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Did Iranian Nukes Matter?

[ 38 ] July 24, 2015 |
Operation Crossroads Baker Edit.jpg

“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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  1. joe from Lowell says:

    Your first link, despite the name, appears to go to the current front page of the Yale journal, with your article nowhere in sight. Am I missing something?

  2. llamaspit says:

    But, but, how will Israel keep the attention away from all of those “secret” nukes that they have, if they can’t fear monger about Iran’s nuclear program any longer?

    The idea that Iran is a suicidal nation/state run by raving religious fanatics who are incapable of acting in their best interests is tailor made to keep the dollars and military assistance flowing to Israel. The actual fact that Iran could be turned into the proverbial glass parking lot if they ever even came close to becoming a real nuclear threat is always understated or ignored.

    The deal with Iran is the best prospect for de-escalating the possibility for more large scale armed conflict and Obama and Kerry should be lauded for it. The fact that the rest of the P5+1 thinks that it is a good idea is icing on the cake.

    • I have long believed that Netanyahu positively wanted Iran to have nuclear weapons–as a retroactive justification for Israel’s arsenal and as a permanent bogeyman justifying permanent Likud rule. Provides the most coherent explanation of his actions, anyway.

  3. What I’ve found interesting about Bibi’s harping about Iran and the deal is how much he clearly believes that it will help swing the next US election. I think it genuinely came as a shock to him that Obama won a second term, and neither he nor anyone around him has grasped that the odds of a Republican president in 2016 are not good. Already many people in Israel are pointing that Bibi’s strategy with the US is destructive and dangerous, but he’s continuing to gamble that the next US president will be a Republican he can work with.

    Of course, this is leaving aside the fact that Bibi has a unique talent for alienating foreign leaders – not just Obama but Clinton, Sarkozy, Blair, Cameron, Merkel, and so on and so forth. Pretty much the only leader he’s ever gotten along with was Bush Jr. (I assume because W was doing so little of the actual governing that it didn’t bother him that every word that comes out of Bibi’s mouth is a lie), and if an even slightly competent Republican president gets in next year, it’s unlikely his relationship with Bibi will be amicable.

    • CP says:

      Something I’ve noticed about international relations: when observing Foreign Country X, people often make the mistake of overestimating how much international issues, or the issues they specifically care about, matter to Foreign Country X. (Americans do this all the time: at the time of the Arab Spring uprising, I saw a lot of people arguing that the credit should go to Bush for his “democracy promotion” agenda or to Obama for the speech in Cairo. The idea that this was primarily Arabs with their own agency reacting to developments in their home countries could be depressingly hard to push through. See also “Reagan won the Cold War.”)

      Bibi, by the sound of it, made the same mistake of assuming that his pet issues would matter as much to Americans as they did to him, and that he himself would be able to be a game-changer in American politics. But Americans, like most people, don’t vote primarily on foreign policy issues – something like 9/11 can temporarily push them to the forefront, but most people have more immediate things to worry about than whether Iran has nuclear weapons.

      • humanoid.panda says:

        There is also the issue that Bibi is himself a product of a very specific, and very American moment: the 1970s-1980s conjuncture of the rise of neoconservatism, American admiration for Israel as the plunky little brother, the rise of right wing American-Jewish billionaires, his smashing success as an ambassador at impressing the Sunday show crowd, and so on. The fact that this world is totally gone now, and America is a very different place just doesn’t register with him.

    • Ahuitzotl says:

      if an even slightly competent Republican president gets in next year,

      well there doesnt seem to be any of those running, except maybe Kasich, so it’ll have to be a draft at the convention.

  4. Murc says:

    the Iranians were unlikely to gain significant advantage from developing nuclear weapons even if they managed to pull it all together

    This is the only part I disagree with in what is otherwise a grand slam of a post, Robert.

    Having a nuke would render Iran essentially immune from invasion, because not even our most crazyface hawks go the full General Ripper. That’s a significant advantage if you occupy a place of power and privilege in Iran, even if it leads to you becoming a pariah state. Being a pariah is a big disadvantage, to be sure, but it is significantly less of one than a hypothetical Republican President deciding that exactly what he needs in any given year is to apply the Ledeen Doctrine to your country good and hard.

    • advocatethis says:

      Maybe. One of the things that always made me suspicious of the stated reasons for the Iraq invasion was why if we thought Saddam had WMD that were a threat to us would we do the one thing that would compel him to use them on us? Either the decision makers didn’t really think he had them or they didn’t really care if he used them.

    • DrDick says:

      not even our most crazyface hawks go the full General Ripper.

      Your faith in humanity is touching, if completely misplaced in this instance.

    • CP says:

      Having a nuke would render Iran essentially immune from invasion

      And to the extent that American, Israeli and Saudi hawks really care about the nuclear program, I’ve always thought this was their main concern. Not that they were deluded enough to fear Iran would use the nukes (although you never know), but they were afraid Iran would have that immunity and therefore be that much harder to push around.

