Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 December 2006

Iran's Christmas Present and the Future

Democracy and What We Do about It

What a wonderful Christmas present to the world! In local elections, Iranians repudiated the apocalyptic policies of their wacky, belligerent President Ahmadinejad. Ordinary Iranians, it seems, are not looking to the Mahdi’s return and want to step back from the brink.

Iran’s local elections make bookends with our own recent congressional elections. Both repudiated foreign policies driven in part by religious extremism. Both showed that reason still prevails, albeit by narrow majorities. Both showed reluctance to let literal and mindless interpretations of ancient scriptures drive modern nations into the Inferno. Jesus Christ—who at last report said “turn the other cheek,” not “Bring it on!”—would be pleased.

This writer has described the likely outcome of the triumph of religious extremism: World War III. But it need not happen. The Iranian elections reflect an important victory. Bad memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war seem to have vanquished Iran’s national fantasies of a new and worldwide Islamic Caliphate supposed to solve all mankind’s problems. But that victory is temporary. The mind of Iran still hangs in the balance, and we must help it reach the right decisions.

How can Americans encourage Iran to do the right thing at this critical time? The most important step we can take is to keep quiet, at least publicly. Teddy Roosevelt’s prescription was the right one: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Now is the time to speak softly, while we prepare our big deterrent stick and hope we won’t have to use it.


It was depressing to see Secretary Rice repeat the president’s mindless policy of refusing to talk with Iran or Syria. She cut her intellectual teeth on the Cold War, and she knows better. That tense conflict saw constant talks with the Soviets, if only to prevent the sort of misunderstanding that almost provoked a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

If talking helped avert that ultimate disaster, surely it can help prevent a general conflagration in the Middle East. Secretary Rice’s attempt to distinguish then from now was sheer sophistry, and she’s bright enough to know it.

We need to talk to Iran for one reason above all: to make sure there is no misunderstanding about our own intentions and capabilities. Iran needs to know five things about us and the real world, and it needs to know them directly (and with nuance) from the highest official levels of our government.

First, Iran needs to know that we have no designs on its territory, people, religions, or government. We should support Iran’s economic, cultural and industrial development, and we should support its eventual entry into the WTO, once Iran has proven convincingly and verifiably that it has no aggressive intentions and is not building tools of aggression.

The “Axis of Evil” talk must stop now. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” under vastly different conditions. The Soviets knew that their own nuclear deterrent prevented any invasion from the West, and Reagan himself assured Gorbachev that the West had no designs on the Russian people and its territory. In contrast, a single nuclear submarine of ours could reduce Iran’s major cities to rubble in fifteen minutes, with little or no immediate consequence to us. That kind of power, coupled with what might reasonably be construed as a threat, has the risk of producing paranoia and encouraging an irrational quest for nuclear weapons. We need to make clear to Iran that we do not intend ever to use that kind of power aggressively or for purposes of regime change.

Second, Iran mullah’s need to know that we are going to take primary responsibility for ensuring a just and permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as quickly as possibly. They need to understand that we are going to spare no effort and to twist Israeli arms as hard as possible to this end (while asking our Arab allies to do the same to Palestinian arms). They also need to be told that, if they oppose this process by insisting on an apocalyptic military solution in a quest for regional hegemony, they will be marginalized and will become objects of disdain, derision and distrust throughout the region.

Third, both Iran’s mullahs and its military leaders need to know that we will not tolerate the rise of a new kind of Nazi Germany in the Middle East. They need to understand that economic sanctions are just the first step. They must be told that any armaments beyond those that Iran needs to defend itself from invasion—and the plants to make them—will be destroyed. They should understand that conventional precision air power suffices for that purpose and will be used if necessary.

Fourth, Iran needs to know that its fantasies of destroying Israel are just that. It needs to know that we will use all of our conventional arsenal to protect Israel, including conventionally armed ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, precision guided weapons, and manned and unmanned air power. We need to remind Iran what we did to Zarqawi and the Serb armies in Kosovo (incidentally, protecting Muslims!). We should explain in detail what the same technology can do to fissile-material production facilities. Iran also needs to know that our capability of thermonuclear retaliation backs the nuclear retaliatory capability that everyone presumes Israel has.

In other words, Iran needs to know that pursuing nuclear weapons as a means to national defense, let alone realizing aggressive fantasies, will be pointless, economically wasteful (because the weapons and production plants will be destroyed), and extremely risky. We should also encourage Iran to talk with leaders of all the former Soviet satellite states, which uniformly and voluntarily elected to go non-nuclear after the Soviet Union’s demise. Some of those states have large Muslim populations and Islamic leaders, and maybe they can explain things to Iraq’s leaders in a way that we cannot.

