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Did Iranian Nukes Matter?

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“Operation Crossroads Baker.” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years back, I made the case that Iranian nukes didn’t matter. I argued that all of the blathering notwithstanding, very few hawks cared much about the nukes, and the Iranians were unlikely to gain significant advantage from developing nuclear weapons even if they managed to pull it all together, and that an Iranian nuclear weapon was exceedingly unlikely to produce further proliferation. I made that argument because it was obvious to me, then, that Israel and the Gulf states were essentially indifferent to the Iranian nuclear program, and were much more concerned about the extent to which Iran could increase its influence across the region. I made this argument because I felt that journalists and analysts were dangerously overstating the importance of the weapons, with potentially serious consequences.

I got some pushback, but I think this is a good time to revisit that argument.

Who Cares About Iranian Nukes?

I think it’s become exceedingly clear over the last few months that US hawks, Israeli hawks, and the various Gulf states did not, and do not, care about the Iranian nuclear program. These groups have shifted, almost effortlessly, from whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability in “18 months,” to whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability after the sunset of the current inspection provisions in ten years. This isn’t even an accurate characterization of the deal, but that’s beside the point; the threat of a nuclear Iran has never amounted to more than a side-show for the hawks.

What the hawks want is indefinite militarized confrontation between the United States and Iran. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, this is hardly irrational. Iran supports terrorist groups and other non-state actors that like to mess with the Saudis and the Israelis, and both the Saudis and Israelis would like to have the military capabilities of the United States at their disposal. Nor is it irrational for the Saudis and Israelis to believe that the US will come through with this kind of support; the entire GOP Presidential field (with the possible, partial exception of Rand Paul) seems committed to making it happen.

The nuclear program provided a convenient rhetorical focal point for this argument, for the same reason that WMD provided a focal point in the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The idea of nuclear weapons is scary; we have an emotional commitment to freaking out about nukes well beyond any operational or strategic utility that they offer. Bleating about how Iran will have nukes in less than 18 months (a claim that Israeli, US, and Saudi hawks have been reiterating since the 1990s) is an easy way of saying “hit those people hard” without the need for any careful strategic analysis.

Always the Right Time

This is why, for hawks, it is always the right time to strike Iran.  The Oren piece is useful in this regard.  No conceivable deal could achieve what Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal.  He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or Doran, or Kroenig, or Lake, or Kristol, or Cotton, et al ad nausuem) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.  They’ve known, for quite some time, that the Iranian nuclear program actively detracts from Iran’s ability to pursue its national security goals, both in terms of sucking up resources, and in drawing international sanctions.

But while Iran’s other behaviors are irritating, they don’t have the same resonance for the United States as the nuclear program.  And for someone who really wants a semi-permanent guarantee that the United States will threaten to bomb Iran, only nukes work, even if nukes aren’t the central concern.  As Fred Kaplan has noted, the really big problem for Israeli, Saudi, and US hawks is that the deal might work, that Tehran might take nukes off the table, and the Iran might reintegrate itself back into the community of nations.

What the Deal Accomplishes

Don’t read the above as an indication that I think the deal was pointless, or that the negotiators on either side did a poor job.  The central accomplishment of this deal, assuming it survives ratification in the various legislative organizations it has to sort its way through, is to sideline hawks on every side.  American hawks lose their most convenient talking point for war.  Israeli hawks lose their most useful rhetorical tool for browbeating the United States.  Iranian hawks lose the nuclear options.  This is the real threat that the hawks see, and it’s why they hate the deal so much.

And let’s be clear; whatever Iran does with the sanctions relief, including a conventional military buildup, is almost certain to produce, on balance, less human misery than an Iran that becomes “North Korea plus oil.” Nukes wouldn’t get Tehran much in the way of negotiating leverage, but they would provide a constant excuse for hawks on either side to agitate for conflict. The social and rhetorical effects of nuclear weapons have always vastly exceeded their military or strategic utility. The negotiators in both Iran and the P5+1 understood this, and worked hard to produce an accord that would remove the most effective tool that the hawks on either side had for bringing about war.

The Dangers

And so in some sense, Bibi Netanyahu got the deal he deserved.  He hoped that shrieking endlessly about the Iranian nuclear program would produce either war, or an indefinitely militarized relationship between Washington and Tehran.  Unfortunately for Bibi, people listened to what he said, rather than what he meant. To bring us back to the top, does this mean it was OK for journalists and analysts to go along with the project of vastly overstating the importance of nuclear weapons?  There’s certainly an argument to be made that letting the hawks hang themselves was worthwhile.  I don’t think you have to look very far to find the dangers of this argument, however. If we currently had a President a bit more to the hawkish side than Barack Obama, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or if the Iranian hawks had demonstrated more strength, then the misconception that Iranian nukes matter could have led to a dreadful outcome.  We’ve seen it before.

 

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