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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.


Battleship Battles!

[ 11 ] July 23, 2015 |

And now I’m making lists of battleship-related things!

Although eventually supplanted by the submarine and the aircraft carrier, the battleship took pride of place in the navies of the first half of the twentieth century. The mythology of of the battleship age often understates how active many of the ships were; both World War I and World War II saw numerous battleship engagements. These are the five most important battles of the dreadnought age.

I generally recommend that folks read the comments at the National Interest, mostly for the entertainment value. In this case, you’ll find indignation and astonishment that I did not include the Battle of Surigao Strait. People are idiots; a scrum in which six battleships participate in the execution of a single, battered dreadnought doesn’t make the cut for reasons that should be obvious if you read the Battleship Book…

Tuesday Tuesday…

[ 16 ] July 21, 2015 |

Some links for your pleasure…


Iran and the Arms Export Game

[ 8 ] July 18, 2015 |
Iran Air Force Grumman F-14A Tomcat Sharifi.jpg

Iran Air Force Grumman F-14A Tomcat by Shahram Sharifi – Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the Diplomat takes a look at how Russia and China may compete for the Iranian arms market.

What does Iran need? Pretty much everything. Thirty years of sanctions and war have left the Iranian military with an arsenal of obsolescent weapons. The Iranians have done good work in a few areas, but the country simply lacks the size, technology, and market access to successfully develop an autarkic defense industry.

In the past, Iran has acquired weapons from both Russia and China (as well as the United States and others). We can expect this behavior to continue in the future. Iran offers one of the first, and potentially most important, battlegrounds in the emerging arms export competition between Moscow and Beijing.

But also read this, which has some detail on how the accord affects the arms embargo. Long story short, we’re looking at five years for the big effects to kick in.

That is, the UN arms embargoes will be terminated along with all other, nuclear-specific embargoes. Iran gets to claim that all UN sanctions were removed on Implementation Day.

But here is the clever part. An apparent copy of the proposed UN Security Council Resolution has been leaked to the press. It will terminate the previous Iran sanctions, but also impose a new regime that will retain certain restrictions, including the arms and ballistic missile embargoes for five and eight years, respectively. These new (but really continuing) restrictions come in a separate “statement” (which the UNSC requires all states to comply with) and actually take the form of permitting trade—but only with the advance, affirmative permission of the UNSC. In effect, this amounts to a ban where the UNSC can grant exceptions in advance on a “case-by-case” basis, and the West can use its veto to block any transfers it does not like. The West gets to claim that arms and ballistic embargoes will stay in effect for years after Implementation.

On Credibility

[ 32 ] July 16, 2015 |

Well, this is just fine and fucking dandy:

This work will take some time. There will be a moment when Iran has dismantled a multibillion-dollar nuclear investment and faces a multibillion-dollar price tag to rebuild it. Exactly how long that moment will last is difficult to say. As part of the agreement, Iran will retain a considerable nuclear infrastructure and will continue to enrich uranium with its remaining centrifuges. The unfreezing of as much as $100 billion of Iranian assets worldwide will provide Iranian officials with new resources. Still, for some period of months, the prospect of the nuclear deal failing will be very frightening for the country’s rulers. Much of their old nuclear program will be gone, their new program won’t yet have been built, and their cash infusion will only have just begun.

 During that period, a new president may be able to press Iran to renegotiate the Obama deal’s worst terms, especially its weak inspection provisions.

So to sum up, Frum proposes waiting until Iran has made credible commitments to holding to the agreement, then taking advantage of Iran’s vulnerability to change the terms of the deal to the advantage of the United States.  Iran, facing a even worse status quo, will then become more pliable with respect to issues beyond its nuclear program.

There’s a hard headed realism to the idea! And from Frum’s point of view, it has the advantage of enraging Iran for the next several generations, and consequently poisoning any attempted rapprochement. Hardliners in Iran will love it, as it would confirm every prediction they’ve made about American perfidy.

But then sadly, the United States and Iran are not the only parties to the agreement.  That the US has managed to hold together a negotiating coalition that includes China and Russia for this long is nothing short of a miracle.  China and Russia are on board because they value keeping the nuclear club small, as long as they’re part of that club.  But the P5+1 had held together because Moscow and Beijing believe that the United States is negotiating in good faith.  If the US extravagantly demonstrates that it is negotiating in bad faith, the coalition will not hold together, the sanctions will not “snap back,” and both Russia and China will resume arms exports to Iran in zero time flat.  In short, the notional President Walker/Bush/Rubio/Trump that Frum seems to be envisioning will not actually have the power of Darth Vader; he cannot unilaterally alter the terms of the deal, then simply tell the Iranians to “pray that I don’t alter it further.”

