[For replies to Greg’s comments on the previous post, click here.]
One of the things we Americans do poorly, or not at all, is take advice or guidance from anyone else. In addressing the “Iranian threat,” we might improve our grip on reality by analyzing why other nations act the way they do.
Russia and China both disfavor strong measures in dealing with Iran. They oppose harsh sanctions and are trying hard to discourage a pre-emptive strike by Israel or by us. Why?
Some of China’s motives seem obvious. China is far from Iran geographically and not a major target of Islamist terrorism. So to China the “Iranian threat” is remote. And China could use Iran’s oil.
That’s as far as cynics’ reasoning goes. But there may be another reason that inspires less cynicism. Of all the nations on Earth, China has the broadest, longest and deepest experience in diplomacy and international power politics. It has a rule and tradition against trying to interfere directly with other nations’ internal affairs. Why?
Cynics might say that China itself doesn’t want to be messed with, as it had been by Western colonial powers for most of the last two centuries. But there may be more to it than that. Maybe China’s multi-millennial experience with diplomacy taught it that attempts to interfere in others’ internal affairs just don’t work, and often backfire. The Chinese are a very practical people, not prone to bouts of silly abstract theorizing. They adopted Communism much later than the Russians―only to unify their fragmented and chaotic nation―and yet rejected it about two decades earlier.
Maybe a culture’s longevity brings a sort of practical wisdom. Maybe the Chinese know something that our young American culture is just beginning to learn, the hard way.
Russia’s motives are even more instructive. Russia is much closer to Iran than we are. As the recent subway attacks in Moscow showed, it is just as much a target of Islamist terrorism. It might be even more a target than we: it has had several centuries of direct conflict with Islamic people to its immediate south, where there is no dearth of resentment of the Russian bear.
Vladimir Putin is one of the world’s smartest leaders. Unlike China, Russia doesn’t need Iran’s oil; it has plenty of its own. So under these circumstances why doesn’t Putin see the “Iranian threat” the same way we do? Could it be he understands Iran better than we do?
There are strong parallels between Iran today and Russia during the Cold War. Russia’s pyrrhic victory in World War II cost it one-seventh of its population and devastated Russia west of the Urals. Just so, Iran’s huge losses in its war with Iraq (which we instigated) decimated the generation of Iranians that is now coming into power.
Maybe Russians understand how this sort of experience fosters national insecurity, paranoia, bluster and threats. Maybe when they see Ahmadinejad rant and rave, they think of General Secretary Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium at the U.N. and shouting “We will bury you!” Maybe when they make that comparison, they smile. Maybe they also recall how Khrushchev, after all his bluster and threats, made a sensible deal with JFK to avoid Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Russians have even more reason to fear “appeasement” of aggressors than we in the West do. We had our Neville Chamberlain. They had their Stalin, who made a vain deal with Hitler, which Hitler broke. In the resulting war, Russians lost much, much more than any Western nation did. Maybe they understand the risks of appeasement just as well as we do but see today’s risks differently.
One thing is clear. The analogies of Iran to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are vastly overblown.
Iran today is nothing like Nazi Germany in the 1930s. If it were, Iranian opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami would be incarcerated or dead, and their disappearance would have been covered up. They are still very much alive and active, if intimidated. And if Iran were Nazi Germany, there would be no opposition press, and the small Jewish community still in Iran, which the government rightly distinguishes from Israel, would not exist.
True, Iran is arming itself with various missiles and warplanes. True, we don’t know (and the Iranians themselves don’t seem to know) whether Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons.
But we do know two things. First, the pace and threat of Iran’s arms production is nothing like Nazi’s Germany’s. Toward the end of the period between the two world wars, Germany devoted most of its massive industrial power monomaniacally to arming itself. It only took a handful of years to make Germany far and away the predominant military power on Earth, whether measured by men under arms, the sheer number of weapons, or their technological sophistication. What saved us was our two oceans, our tremendous industrial capacity, our ingenuity in converting it to war production, the heroism of Britain and its Commonwealth, Hitler’s strategic and tactical blunders, and the Soviet people’s tragic sacrifice.