Finally, the Iran’s mullahs need a lesson in physics. Then need to know, intimately and personally, why nuclear weapons have only been used twice, and then only to conclude history’s bloodiest war. These ivory-tower leaders, who live in their heads and inside the Koran, must open their eyes and see what nuclear weapons can do.

Perhaps we should pay, directly or through Muslim intermediaries, for them to visit the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. They need to understand that there is nothing glorious or spiritual about vaporizing human beings or the agonies of terminal radiation sickness. As spiritual men, they need to contemplate both the morality of visiting such destruction on anonymous innocents, plus the risk that it might happen to them.

Iran’s mullahs need to travel and see the world as it is. If we can’t get them to travel, we need to bring the world to them, either through helpful intermediaries or through multimedia productions provided in the course of diplomatic discussion.

So there is a lot that we can say to Iran’s leaders, and perhaps some things that they can say to us.

A lot to be said on both sides might better be said in private. Perhaps there are already “back channels” for this purpose. But back channels have a disadvantage: because they have plausible deniability, they cannot dispel paranoia. Iran needs to hear all these things, officially and directly, from someone in our government at the cabinet level or above. Most of all, the mullahs and their people need to know and believe that no one in the U.S. is about to launch an invasion or a first strike or to try to re-install someone like the Shah.

Democracy and What We Do about It

Ahmadinejad’s belligerence, his apparent intention to arm Iran, and his scapegoating of the Jews are scarily reminiscent of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But the recent electoral rejection of his policies shows that Iran differs from Nazi Germany in one important respect. Democracy, albeit limited, lives in Iran, and it may be on the rise. Apparently the mullahs, unlike Hitler’s Brown Shirts, are not trying to build a totalitarian state.

Under these circumstances, our best policy with regard to Iran’s internal, civilian affairs is to watch, wait and learn. Because many Iranians view us with suspicion and distrust, any direct support from us for reform—far less for any particular candidate or party—would be the kiss of death. Our policy should have two watchwords: (1) hands off and (2) patience.

Above all, we should avoid picking champions. We simply don’t know enough to do so without shooting ourselves in the foot. In Iraq, our placing big bets on Ahmed Chalabi’s supposed “charisma” and “competence” was one of our biggest strategic mistakes. We should learn from that mistake and be humbler in Iran.

Yet that does not mean we should be idle. A large number of expatriate Iranians live in the United States. They speak and read the language and they understand Iran’s culture and history. Most of them are Jews, and many are bright and well-educated professionals. They have no desire to live in an Islamic society, but they have few illusions about changing Iran. What they want is what we all want: an Iran at peace and nonbelligerent, to which they can return to visit and do business without fear. In other words, unlike Ahmed Chalabi’s personal interests in Iraq, their interests are our own. And there are enough of them that we can average out their individual idiosyncrasies and prejudices.

We should recruit these folks by the hundreds to help us keep tabs on what is going on in Iran. They can help us analyze and predict consequences, advise on policy and (where appropriate and necessary) engage in covert action to discover illicit Iranian arms activities. These same people can also help us to decide how, whether and when to support reform in Iran so that we work with Iran’s people, rather than against them. We should go on a full-court press to expand and improve our intelligence capability vis-à-vis Iran.

Rather than prepare for a costly and risky ground invasion, we need to prepare to manage a long, difficult and perhaps uneasy peace, something like a mini Cold War. We need to train lots of analysts and spies to make sure we have good intelligence on precisely what is happening in Iran. Then, where appropriate, we can give democracy there a subtle and secret boost.


The final leg of our policy toward Iran should be deterrence, backed by limited and conventional military force. Neither we nor the world can allow Iran to arm itself for aggressive action, far less with WMD.

World War II taught us the danger of failing to deter a rising aggressor nation. Fortunately, today’s technology and the vast technological gulf between the United States and Iran give us the tools to deter aggressive armament with limited cost and risk. All that effective deterrence requires is the funds to build the means and the will to use them.

Effective deterrence begins by prioritizing threats. Recent events make clear that nuclear weapons and conventional medium- and long-range missiles should be the top priorities. Chemical weapons are a distant third, and biological weapons are virtually negligible. Here’s why.

Nuclear bombs are the aggressor’s perfect weapon. Once he has perfected weapons design (which takes a few years), the weapons are compact and can be delivered by any means: land, sea, or air. There is no defense against them but prevention. They can destroy an entire city and, unless rain washes the fallout away (as it luckily did with Hiroshima and Nagasaki) leave it partly or largely uninhabitable for the centuries required for natural radioactive decay.

Nuclear weapons are especially troubling from a geopolitical perspective because they can be delivered and used secretly. Containers, cars, boats, rail cars and vans can hide them, providing plausible deniability for their use. A secret nuclear attack would leave the victim (even if it possessed nuclear weapons itself) with the Hobson’s choice of doing nothing in response to a devastating attack or visiting similar destruction upon a rival who might be innocent or upon a guilty party’s innocent civilians. Thus nuclear weapons give the utterly ruthless aggressor and the terrorist without moral scruples an asymmetric advantage over those troubled by the prospect of destroying innocents.