  5. DrDick says:

    Somehow Pakistan and India having nukes has not further destabilized their region. Even the notably unstable North Korea’s nukes have really been no more than a minor headache (as much for their allies as their opponents). While it is not a good thing for the nuclear club to grow, Iran having them does not really seem disastrous. I would be much more concerned about Saudi Arabia having them.

    • John F says:

      Somehow Pakistan and India having nukes has not further destabilized their region. Even the notably unstable North Korea’s nukes have really been no more than a minor headache

      Pakistan’s nukes worry me the most because, well, how stable is Pakistan?

      North Korea? I suspect (hope) that China has a grasp on where they and their material is physically located and has a contingency plans for neutralizing that stuff should things spin out of control in the hermit kingdom.
      Then there’s South Africa, which did indeed dismantle the devices, but KEPT the bomb grade material, and there apparently has been at least one serious effort to seize that stuff.

  6. rcareaga says:

    A few points:

    Punto the first: I think that any Iranian government in place after early 2003 that did not put its nuclear weapons program on afterburners would have been guilty of malpractice.

    Punto the second: Much has been made of Iranian rhetoric to the effect of “wiping Israel off the map” (a translation into English, I believe, of a rather different Persian idiom, but never mind). It seems to me disingenuous to suppose that this refers to the physical destruction of the former British Mandate for Palestine, a “solution” regarding which Iran’s putative Palestinian clients would presumably have major issues. I don’t know from Farsi, but I suspect that a native speaker would understand the sentiment as meaning the elimination of Israel as a state entity from the map rather than as an intent to scourge Tel Aviv with nuclear fire at the nominal cost of having about a hundred nuclear warheads fired at Iran.

    Punto the third: If we’re going to impose international sanctions or supervision on any present or potential nuclear power, perhaps we should start with the one whose CV includes a track record of deploying these weapons on undefended civilian populations.

    I’m in my early/mid sixties, born in the waning months of the Truman administration, and grew up saturated in the myth of a benign national purpose. I’m surprised that more attention has not been paid to the sense of disillusionment felt by the leading edge of the baby boom demographic when it became clear to them that they were citizens and co-enablers of a predatory empire. I think this fueled what became, following Co-opter-in Chief JFK’s death, the era today remembered and misremembered as “The Sixties.”

    • John F says:

      Punto the first: I think that any Iranian government in place after early 2003 that did not put its nuclear weapons program on afterburners would have been guilty of malpractice.

      After Iraq AND Libya, desiring nukes is/was a very rational thing for the leadership in Iran.

      OTOH developing Nukes during a period of heightened scrutiny (some of which scrutiny was brought on by Iran’s own actions/statements) seems like folly.

      There is another country that I always thought would very rationally want nukes… although unless they’ve actually gone and secretly developed them in past decades I think the window of opportunity has closed- Taiwan…

      North Korea- their program was basically irrational, massive massive multi-decade drain on resources, between China having its back and their own ludicrously large standing army, NORK was never at any threat of being invaded- the Nork nuke program might have made some sense- if after developing and testing same, they scaled down their conventional military to something less economy stifling (don’t need 1/4 your military age populace in the military when you have the bomb)… but no.

      • EliHawk says:

        I can see why Taiwan would want Nukes as a guarantee against Chinese reunification by force, but unless they developed them entirely in secret they’d likely upset the careful balance that prevents that anyway: China would have a reason to invade to stop proliferation, and US would be hard pressed to defend Taiwanese proliferation.

      • Jean-Michel says:

        Taiwan began a nuclear-weapons program focused on plutonium production after the first Chinese test in 1964. This was supposedly halted in the late ’70s, after the IAEA and the U.S. found out about it. But Taiwan continued with uranium enrichment, using uranium purchased from the U.S. (ostensibly for power generation) as well as secret supplies from South Africa. Some online sources claim that the 2000 memoirs of Hau Pei-tsun (Chief of the General Staff through almost the whole of the ’80s) admit to two mini-nuke tests in the late ’80s, but in this case there would’ve been a lot more coverage, so I doubt Hau actually wrote this. (A local university library has his memoirs, so I might check them out myself.) The U.S. had a suspicion of what was going on all along, and the 1987 defection of a high-ranking Taiwanese nuclear scientist provided more than enough evidence to call Taiwan out. President Chiang Ching-kuo died of a heart attack the day after hearing the news and the new leadership agreed to dismantle the program with U.S. help. As far as we know, that was the end of Taiwan’s nuclear-weapons ambitions, though various politicians and commentators over there have occasionally floated the idea in the years since. Today the chances they could revive the program(s) without China finding out in short order are slim to nonexistent.