In contrast, Iran today is impossibly outmatched by the West (and by Russia and China individually) in arms, armies and technological sophistication. A single American (or Russian) nuclear submarine could reduce all of Iran’s important cities to radioactive rubble in fifteen minutes, if it came to that. A squadron of nuclear-armed Israeli aircraft (or missiles) could do the same. Comparing Iran today to Nazi Germany at the outbreak of World War II―whether in capability or intentions―is ludicrous.
Comparing Iran’s policy today to the Holocaust is equally ridiculous. The Holocaust was a massive, officially sanctioned genocide against a peaceful, innocent and helpless internal minority in Germany (Jews). Hitler and Goebbels used it to inflame Germans’ feelings of general resentment (occasioned by the lopsided Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I) and to help “justify” the enormous sacrifices that their plan of world domination required of the German people.
Nothing of the kind is going on in Iran, where a small community of Jews lives unmolested. Ahmadinejad’s quarrel (which hardly all of Iran’s leaders or people share) is with Israel, which Iran’s leaders view as a now-superior regional rival. Rightly or wrongly, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian extremists also decry Israel as an invader and and conqueror, foreign to the region, which ought to be expelled.
But Iran is hardly alone in that regard. How much it intends to expend, sacrifice and suffer to achieve that end remains to be seen, as does how much Iran’s people will let it. The mere existence of the opposition, as well as the government’s inability to suppress it, suggests that neither all of Iran’s leadership nor its people are eager to make the necessary expense and sacrifice. Memories of the pain and futility of the costly war with Iraq are still fresh, particularly among the demographic cohort now coming into real power in Iran.
Even in war production, Iran appears to be a reluctant aggressor. Its military production is proceeding by fits and starts. All its weapons so far, especially its missiles, have dual use. Some Iran gives proxies to fight Israel. Most it stockpiles for use in a feared invasion by the US. Arming proxies is hardly unusual. It is a tried-and-true adjunct of international politics, practiced so often by us, the Soviets, the Chinese and others, during and after the Cold War, as to seem unremarkable.
As for nuclear weapons, Iran’s leadership―let alone its people―are clearly ambivalent about the need for them. If Iran really were hell bent on developing nuclear weapons, it would have them by now. But large factions of its leadership and people don’t see the need or the benefit. Most of them are from the intelligentsia, on which the leaders must rely for any project so sophisticated. In contrast, most of Nazi Germany’s intelligentsia were fully on board with Hitler’s war plans, or were coerced into active cooperation indistinguishable from support.
Nuclear power is another matter. Iran has little to sell the rest of the world but oil, and its oil reserves are limited. Developing nuclear (and solar) power for future internal use, while selling its oil for money to develop its infrastructure and improve its lot, is just rational economic policy. Trying to deny Iran rational economic policy (developing nuclear power for peaceful internal purposes) insults Iran’s sovereignty and Iranians’ intelligence and only precludes rapprochement.
That seems like a good way for us to start a war. China and Russia seem too smart for that. So far we have not been as clever.
The final issue in Iran policy is sanctions. We have good evidence that they don’t work. They didn’t work against Iraq; containment and the no-fly zone did, at least as long as we tried them. Sanctions haven’t worked against North Korea, although that nation is perpetually on the brink of starvation. They worked in South Africa, but only because that nation was facing a bloody internal revolt, based on race, by the vast majority of its people. No similar situation exists in Iran. (When and if change comes in Iran, it will be chaotic but largely peaceful.)
Common sense suggests that sanctions against Iran will do more harm than good. They will increase Iranians’ sense of isolation and resentment against the US, which already has considerable justification [search for “amnesia”]. They will therefore hinder the opposition and increase the regime’s opportunities for demagoguery. In short, they will decrease the likelihood of peaceful “regime change,” as happened spontaneously in Russia, and increase the risk of war.