For these reasons, the primary focus of foreign and military policy for the twenty-first century must be keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of aggressors, extremists, and terrorists. There is no more important external goal, period.

Medium- and long- range missiles are slightly less troubling because their trajectories can be traced back to their origins. With the earth blanketed by satellites and radar, a first strike is possible, but secrecy is not. An aggressor who fires missiles is always subject to counterattack and retaliation, as Hezbollah learned last summer.

Nevertheless, as Kim Jong Il has discovered, even missiles with conventional warheads can be useful instruments of geopolitical blackmail. Kim’s 10,000 conventional missiles aimed at Seoul give him substantial assurance that he will be able both to build his nukes with impunity and to continue his despotic regime for the rest of his twisted life. There is not much that the rest of the world can do about it, whether or not he has nuclear weapons. Only China has the leverage (food and oil) to deter Kim. But China understandably (in light of its history) fears instability above all else and is therefore reluctant to use that leverage.

Chemical weapons may be effective instruments of terror, but they have only limited use, if any, in warfare. The world discovered this nearly a century ago, when both sides tried poison gas in World War I and eventually abandoned it. Present technology allows whole armies to supply their own uncontaminated food and water, and there are effective (if expensive and inconvenient) precautions against airborne chemical weapons. Add to this the risk that the wind will change and cast airborne chemicals back at those who release them, and you have a good explanation why this century-old technology has been used only for massacres like Saddam’s in Halabja.

As for biological weapons in the form of transmissible plagues (such as smallpox), this writer has explained in detail why that risk is science fiction. A generalized plague would be a sui-genocide bomb if released by the type of disorganized terrorist group or third-world rogue nation likely to consider doing so. If such an aggressor wished to protect its own population from the artificial plague—and in the unlikely event it had the advanced biotechnology needed to do so—it would have to vaccinate or provide an antidote to the entire population that it wanted to protect. There is no way that it could keep such a widespread program secret. The vaccination or antidote-distribution program would give potential victims and the world time to take countermeasures. As for short-range bioweapons like anthrax, they are analogous to chemical weapons and equally ill suited to targeted aggression or warfare.

Thus for now and for the foreseeable future the spread of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is the chief threat to world peace and stability. In comparison, chemical and biological weapons pose secondary and minor risks.

Fortunately, the technology now exists to deter and prevent dangerous regimes, including Iran, from developing these aggressive weapons. While it might be possible to generate chemical or biological weapons in the type of mobile labs that Saddam was once (erroneously) suspected of having, no one can develop nuclear weapons or missiles in a semi-trailer. Missiles are big and need ground launchers or silos, which can be observed from satellites. Developing fissile materials requires a massive, fixed and extremely expensive industrial infrastructure.

Take Iran, for example. It has reportedly chosen to generate fissile material using centrifuge technology. That technology requires many centrifuges, which in turn require massive amounts of electricity—enough to power whole cities. While Iran might hide the centrifuges in underground caverns, it cannot hide the massive electrical infrastructure (generators, transmission lines, etc.) needed to supply them with electricity.

All these things are visible to satellite, and all are vulnerable to destruction from the air. With modern precision weapons, it should be possible to take them out with little damage to surroundings and minimal casualties. Ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads, unmanned aerial vehicles, and even conventional manned air power could be used for this purpose. Since Iran has no present defense against ballistic missiles, submarine-based ballistic missiles converted to conventional warheads could be used to take out these facilities. They might be so effective as to permit a five-minute warning before impact, enough to minimize civilian casualties while destroying immovable targets.

It is essential for peace during this century that the world not shrink from the unpleasant but vital task of deterring questionable regimes from arming themselves with nuclear weapons and aggressive missiles. It is no excuse to say that a rogue regime (North Korea) already has crude nuclear weapons and short-range missiles or that another questionable regime (Pakistan) has a small nuclear arsenal. If the major powers do not call a halt to the spread of these weapons and back it up with a limited but effective conventional military deterrent, the twenty-first century will be far more dangerous and insecure than it need be. Iran should be a test case.


The right policy for Iran is thus the three Ds: diplomacy, democracy, and deterrence. The first two, plus the inherent difficulty of generating enough enriched uranium for a bomb, should give us time to perfect and deploy the third.

But the third D—deterrence—is the linchpin and the backstop. We have the technology to deter and prevent Iran from acquiring weapons that could allow it to destabilize the region and perhaps start World War III. Our development and deployment of that technology would cost a small fraction of what we have already spent in Iraq. We should not allow Iran, or any other secondary power, to checkmate world peace with nuclear weapons or medium-range missiles. So as to be ready if the need arises, we should begin to move our pieces now.

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