prevent a nuclear Iran, but they know that saying so is a sure way to lose the primary?

I never thought I'd say this, and it frightens me to have to rely upon this, but our only long term hope for avoiding war with Iran may be the military's aversion to such a course.

Posted by: LarryM | Sep 25, 2007 12:13:40 PM

While I am all in favor of non-proliferation, our foreign policy has not been conducive towards those ends. In particular, we have recently attacked a power that had dismantled its nuclear program and had effectively disarmed itself over the period of about a decade. Meanwhile, other powers have developed nuclear power clandestinely, and the American response has been to fear that nuclear power.

So, the Bush administration has reversed the stick and the carrot. A power that cooperates with non-proliferation (Iraq) gets the stick (invasion) while powers that do no cooperate (North Korea, Pakistan, others?) get the carrot (refusal to consider military option).

What sane leader of a nation like Iran, that has been faced with public threats for several years, would choose the path that Saddam Hussein took? Clearly that path turned out to be suicidal for Saddam Hussein.

So any country in Iran's shoes is going to do its best to clandestinely develop a nuclear program. And that leads to the question: what is the US going to do about it?

Well, consider how pathetic our invasion of a disarmed nation has been, why would a nation with a functioning military like Iran's fear any military action? While Iran could not defeat the US militarily, Iran can feel fairly confident that the US cannot at the moment even think about launching a full-scale invasion.

Meanwhile, Bush's blustering has lead to increasing isolation on the international front.

So, no, I do not want a nuclear Iran. But let's talk about what steps would be needed to take to stop that from happening. From my standpoint, the only ways to stop such an end result are
a) negotiating with Iran, which would require the US to stop treating negotiation as a reward for Iran having already done what the US wants them to do (in which case, what would be the point of negotiations?)
b) a full-scale, nationwide bombing and destruction of all Iranian infrastructure.

I do not think b) is a moral answer. At some point, Americans are going to have to back off playing the Biggest Asshole on The Block card in international relations. Sure, there are people in positions of power in the US who demand a completely dominant position on the international stage. Well, that might feel fine and dandy, but that path just isn't working. There are a multitude of reasons as to why it isn't working, but the most basic one is that military might does not make for a very healthy economy. All the money spent on pursuing these wars would have been better spent on other things.

Posted by: RickD | Sep 25, 2007 12:14:38 PM

Clearly there is a prominent bomb-Iran caucus, it's bipartisan and well-funded and telegenic, and I'll be positively impressed if it's even left to the next president to decide. Especially after reading Avedon Carol today, I'm afraid that it's out of our hands, and the best chance we have of avoiding it is for some other Security Council country to negotiate and sign a mutual defense pact with Iran. (Or Merkel could do it, if she remembers that impromptu backrub as fondly as it deserves.)

Posted by: Michael Bloom | Sep 25, 2007 12:39:48 PM

Suppose Iran gets hold of an atomic bomb, or even a few of them. Our response would be to simply issue a proclamation, saying that if they ever actually use this atomic bomb of theirs against any of our allies, in particular their government's traditional hate object Israel or the Bush government's perennial love object Saudi Arabia, we will retaliate at least five-fold with our huge and unstoppable nuclear arsenal, and if they employ them against us we will annihilate Iran altogether.

This technique worked for more than three decades to restrain the Soviet Union, and they had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Because of the doctrine of deterrence and the existence of many nuclear-armed nations, nuclear bombs are essentially useless as offensive weapons; they are only good for deterring an overwhelming attack by others. The idea that a nuclear-armed Iran would launch an unprovoked nuclear attack is absurd. The only logical reason for the U.S.A. to so adamantly refuse to allow Iran to have their own nuclear deterrent is so we or our allies can attack them with complete impunity.

Posted by: W. Kiernan | Sep 25, 2007 12:42:35 PM

"Given America's apparent desire to overthrow Iran -- down to Bush having a prominent bomb Iran maniac over for tea in the Oval Office -- it's not crazy for Tehran to decide their regime's survival is only assured by nuclear capabilities."

Indeed. That's a real hen-or-egg question. What's needed is a new approach to break this circle of threat and response, not just more of the same.

Posted by: Gray | Sep 25, 2007 1:58:38 PM

WK: I agree with your logic, but you make the implicit assumptions that a) Iran is a rational actor, and b) they will keep the nuclear bomb to themselves and not give it to, say, a Hezbollah operative. It seems to a lot of people that neither a) nor b) are obviously true. I think there is a far smaller risk of, say, India allowing a bomb to fall into the hands of extremists, than Iran, where if enough clerics think it's a good idea to "lose" a warhead, it will be done.

Posted by: HFS | Sep 25, 2007 2:17:41 PM

HFS, this isn't an issue, I think. The Soviet Union had exactly the same option, to supply a bomb to a third party. They were in a better position to do so, too, because they had tested, miniaturized bombs, ideal for a terrorist to smuggle, that Iran could not manufacture for decades. What do you think the U.S.A. would have done if the Soviet Union had supplied, say, the Japanese Red Army or the Italian Red Brigades with a nuclear bomb and they had used it against us? Obviously if the Iranians "lose" an Iranian warhead and a Hezbollah bomber sets it off instead of a Revolutionary Guards bomber, then they still get nuked.

As far as the Iranians being non-rational actors, that's the same stuff you always hear from the leaders of countries looking for a excuse to start a war about the leaders of every country they wish to attack. Arguing in the other direction is the fact that the Iranian regime has managed to hold onto power for almost three decades now, including seven or eight yeas of out-and-out land war, and further they have not completely demolished their own country during their reign as did, for example, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

Posted by: W. Kiernan | Sep 25, 2007 3:14:42 PM

Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about the political solutions that we forget that there really are some simple military/logistical realities about the Middle East.

Take a look at this map. See how all the pretty purple blobs are concentrated in a single 800 mile by 200 mile strip? That's about 40% of the world's proven oil reserves.

Saddam Hussein took a look at that map and decided that it was militarily feasible to control most of that 800x200 strip. The result was the Gulf War. No doubt Iran has looked at the same map.

US policy has been to deny any hostile power hegemony over that strip. Iran has a big army, but not quite big enough to take on all the stakeholders, especially with US bases all over the place. But if they can reduce the US presence in the region and simultaneously threaten their neighbors with nukes, they might have enough muscle to seize the oil. Given Iran's proclivity for projecting power, does anybody doubt that they'd pass up the opportunity?

Nukes change the military equation in a fundamental way. They make it much more expensive for the West to maintain the balance of power, and they afford the opportunity for Iran to cow its neighbors into submission. Given vital US (and Western) interests, Iranian nukes will have to be deterred or eliminated to maintain access to the oil. This is the fundamental calculation underlying everything.

Look, I think we're screwed here, and that we'll wind up spending huge sums of money to deter a nuclear Iran. But let's not pretend that there isn't a case to be made for denying Iran nuclear capability on the assumption that any cost paid now is cheaper than the cost to be paid later in deterrence or, even worse, in dislodging Iran from seized territory. So, yes, you should work really hard with soft power (which we're obviously not doing now). But if soft power fails, you have to consider hard power.

The fact that Hillary Clinton can read a map seems like a good thing. I wish more of the candidates would do the same.

Posted by: TheRadicalModerate | Sep 25, 2007 4:57:37 PM

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