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How Alarmed Should We Be About Iran?

[ 50 ] November 10, 2011 |

Last Sunday I found myself in a twitter brawl after declaring that a nuclear armed Iran, while hardly ideal, would have no significant effect on the Middle East balance of power. Yale Journal of International Affairs asked me to write a longer piece on that argument:

The following facts about Iran are largely beyond dispute. It is outspent militarily by three of its closest neighbors, including Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Its only friends in the Middle East are a few terrorist groups and Syria, a nation beset with domestic furor. It has extraordinarily hostile relations with the United States, and only relatively polite relations with Russia and China. Iran’s existing conventional military forces are obsolete by regional standards. The country suffers from substantial domestic discontent and has undergone serial crises of governance structure since at least the late 1980s. Iran is heavily dependent on resource exports, inextricably and directly linking its economy to the international market and inviting all of the problems normally associated with the “resource curse.”

These things are true today. They will remain true the day after Iran tests its first nuclear weapon.

Comments (50)

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  1. catclub says:

    Another view is: Israel has nuclear weapons. How much have they been able to boss around their neighbors because of these weapons (and not just because they also have a superior conventional military apparatus.)? Why should we assume that Iran with nuclear weapons would be able to boss around their neighbors?

  2. Its only friends in the Middle East are a few terrorist groups and Syria, a nation beset with domestic furor.

    Not anymore! Now, Iran is best buds with the country that used to be its strongest regional competitor, Iraq.

    Heckuva job, Bushie.

  3. BradP says:

    As is my wont, I find myself concerned about Iran, but exponentially more concerned about the probability of our reactionary foreign policy making things worse.

  4. Njorl says:

    I think you should also consider the scenario of Iranian collapse. Nuclear weapons would make that a more difficult situation by a significant measure. A stable, oppressive, theocratic regime probably wouldn’t use nuclear weapons foolishly, but a collapsing theocracy might. There is also the possibility of Iran using nuclear weapons on its own people if a regional civil war breaks out.

    Gaddhafi probably didn’t have the loyalty from his military to use a nuclear weapon (which, of course, he didn’t have) against Benghazi, but the IRG might be able to use one against Tehran, if it became a rebel stronghold.

    I still don’t think this justifies desperate measures, though. Sanctions, diplomatic pressure, subversion and sabotage seem appropriate, but murdering scientists, bombing and war don’t seem justified.

    • c u n d gulag says:

      Are you talking about Iran, which has yet to develop a nuclear weapon, let alone an arsenal, or Pakistan?

      Me?
      I’m more worried about Pakistan.

      • Njorl says:

        The discussion is about the complications of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. It is kind of intrinsic to the discussion to assume Iran will have nuclear weapons.

      • And when Iran has a nuclear weapon, I’ll still be more worried about Pakistan.

        Iran isn’t some cobbled together entity dreamed up as Versailles. It’s a very strong state. I don’t see a collapse on the horizon.

        Pakistan? Pakistan can’t/won’t even keep control of large chunks of its territory, and half of its intelligence service is working with terrorists who are at war with the Pakistani state.

        • Njorl says:

          I wasn’t thinking of a collapse like Yugoslavia. I was thinking of a revolution starting in the urban areas. The government is much more popular in the countyside. Any revolution is likely to start in Tehran, and spread to other cities before there is trouble in the small towns and countyside.

          I’ve never subscribed to the idea that Iran’s theocratic rulers are crazy. They act in their own self interest, ruthlessly. The problem I am considering is that nuking Tehran could conceivably be in their interest. I just don’t see their leadership going peacefully into exile if faced with a strong opposition.

          I doubt that it will happen. They may not build a bomb. They may not have a revolution for another generation, if they do have the bomb and a revolution, the chain of command would probably break down before the could use nuclear weapons on their own people etc. Still, it is something to consider.

          And let me repeat, even considering this, bombing Iran, or going to war would still be a mistake. It would be counterproductive, and immoral. Murdering scientists would, sadly, just be immoral, which is probably why it is going on.

    • Njorl says:

      I see you did mention collapse, though not extensively.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        And my point is that we’re falling for the same line of BS thinking and rhetoric that the Neo-cons used so successfully with Iraq.