Another point: Along with a few others, I’ve made a lot of fun over the years of the “credibility fairy,” the idea that if the United States just demonstrated sufficient toughness, it could resolve most world problems by frightening the rogues into line. “Credibility” is the last refuge of the neocon who can’t figure out how to solve a problem, or why a particular policy is failing.  What’s interesting here is the clarity that Frum is providing with respect to how he understands the definition of “credibility.”  It does not mean “a commitment to following through on the agreements that the United States has made,” which we might understand to be a conventional understanding of the term.  It does mean “a willingness to blast the hell out of anyone, at any time.” For my own part I’m somewhat skeptical of the importance of credibility defined in either way, but I find it much easier to believe that the first matters more for the long-term foreign policy success of the United States than the second.


[ 14 ] July 15, 2015 |

“BPC Dixmude” by Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In my latest for the National Interest, I make the case that it’s in just about everyone’s national interest to facilitate the transfer of the two Mistral-class amphibs, intended for Russia, to Brazil:

Brazil could use a pair of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Fortuitously, a pair just came on the market.

As has become well known, Russia contracted with France in 2009 to build a pair of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in French yards. The French would then assist in the construction of two additional Mistrals in Russian yards, giving the Russians a chance to redevelop their skills at building large surface warships.

The Mistrals displace 21,000 tons, can make almost 19 knots, and can carry two-to-three dozen helicopters, in addition to small boats and a contingent of marines. They have advanced communication systems necessary for managing complex amphibious operations (the sophistication of this system was one of the sticking points in the export deal with Russia).

And I’m not the first person to think this way. I spoke with a Brazilian naval analyst this evening, and he suggested that there are some legal difficulties (the contracting with Russia makes it very difficult to resell this ships, as does the presence of Russian military equipment on board), but that one of the options under consideration might be to sell the older Mistrals (France has three), and convert the Russian ships to French service. But there are also obvious concerns about where the money would come from.

Not to Fan the Flames, or Anything…

[ 211 ] July 15, 2015 |

I’m just gonna leave this here.

Mostly Because I Want to Know How to Fight the Furred Furies of Hell

[ 98 ] July 14, 2015 |

I must get my hands on this:
Is the American male a momma’s boy? And I’m also very interested in these joy-hunting hussies…

Hat tip to Andy Ferris.

Arms Industry!

[ 14 ] July 14, 2015 |
Chinese Su-27.JPG

“Chinese Su-27″ by Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at the areas of likely competition between Russian and Chinese arms industries:

Chinese industry can still learn much from Russia, but in many areas it has caught up with its model. The vibrancy of China’s tech sector suggests that Chinese military technology will leap ahead of Russian tech in the next decade. Historically, China’s military exports have occupied a different, lesser tier than Russian. Within the next decade, however, we should expect that Russia and China will fight hard for market share in the following five areas…

As usual, the comments themselves are worth the price of admission.

Let’s Have a Toast for the Assholes

[ 204 ] July 14, 2015 |

202450945718635011UVLUNQuScAs we begin to delve through the details of the Iran deal, let’s have a toast for the lying douchebags who’ve been jabbering away for the past twenty years that Iran was 18 months away from a bomb. It’s almost as if all that bullshit made people think that a deal with a ten year sunset (followed by a resumption of normal IAEA monitoring procedures) might be a good idea.


[ 93 ] July 13, 2015 |

Common face of one euro coin.jpgOpening up a new thread on the Greek deal.

Ingest. Digest. Enjoy.

Further on the “Carrier Gap”

[ 34 ] July 10, 2015 |
CVA-42 1971 DN-SP-04-08720.JPEG

USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1970. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My Diplomat contribution this week takes a longer look at the “carrier gap”:

The panel successfully highlighted several problems that have recently become central to U.S. naval thought. The United States operates ten nuclear aircraft carriers, but only three of these are on post at any given time; the rest are in some stage of repair, refurbishment, and refit. Under surge conditions, the USN can restore most to service, but this can have severe consequences for the ships and their crews. What’s true of carriers is also true for the rest of the fleet, which is suffering from the same kind of over-employment problems.


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