Of course we should deny Iran the equipment and technology used to build weapons, whether nuclear or not. We already have a comprehensive international program, developed during the Cold War, for that purpose. We also should strive to insure that Iran cannot use foreign banking and financial resources to fund terror. But to deny Iran peaceful trade in such things as food, medicine, flowers and consumer electronics (having no possible military use) would be counterproductive. It only increases the risk of war.
Denying Iranians access to books, media and information would be especially stupid. The more the Iranian people and their leaders (who are generally literate and well educated) know about us and Israel, the less likely war will be.
The primary goal of international foreign policy should be to avoid another unnecessary war in the Middle East. Adopting policies that make belligerence and war more likely does not seem the best way to reach that goal. A secondary goal is to help Iran get over its inferiority complex and well-justified paranoia as soon as possible. Encouraging the outside world to gang up on it, whether militarily or economically, does not seem a particularly clever way to achieve that end.
Much has been made of Roberts Gates’ secret memo to the President laying out military options. Some think its very existence hints that Gates sees the President’s policy as remiss. But Gates is the Secretary of Defense. In earlier, less Orwellian days, we used to call his position Secretary of War. His job is to analyze military options and risks whenever there is the possibility of war, however remote. If he didn’t provide that memo, he would be remiss.
The memo’s secrecy speaks volumes. If it said that we or the Israelis could wipe out Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities with any long-term benefit, and with few risks or adverse consequences, there would be no need to keep it secret. The President or his opposition would make it public in order to increase the pressure on Iran. But no one believes that. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen hinted as much, before the memo, when he said there are no military solutions.
Indeed, there don’t appear to be. A pre-emptive strike is not an option. It would likely fail to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear capability, some of which may be underground (figuratively or literally), and a determined Iran would just rebuild. Starting a series of successive pre-emptive strikes would be madness: they would keep Iran and the US (or Israel) in a perpetual state of war, inflame anti-American (or anti-Israeli) sentiment and help recruit terrorists from among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. They would help entrench the Basij and the current regime, waste resources that Iran and the US (or Israel) need to build their own societies, and disturb the neighbors, with unpredictable results.
It is therefore hard to conclude (as Gates reportedly said in a public remark) that this state of affairs would be preferable to Iran having a nuclear weapon―let alone nuclear power without weapons capability. Iran having nuclear weapons but never using them (an outcome that US and Israeli deterrence could assure), would be preferable, especially in light of the medium-term possibility of peaceful regime change in Iran. The old Soviet Union had nuclear weapons―lots of them―but never used them.
Gates’ quote makes sense only as an implied threat. Skillful diplomacy can and should use threats, express or implied, to discourage Iran from developing or using nuclear weapons. To some extent our relationship with Iran is one of bluff and bluster. If Iranians can bluff, so can we. But the benefit of actually carrying out threats when doing so might lead to yet one more unnecessary and tragic war is, in Mark Twain’s words, greatly exaggerated.
Being prepared is one thing. Of course we should be prepared for any contingency, as should the Israelis. But provoking a war (with pre-emptive strikes or massive economic sanctions) is quite another. Bringing on war to prevent war simply doesn’t make good sense. The best approach to Iran, as it was with the vastly more menacing Soviet Union, is readiness, strategic deterrence, and patience.
Reply to Greg’s Comment on Previous Post (The Case for Nuclear Proliferation)
Thanks for your thoughtful, well-written and diplomatically phrased comments. They invite precisely the kind of civilized dialogue that I hoped this blog would foster, but seldom does. I am particularly grateful because I suspect that many people share the same misgivings that you express so well.
Although you apologized for it, I also appreciate your dividing your comments into two parts. I view your second comment as far more serious and worthy of discussion than the first. The first one, in my view, reflects insufficient understanding of the complexity of uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons. So I’ll start with the “easy” part and tackle the harder one last.
