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

21 December 2009

A Time of Reverence and Awe

      “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate.”[For comment on an op-ed pushing for war with Iran, click here.]


People old enough to have seen a lone religious figure lead Poland and Eastern Europe out of the mire of Communism cannot help but make an analogy.

When he became Pope John Paul II, the bull of a man born Karol Wojtila was known best for two things. For several years he had held Catholic Mass out of doors, through bitter Polish winters, after the Communists destroyed his church and refused to rebuild it. He remained a quiet but implacable foe of Communism at a time when Polish Communists held all the guns, all the political power, and seemingly all the cards.

We all know what happened next. The “Solidarity” movement that Pope John Paul II inspired grew like wildfire. Within a decade the fire had consumed Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, and the subcontinent was free.

Though not as robust physically, the Iranian Man of God who died in his sleep on Sunday was such a man. A key figure in the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought a form of self-rule to Iran, he never bought the idea of rule from the top. He wanted clerics to have a say, but more as advisors than as dictators. He abhorred the basiji and their rule by truncheon. And as the Islamic Revolution veered from its original meaning and purpose, he began to oppose those who had hijacked it.

Religious tribalism never made much sense to me. How could my Jewish God make us Jews the “chosen people” and exclude everyone else? We Jews are such a tiny minority. What are all the rest? Are they, as the old Jewish gripe goes, chopped liver?

That’s why I’m not very religious. That’s also why, the older I get, the more I think we all worship the same God. The only religious fervor I could really understand was the old abolitionist movement in my own country—the push to destroy slavery forever. Now there was a cause worthy of religious faith, fervor and martyrdom!

A direct line connects John Brown, Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. In very different ways all were Men of God. Brown and King became martyrs, while the others lived to a ripe old age. Brown was not a formally recognized religious leader. But all four stood powerfully for human freedom and dignity. All relied on the awesome power of faith in God to sustain them and their movements.

It is hard not to see the Hand of God in their work, whatever their sect or scripture, and whatever may be your own personal faith.

Roger Cohen of course is right. This is not a time for sanctions or for pressure, far less for gloating. Nor is it a time to seek cynical political advantage, even for the cause of freedom. Especially at this Christmas season, it is a time to admire and cherish the spirit of God that moves in all of us, often in mysterious ways.

That spirit also moves us here at home. The divide between science and faith that has split us Americans for two generations is closing. Evolutionary scientists now see faith as a product of our evolution, with survival advantages. The faithful are making common cause with scientists to preserve the Earth as God or evolution made it, depending on your view.

A speck in this vast universe of colliding galaxies, supernovae and black holes, we live! Despite the despotism, oppression, and greed of human history, and in the age of nuclear weapons, we are free! These things can inspire faith.

That, too, is a good and true thing. For who could have abolished slavery, jettisoned Communism or challenged the basiji without faith? Who can repair our battered planet without faith?

Who can believe that a vibrant system to stop climate change will rise from the ashes of Copenhagen? If we all have faith, it will.

Faith can indeed move mountains. It deserves respect, from scientists as well as others. So Americans of all faiths should unite in quiet spiritual solidarity with the housewives, workers and students now filling the streets of Qom and Tehran.

Two years ago, in a post entitled “Iran’s Christmas Present and the Future,” I remarked on Iran’s electoral repudiation of the politics of demagoguery and despotism. Last fall, the despots reacted with further oppression. They stole an election. No one could fail to understand their true nature and intent. So Iran’s greatest Ayatollah repudiated them.

Ayatollah Montazeri is not dead, any more than is John Brown, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, or Pope John Paul II. He lives in the crowds mourning his passing and celebrating the ageless tides of Shiite Islam. He lives in the youth yearning for a better, freer, more human future. He lives in women seeking release from the chains of a hijacked religion, whose aspirations Montazeri himself supported. He lives in the Islamic Republic’s much-violated Constitution, which he helped write, and whose words reveal how far from Islam and a republic it has fallen.

Our role as Americans is not to interfere. Especially at this holy season in our own country, our role is to celebrate with reverence and humility the faith that moves mountains and continually repairs our world.

For the writing is on the wall now, just as it was in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. The wicked shall fall, and Iran shall be free.

This is only the first of many miracles we can expect if we abandon our tribes and know we all share the same God.

As we quietly celebrate the blessings of our own recent change in government, the near-universal health care it soon will bring, plus release from the minor indignities of airplane imprisonment, let us celebrate also the spirit of God that moves in all our fellow creatures everywhere.

Merry Christmas, Ashura, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or whatever holiday your faith or culture bids you celebrate in this season of awe!

P.S. If you want to throw a chill up your spine, reread the quotation at the head of this post. Next read our own Declaration of Independence, especially its “grievances” section, which begins with the short paragraphs. Then ask yourself how we Americans differ from Iranians, but for the grace of 233 years.

A Flawed Warmongering Dissent

On Christmas Eve the New York Times published an apparent rebuttal to Roger Cohen’s view (and mine above) that now is a good time for us to do nothing about Iran. The op-ed piece was clear about one thing, its conclusion: “air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. . . . The sooner the United States takes action, the better.”

The author is one Alan J. Kuperman, an Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (where else?). I hope he has tenure already. The logic of his diatribe is not likely to get him any if reflected in his academic work. His arguments are as full of holes as Swiss cheese.