        • dan says:

          Good summery of the previous programme. Missing is of course before the Nixon to China moment there were US forces based on Taiwan if I remember correctly including tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn in early 70’s hence more reason for the developments in the 70’s 80’s

          A revival now without the knowledge of China is not realistic and the potential reaction of China would be to bring about what you were trying to prevent.

          China takes Taiwan to protect Asia from a rogue regime with WMD!

    • muddy says:

      Besides the worry of Israel striking back with the nukes they say they don’t have, it just seems irrational for Iran to shoot off a nuke directly to their west. Be like NYC decides to nuke Chicago and then the radioactive cloud comes right back on them 2 days later.

    • CP says:

      The thing that gets me about “they don’t recognize Israel!” and “they want Israel wiped off the map!” is that these kinds of statements are fairly common, if not universally accepted, when you substitute “Palestine” for “Israel.”

  7. Jason Hamner says:

    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.

    This has been what has struck me most about the criticism I’ve read. While they always argue that the arms control aspect is weak (with, of course, no support for this position), the most substantive argument revolves around the fact that relaxing sanctions means Iran will have more money to mess with Israel/Saudi Arabia et al. Which is a fair concern for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we didn’t get sanctions to stop them funding Hamas… and there is no conceivable way get Russia and China to sign on for such a thing… so why is this even brought up? Simply as the magical unicorn that Obama was supposed to leadership I guess, but it’s a strange non sequitur in a nuclear non proliferation deal.

    • CP says:

      Well, it’s a fair concern for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the next question is “gee, have you thought of actually sitting the fuck down and negotiating with the guy across the table from you, instead of expecting Big Brother America to just tower menacingly over it forever?”

      You know: “I will stop assassinating your scientists if you stop funding Hamas and/or Hezbollah.” “I will put pressure on my Iraqi proxies to come to a negotiated settlement, if you do the same for yours.”

      • humanoid.panda says:

        You have any evidence that Iran is willing to negotiate with the Zionist entity?

        Look, I support the deal 100%, but to pretend that anti-Zionism is not a central tenet of the Iranian regime and that if only Israel would be reasonable things would be well is step or five too far.

        • CP says:

          to pretend that anti-Zionism is not a central tenet of the Iranian regime

          Yeah, kind of like anti-Americanism… and yet, look what just happened. Negotiations and diplomacy aren’t just for nations that get along.

          Would they be willing to negotiate? I don’t know. It hasn’t been tried (largely because Big Brother America means Israel, like Saudi Arabia, hasn’t felt the need). The fact that most of the Middle East officially has an anti-Zionist stance in some degree but unofficially couldn’t care less and have reached various degrees of accommodation with Israel suggests that maybe it should.

          and that if only Israel would be reasonable things would be well is step or five too far.

          Yes, it is – come and get me when somebody makes that argument. I didn’t say “all will be well” or that everything simply depended on Israel acting reasonably. I said that they should start negotiating with Iran instead of relying on their superpower connections as a reason why they don’t have to. Negotiations didn’t make “all” “well” between America and Russia during the Cold War, but they were recognized as something worth doing all the same.

  8. Heron says:

    The only thing I’d add is that, while Iran does have it’s clients, so too do Israel and the Gulf States and putting all the blame for this regional jockeying on Iran is pretty inaccurate. Iran may support natively sprung resistance movements like Hezbollah, and convenient allies like Syria, but it isn’t going around assassinating Israeli and Saudi political, military, and scientific officials, nor is it trying to round up and kill as many Sunnis as possible as Gulf-State clients typically do with Shia(and Druze, and any other sect of Islam, and Sunnis deemed too moderate or secular).

    • CP says:

      Yep, absolutely this.

    • humanoid.panda says:

      Couple of things:
      1. Hezbollah might have been a resistance movement once, but Israeli withdrew from Lebanon 15 years ago now. Since then, Hezbollah hadn’t disarmed, to say the least.
      2. As far as assasinations go, you might have a talk with the JEwish community in Argentine..

  9. wengler says:

    I think the anti-Iran nuke crowd is genuine insofar as it is just one part of their agenda. Israel hasn’t been killing Iranian academics and the US hasn’t been spreading malware infecting Iranian centrifuges for nothing.

    The other aspect of course for Israel is far worse. Hezbollah beat them in 2006, in a way they didn’t think any Arab army(or militia for that matter) could. This dent on national pride has made Israeli conservatives irate and they’ve been trying to get the US to bomb Iran ever since then.

  10. Matt McIrvin says:

    Israeli hawks lose their most useful rhetorical tool for browbeating the United States.

    Yes, but in compensation, haven’t they just won at domestic politics? My impression, which may be wrong, is that people across the whole Israeli political spectrum are freaking out about this deal and swerving hard right.

    Now, if the cost of preventing that was the US being eternally on the verge of war with Iran, it was too high.

    On the other hand, this means that any Republican President who comes into office will be under even greater pressure to start an immediate war with Iran, because Obama was the one preventing it.

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