1. The “individual” threat. Threats involve two elements: intention and capability. I have no doubt that many individuals and small groups would like to have and use nuclear weapons. They include Al Qaeda Central, its many affiliates, Hamas, Hezbollah, and perhaps even some elements of organized crime. So intention may be there. I will not dispute that point.
The issue is capability. Notwithstanding the many James Bond (and other) movies that depict individuals or small criminal groups developing nuclear weapons (or even more advanced fictional ones), the practical risk of that happening is negligible. Now and for the foreseeable future, only organized states with some level of industrial modernity will have to ability to develop atomic bombs. Here’s why.
Uranium enrichment requires huge resources. The first is massive amounts of electrical power. I forget the exact figure, but our own uranium enrichment during World War II required a substantial fraction of the entire electrical output of the United States. (My memory says 10%, but don’t quote me on that number.) That’s why we built our centrifuge “farm” in Oak Ridge, right next to huge hydroelectric plants.
I can’t see how any small, “underground” group, let alone an individual, could command that level of resources. Nor can I see how he or it could keep that level of industrial development secret for the years needed to enrich enough uranium to create a nuclear weapon.
Electrical power is just the beginning. Merely making the centrifuges to use it requires advanced materials and advanced industrial technology.
As their names imply, the difference between Uranium 235 (the fissionable isotope) and 238 is three units of atomic weight, or 1.2%. Separating the two requires turning both isotopes into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is both highly toxic and corrosive enough to destroy robust stainless-steel tubes in days. You have to spin the centrifuges so fast (thousands or revolutions per minute) that this tiny difference in atomic weight causes the isotopes to separate. And this you must do continuously, for weeks and months, in thousands of centrifuges operating continuously and simultaneously, 24/7, even to hope to get a fissionable “critical mass” of highly enriched uranium..
Even that’s not all. Once you have the critical mass, you then have to design an implosion weapon, with suitable (and very precisely) shaped fissionable fragments, plus precisely designed and arranged “triggers” of conventional explosives, with electronic signals timed to the microsecond to explode them.
North Korea’s experience illustrates how hard this last step is. It would not have tested its weapons without a fissionable critical mass. Yet it took nearly two years to get from its initial duds to an apparently successful weapon. A whole nation subject to one-man rule, with a four-million-person army, required that delay just to build a decent trigger.
There is no single secret to making a nuclear weapon. There is a whole secret industrial infrastructure. You need nuclear physicists, chemists, metallurgists, materials scientists, mechanical engineers, explosive experts, electronic engineers, and precision machinists, computer programmers, and technicians. Each of these specialists holds a secret part of the puzzle. In short, you need something like the Manhattan Project, which commandeered the best and brightest scientists, engineers and technicians and the material resources of a great nation for four whole years.
The history of nuclear weapons bears out this analysis. The “original” members of the “nuclear club”―the US, Britain and France―had collaborated on the relevant physics and engineering for years before and during the Second World War and shared some important secrets. The Soviet Union took four additional years to develop a working weapon, despite its postwar paranoia, the extreme focus of its absolute dictatorship under Stalin, and its alleged theft of nuclear secrets via the Rosenbergs. Iran―a nation of 70 million people with a fairly advanced industrial infrastructure―has taken the better part of a decade and is still not there.
Today part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime is an elaborate system of controls over products, technology and information, designed to prevent any part of those secrets from falling into the wrong hands. The “nuclear club” members observe its restrictions religiously, which is why it’s been so hard for Iran to get useful tubes for its centrifuges. If it now has them, as it boasts, it is probably because it developed them indigenously, from scratch, perhaps with aid from sympathetic Pakistanis or North Koreans.
So the notion that an individual or tiny group could duplicate this feat is, in my mind, fantastic. It’s about as likely as our Sun going nova and turning our planet and solar system into celestial toast. You might as well worry about one as about the other.