Kuperman’s argues that Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners in Iran actually wanted to accept the recent proposal for Russia to enrich Iran’s stock of reactor fuel, but domestic opposition (presumably from the Mousavi “Greens”) killed the deal. Let’s leave aside the fact that this assertion directly contravenes both conventional wisdom and virtually all reporting on Iran’s domestic politics that I have read. Kuperman cites no reporting and provides no link; rather, he reasons from speculation based on assertions about fissionable material.

First, he argues that Iran’s hard liners wanted the Russian-processed fuel, which would have been enriched to the 20% level (of fissionable U235) needed for power reactors. Iran’s own partially enriched fuel has impurities, he says, and anyway any further enrichment by Russia would put Iran closer to the 90% enrichment level required for uranium-based weapons. Again, he cites no authority but refers cryptically to “many experts.”

The next two technical steps in the argument are the crucial ones. Had the enrichment deal gone through, Russia would have supplied the 20% enriched fuel in the form of rods of other solid bodies for use in Iran’s existing research reactor. Kuperman argues that “[s]eparating uranium from [these] fuel elements so that it can be enriched further is a straightforward engineering task requiring at most a few weeks.” He thus implies that delivery of Russian enriched-to-20% fuel would put Iran only weeks away from a bomb.

This is argument by innuendo worthy of Joe McCarthy. First, it ignores the additional time, expense and trouble of getting from 20% to 90%. Second, it ignores the fact that impurities introduced by an imperfect Iranian enrichment process would make weaponry far more difficult than power to produce. The instantaneous explosion of nuclear weapons is far more sensitive to impurities than the “slow burn” of a power reactor. Weapons also require sensitive time-critical triggering technology, which can take enormous effort—and destructive testing with fissionable material—to develop.

But most of all, Kuperman’s argument ignores the fact that neither U.S. negotiators nor international non-proliferation monitors are stupid. Any deal for Russian enrichment would provide for delivery in installments, with each installment carefully monitored. Any sign of diversion to greater enrichment or weapons programs would stop delivery of further installments. Iran would lose not just all further installments, but the partially enriched fissionable material that it had taken years to create and had shipped to Russia.

On the military side, Kuperman’s argument is internally inconsistent. On the one hand he recognizes, as he must, that:
“[A]dmittedly, aerial bombing might not work. Some Iranian facilities are buried too deeply to destroy from the air. There may also be sites that American intelligence is unaware of.”
He also recognizes that air strikes would defeat Iran’s political opposition, strengthen the hard liners, accelerate whatever nuclear weapons programs Iran may have, and generally reduce the chances of a quick and painless solution to the vanishing point. Yet he nevertheless ends up recommending a full-scale aerial assault, as soon as possible. He never explains why we should risk action that likely would not practically achieve its goal, would start a third war for us, and would have horrendous political and social consequences, when just waiting would be so much smarter.

Two years ago, in a post on this blog, I recommended air strikes as a last resort, only if and after diplomacy and democracy had failed irretrievably. We are not there yet, not by a long shot. Diplomacy may be on the ropes, but there is a real chance of peaceful, internal “regime change” within the year. We can’t much influence what happens there, but we can wait and watch.

But what really changed my mind was the published photographs of the “new” enrichment facility near Qom. The visible entrances are obviously designed for a vast underground facility.

Iran may be having trouble developing nuclear technology, but it has lots of mines. Whether it uses existing mines or digs new tunnels, there can be little doubt of its ability to put the most sensitive parts of any weapons program it may have beyond the reach of even our best “bunker-busting” bombs.

Mines can go down over a mile; I’ve been in some that deep. No conventional bomb can cut that far, even through earth, let alone rock. The ineluctable conclusion is that, if it takes the trouble and spends the money, Iran can put its enrichment centrifuges out of reach of any air strikes. By allowing inspectors into the new site at Qom, Iran may be cleverly trying to make the world aware of that fact.

This doesn’t mean that Iran can carry on illicit enrichment activities with impunity. Centrifuge enrichment requires enormous amounts of electric power, unlikely to be supplied by subsurface facilities (other than other nuclear reactors). So if we could find out where Iran has hidden enrichment facilities, we could probably stop them from operating by bombing the entrances and power lines to them. But doing so would require a continuous or intermittent bombing campaign, not a single strike. Kuperman’s analogy to Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which the Israelis destroyed in the 1980s with a single air campaign, is false: the Osirak reactor was on the surface.

In the end, Kuperman makes two signal mistakes. First, he extrapolates isolated bits of technical knowledge beyond their fair implication. His doing so is not surprising: none of his expertise is in any technical field, let alone nuclear physics. He is a political scientist, not a hard one.

Kuperman makes the same mistake in ignoring the technical military impossibility of destroying deeply buried underground enrichment facilities with a single bombing campaign. His piece is proof positive of the old saw, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Second, just as Dubya did in invading Iraq, Kuperman vastly underestimates the political and practical consequences of the steps he advocates. Because no single air strike would suffice, Kuperman necessarily advocates a protracted air war with Iran. He doesn’t even consider the implications for our standing in the Islamic world, our already overstressed military, our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our bleeding budget.

I’ve heard of mad scientists, though I’ve never seen one. But God save us from mad political scientists who push for war on Christmas Eve.

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