        It’ll be a while before Iran can get in a position to threaten Israel, much less us.

        Their conventional military, while large, with probably well trained special forces, had antiquated equipment.
        And if they decided to invade their neighbors, since they’ don’t process their own oil into usable fuel, will first have to strike at nearby countries that process oil into gas.
        This should make them very vulnerable in a ground war.
        As to an air war, please, don’t even compare their capabilities to ours.
        We’re supposed to be fearful of Iran’s military? The same military that Saddam fought to a standstill? And that we and our allies, or as a virtual stand-alone act, went through twice in a matter of days and weeks, not months.

        We should do what we can to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But an attack, especially on a young population that likes the West and America, is like begging for another 2 or 3 generations of needless sabre-rattling, war, dead, wounded, and displaced people, and a cost that we would be suicidal fools to want to incur.
        We’d be the same sort of suicidal economic fools that we think the hierarchy in Iran is for trying to go nuclear.

        Sorry, I didn’t buy this the last time.
        And I ain’t buyin’ now.

        • And my point is that we’re falling for the same line of BS thinking and rhetoric that the Neo-cons used so successfully with Iraq.

          Well, there’s one rather significant difference: the Iranian nuclear programs isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. The hawks are exploiting this situation to advance their interests, but they are not inventing it like last time.

          Remember “But everyone believed Iraq had WMDs!” That was false last time. This time, it’s true.

          • c u n d gulag says:

            My point is that bombing them to slow down, or prevent them from creating weapons, may be counter-productive in the long term.

            Iran’s Mullah’s have to be worried after what they saw in the Middle East recently – and that’s after what they saw in their own country before that.

            The Neo-cons and the MIC, now that Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, need to create, or keep using existing enemies and making them seem more threatening, to justify continued tax money being spent on more military expenditures.

            We need to focus on Pakistan right now. It’s far more dangerous IMO than Iran.

            • My point is that bombing them to slow down, or prevent them from creating weapons, may be counter-productive in the long term.

              That’s an excellent point.

              My point is that “fighting the last war” – that is, taking “just like Iraq!” as the basis for understanding and argument – isn’t going to be an effective way of making that case, because there are some pretty significant differences.

    • dan says:

      Njorl

      An Iranian version of the Turner Diaries, then? With the added downside that Teheran is home to some 12% of the Iranian population, and that the IRG would happily murder their own families. I doubt it.

      • Njorl says:

        It doesn’t take the whole IRG to use a nuclear weapon. I am also assuming a situation in which Iranians loyal to the regime have fled Tehran.

        I also don’t think of it as a likely course of action. Just a possible course, which would probably fail somewhere in the chain of command.

        And what the hell is with the Turner diaries comment?

        • John F says:

          I believe in the Turner Diaries that when the “Order” gets its hands on some nuke sot promptly uses them against urban areas- since they see those populations as consisting of racial or ideological undesireables…

          The “philosophy” set forth in the Turner Diaries and other excrement by the same author are as loathsome as anything any human being has ever penned

  5. BradP says:

    How rapidly are the difficulties and costs of producing nuclear weapons coming down?

    It seems to me that violent prevention of nuclear proliferation would prolong the inevitable, while creating a more dangerous and unstable environment for when the inevitable finally arrives.

    • Njorl says:

      Some of the problems solved by the US almost 70 years ago are still very difficult hurdles. For a country with domestic industries involving highly accurate machining, highspeed electronics, and chemical production, it would be cheaper. And, of course, a domestic nuclear industry would be an enormous cost saver. Japan could probably start cranking out bombs at a high rate in a year for less than 1% of its GDP.

      Most countries just don’t have the expert personel or equipment in other sectors of their economy to divert to a weapons program. They’d have to fund the development of the people and equipment directly.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      Extremely rapidly, AQ Khan did an enormous amount of damage. Not that it’s entirely necessary to the construction of a crude gun-type weapon, but he always threw in a fairly advanced Chinese bomb design as a freebie to go with the other stuff he was selling (along with a 24/7 1-800 number for tech support, not shit). Centrifuges are 50′s era tech. Almost any country in the world has the capacity to build a bomb now

      • Amanda in the South Bay says:

        Yeah, but it takes a lot more than just building bombs. How about the means to deliver them? IRBMs are cheap, but Israel has BMD. Cruise missiles, submarines, and supersonic bombers/fighters that are recent and have range are also harder to get. Then there’s the command and control facilities needed.