There is a small risk that a nuclear state, whether or not intentionally, might supply a small group with a weapon or two. That I admit. But as you also acknowledge, the threat of nuclear retaliation by the victim (if a nuclear power), creates a strong incentive not only to avoid providing the technology deliberately, but also to guard it carefully. If Iran ever becomes a nuclear power, you can bet it will guard its secrets and its weapons as carefully as it does the Ayatollah, for fear of massive nuclear retaliation by Israel or the US.
2. The goal of a nuclear-free world. Your second comment, I think, raises much more serious issues. I have no quarrel with the goal of a nuclear-free world in the abstract. In fact, when I was much younger I attended rallies supporting that goal. Linus Pauling, the Nobel-Prize-winning chemist, spoke movingly at one of them.
As history developed and I got older, however, I came to believe that such a world is impossible to achieve in practice. I still think so.
Developing nuclear weapons takes an entire specialized industrial infrastructure and its corresponding secrets. But once a nation has nuclear weapons, they are compact and easy to hide. I can conceive of no reliable legal, social, technological or other practical means―let alone a foolproof one―for keeping a nuclear power from hiding some or all of its weapons, in a cynical ploy to maintain military supremacy, while other nuclear powers destroy theirs in a naïve attempt at total disarmament.
It seems to me that any serious attempt at total nuclear disarmament would expose honest “good” countries to treachery and blackmail by the bad ones. Until we achieve universal trust, honesty and good faith among nations―in which case we won’t need either war or nuclear weapons―I can’t see total disarmament as anything other than an invitation to treachery and disaster.
Reducing nuclear arsenals, rather than eliminating them, is another matter entirely. Nuclear weapons are so terrible in effect that no power, nuclear or not, would attempt a sneak attack on any nation that had them, even a handful, if there were the smallest risk of effective delivery. So I think the goal of reducing nuclear arsenals dramatically (perhaps to as low as a dozen weapons per nation) is practical and feasible.
For example, four thermonuclear weapons on each of three advanced nuclear submarines might practically assure our own deterrence. What nation would risk losing its four leading cities on a gamble that not one of our three submarines would get through?
In this respect I think China has been much more sensible than we and Russia. It has only a small nuclear arsenal for deterrence. It never invested in anything like the massive US and Soviet arsenals. Our own recent disclosure [subscription required] of over five thousand active weapons (and over thirty thousand at the height of the Cold War!) shows the absurdity of our Cold-War paranoia. Detonating a mere fraction of those weapons, even just several hundred, would likely have extinguished all higher life on Earth.
I have enormous respect, bordering on reverence, for the President’s political skill and understanding of public sentiment. I think he proposed the goal of a nuclear-free world in order to secure his left flank and maintain the moral high ground, while he works for a more modest achievement: substantial reductions in arsenals, a moratorium on proliferation, and perhaps a nuclear-free Middle East (which even Ahmadinejad today proposed).
I have no doubt he recognizes how many people wish that nuclear weapons would just go away. But I also have no doubt that he’s smart and realistic enough to know how dangerous getting there would be in the world’s present state of social and political development.
Two last points and then I’ll close. In my view, the risk of a wayward asteroid or comet hitting the Earth and causing our extinction as a species is about as high as a nuclear war between small powers. It is now much higher than the risk of our extinguishing ourselves with all-out nuclear war between major nuclear powers. For that reason, as I explained in my post, I don’t think humanity should give up nuclear weapons or missile delivery vehicles, which could help us ward off errant celestial objects.
Finally, I just don’t believe you can put the genie back in the bottle. We are living the ancient myth of Prometheus. We have discovered nuclear fire, and now we must use our reason and humanity to control it. We can’t forget or extinguish our knowledge of fire, especially as the worst among us crave it. We have to use our reason and humanity to control our use of that knowledge for our own preservation and advancement as a species.
As I’ve written in another post, that knowledge almost led us to extinguish ourselves as a species in 1962. Today, the risk of humanity’s extinction seems much smaller. If the President is successful in substantially reducing nuclear arsenals, we will be much safer still. That in itself is a goal worthy of the President’s talent and skill, and one he is much more likely to achieve than universal nuclear disarmament.