        • Ed Marshall says:

          N. Korea will sell anyone medium-range missiles. They don’t have any other exports. It’s a workable delivery system.

          The more sexy delivery platforms are about maintaining a credible second-strike capability.

        • How about the means to deliver them?

          Persian, Shiite suicide bombers.

          You know, like…

          um…

          Look over there! Muslims!

        • HMS Glowworm did 9/11 says:

          IRBMs are cheap, but Israel has BMD.

          A terminal phase system is more cost-effective and harder to fool with decoys than a midcourse-phase one (and can actually cover most/all of a small country like Israel), but still hardly offers any degree of reliable protection that would undermine even a very small deterrent.

      • Njorl says:

        Gas diffusion enrichment is 40s era tech, but that doesn’t make it easy. It took Iran years to make its own centrifuges, and they had an educated workforce and were working from functioning models. It’s probably even harder to make the lubricant for the centrifuges than to make the centrifuges themselves.

        Most countries in the world would face significant economic impact trying to build a nuclear weapon from the ground up. On the other hand, most of the people in the world don’t live in those countries. Almost half the world’s population live in nuclear armed states, and another 20-25% live in states which could build a nuclear weapon without too much trouble. That’s only about a third of the world’s countries, though.

        • Ed Marshall says:

          I don’t think we disagree. I focused on difficulty, you focused on cost. The former has decreased much faster than the latter, but I would expect that to change.

  6. BobS says:

    Actually, I’m much more alarmed about a nuclear armed (in order) US, Israel, Pakistan/India, North Korea.
    I believe we’re seeing a re-run of the Iraq WMD dog&pony show with regard to Iran.

    • Njorl says:

      With Iraq, after the destruction of equipment following the first gulf war, we never even saw any equipment which could seriously come close to enriching sufficient uranium for a bomb.

      In Iran, international inspectors could look at their enrichment process, and point out how small, easily implemented changes would result in Iran enriching sufficient uranium for bombs fairly quickly.

      We never had any credible evidence that Iraq could build a bomb. With Iran, it is a question of whether they decide to. They probably have all of the equipment, materials and know-how required.

      • BobS says:

        You’ve caused me to reconsider my first comment.
        Even if Iran (a country with no history of attacking it’s neighbors or other countries thousands of miles away, or intimating the use of nuclear weapons, as several of the nuclear powers habitually do) possessed nuclear weapons (which there is no evidence of them actively seeking to acquire), I would be and currently am much more alarmed about a nuclear armed (in order) US, Israel, Pakistan/India, North Korea.

        • Njorl says:

          I believe that has been the object of the whole discussion. To rationally examine the consequences so as to determine what actions would be worthwhile to prevent it. If we limit the debate as to whether Iran is building the bomb or not, the neocons will probably win.

          We need to be prepared to argue that we can live with a nuclear armed Iran. Part of that is examining all of the different potential problems, and determining their likelihood and whether they can be countered. That means assuming the possibility of some monumentally horrible motives on the part of the leaders of Iran, then moving on to say why those motives won’t matter.

          • BobS says:

            The best argument I can make for a nuclear armed Iran is that it would modify the reliably bellicose behavior of the US and Israel, two countries that are much more capable of “monumentally horrible motives” if this and the last several centuries are any indication. Unfortunately, it’s an argument likely to fall on deaf ears among neocons as well as most Americans and Israelis.

            • Ed Marshall says:

              I’m not worried about Iran purposefully using nuclear weapons. I’m worried that it will create a wave of proliferation that will create a bunch of brand new nuclear players in the region who will all lack a mature command structure or nuclear doctrine.

              Although malice is at the bottom of the list it does exist. More likely is a miscalculation or accident that will set off a reaction that kills millions.

              • Ed Marshall says:

                That sounded like I think there is zero chance that the mature nuclear players won’t screw up and blow up the world.

                That is not what I think, the U.S. and Russia just about screw up and hit the button by mistake every five years or so. It’s a matter of time before they blow up the northern hemisphere as things stand. What isn’t forbidden is inevitable said Enrico Fermi, grandfather of the bomb. The improbable is going to happen.

                A middle east packed with new nuclear powers with differing degrees of capability, delivery, ability to withstand first strike, tracking systems is just doomed in even the short run. This is going to end badly.

            • The best argument I can make for a nuclear armed Iran is that it would modify the reliably bellicose behavior of the US and Israel

              No, it wouldn’t. Farley is right about this, in the article he links to.

  7. I alarmed about “Iran”, in the sense that the war-profiteers in this country will declare “crisis” and screw us and the rest of the world over yet again.

    How many times does it take before we learn our lesson?
    ~

  8. Aaron Baker says:

    Thanks. I was looking for exactly this: a coherent, well-reasoned argument re the significance of a nuclear weapon or weapons in Iran’s hands.

  9. Oz Ozzie says:

    Though this argument above is true, the real difference it makes is the Samson option – that it makes Iran impossible to invade/destroy. So shouldn’t Iran look at all the hoo-hah as evidence that an invasion is really on? Is that really the message that is intended by all this flag waving?

  10. wiley says:

    From the wikipedia:

    Since the end of the Iran–Iraq War, Iran’s new foreign policy has had a dramatic effect on its global standing. Relations with the European Union have dramatically improved, to the point where Iran is a major oil exporter and a trading partner with such countries as Italy, France, and Germany. China and India have also emerged as friends of Iran; these three countries face similar challenges in the global economy as they industrialize, and consequently find themselves aligned on a number of issues.

    Iran maintains regular diplomatic and commercial relations with Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Both Iran and Russia believe they have important national interests at stake in developments in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, particularly concerning energy resources from the Caspian Sea.

    How much oil does Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have? I mean really have. As much as pundits and politicians want to talk as if Iran is some isolated nut-case that doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t have to be taken seriously as anything but the threat du jour, it simply isn’t so.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      You are assuming a degree of rationality and long term self-interest that doesn’t exist among people who have the finger on the trigger.

  11. wengler says:

    I think there is good evidence that Iran has attempted to develop a nuclear weapons capacity for a very long time. There is very little evidence showing they have been successful at all.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Netanyahu did something stupid after the US is ‘officially’ out of Iraq though.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      Any decent physics/engineering grad student can build an advanced nuclear weapon. It’s not that hard. A C-with a headwind undergrad physics major can build a gun weapon with off the shelf parts from ebay, a furnace to work HEU (also available on ebay), and a decent understanding of ballistics.

  12. Hogan says:

    Yes, Iran has been eighteen months from producing a nuclear weapon for almost twenty years now.

    • Njorl says:

      In a sense, that is a reasonable thing to say (not the 20 years part). Japan has been about a year away from a nuclear bomb for decades. Iran could be, and remain about 18 months from building a bomb for a very long time.

      Any country with the capacity to enrich uranium on a large scale can be said to be some number of months from a nuclear bomb. I believe Iran is much closer than 18 months when you consider how much low enriched uranium they have, and how many “work units” of enriching capacity they have. That doesn’t mean that they are going to go ahead and build one, though.

      • Njorl says:

        After reading my own post, I see I probably wasn’t clear. A nuclear scientist could look at the state of the Iranian nuclear profram and say they are X number of months from building a bomb. That doesn’t mean he thinks they will necessarily build a bomb. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an ideologue used such a statement to say more than is meant.

        • Ed Marshall says:

          Right, the program is in the open, the quantities are in the open. The process from MEU (nuclear fuel) to HEU (bomb material) is just physics and math. You reprocess it using the same equipment that you used to create MEU. The assembly of the weapons after you have the fuel is a trivial problem.

  13. hass says:

    Soviet “nuclear scientist” assisting Iran was never a “nuclear scientist” http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105776

    Experts dismiss IAEA’s “evidence” of nuclear work in Iran http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/1109/Iran-nuclear-report-Why-it-may-not-be-a-game-changer-after-all

    Former IAEA director: Israeli’s “evidence” not authentic. http://www.iranaffairs.com/.a/6a00d83420523653ef0162fc411310970d-popup

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