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Tag: "iran"

All Iran, All the Time

[ 11 ] November 17, 2011 |

My final entry into the Yale Journal Iran nuclear debate is up:

Ackerman and Cohen accept many of these lies at face value. Ackerman apparently believes that the autocrats in Bahrain would not have suppressed demonstrators, but for the specter of Iran. Dead protestors in dozens of states not threatened by Iran might wonder whether the Bahraini government is telling the truth about its motivations. He and Cohen believe that the Israelis will act irrationally, mostly because the Israelis insist that they will act irrationally. To my mind, the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program has been quite rational; they have pursued low cost, relatively low impact ways of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, all while repeatedly insisting to their patron state that they are extremely concerned, and will very soon be launching a disruptive attack that could destabilize the whole region, and wouldn’t it be better if the Americans solved the problem? There is nothing even mildly irrational about this strategy, and there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the Israelis will become more irrational, or the Bahrainis less autocratic, after an Iranian nuclear test.

Also see Michael’s excellent, long comment defending his perspective.

On last night’s Alyona, I discussed the same issue:

Iranian Nukes Re-Visited

[ 19 ] November 16, 2011 |

Today we’re revisiting the Iran: No Big Deal argument.  First up, my column at WPR makes the case for thinking about Iran in terms of the behavior of other nuclear powers:

The problem with nukes is that there are strong material and normative pressures against their use, not least because states that use nukes risk incurring nuclear retaliation. Part of the appeal of nuclear weapons is their bluntness, but for foreign policy objectives requiring a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, they are useless. As a result, states with nuclear neighbors quickly find that they can engage in all manner of harassment and escalation without risking nuclear retaliation. The weapons themselves are often more expensive than the foreign policy objectives that they would be used to attain. Moreover, normative pressures do matter. Even “outlaw” nations recognize that the world views the use of nuclear — not to mention chemical or biological — weapons differently than other expressions of force. And almost without exception, even outlaw nations require the goodwill of at least some segments of the international community.

Given all this, it is not at all surprising that many countries eschew nuclear programs, even when they could easily attain nuclear status. Setting aside the legal problems, nuclear programs tend to be expensive, and they provide relatively little in terms of foreign policy return on investment. Brazil, for example, does not need nuclear weapons to exercise influence in Latin America or deter its rivals. Turkey, like Germany, Japan and South Korea, decided a long time ago that the nuclear “problem” could be solved most efficiently through alignment with an existing nuclear power.

Why do policymakers, analysts and journalists so consistently overrate the importance of nuclear weapons? The answer is that everyone has a strong incentive to lie about their importance. The Iranians will lie to the world about the extent of their program and to their people about the fruits of going nuclear. The various U.S. client states in the region will lie to Washington about how terrified they are of a nuclear Iran, warning of the need for “strategic re-evaluation,” while also using the Iranian menace as an excuse for brutality against their own populations. Nonproliferation advocates will lie about the terrors of unrestrained proliferation because they do not want anyone to shift focus to the manageability of a post-nuclear Iran. The United States will lie to everyone in order to reassure its clients and maintain the cohesion of the anti-Iran block.

Over at Yale Journal, Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman both responded to my op-ed on the Middle Eastern regional balance of power. Cohen takes a historical track, arguing that nuclear weapons have been important in past crises, while Ackerman points out that many regional actors are quite insistent about the dangers of Iranian nukes. Both are good; check them out. I’ll have a response later that discusses how Cohen gets the history wrong and Ackerman, for lack of a better phrase, gets the ontology wrong.

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.

Attack Iran! Or Not.

[ 54 ] November 7, 2011 |

David Rothkopf thinks that Obama may order an attack on Iran before the election:

But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama’s strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won’t. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area … and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.

Three levels of thinking on this; I’ll try to keep them separate.

First, I think that an attack on Iran is a terrible idea.  I really do believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon will change virtually nothing with regards to the balance of power in the Middle East; take or leave that for the moment, I’ll have more on it later.  Most of the dangers that people warn of with regards to an Iranian nuke (Iranian hyper-bellicosity, terrorist attacks, etc.) are more likely to come about if the US (and/or Israel) undertakes preventative war against the Islamic Republic. To be sure, I’d rather Iran not build a nuke, and I strongly support a panoply of efforts to make the building of a nuke more expensive, but this is a different question than whether Iran will enjoy significant strategic advantage from possessing a nuclear weapon.

Second, I don’t at all think that Rothkopf is wrong in believing that Obama may order an attack.  Consensus Washington has utterly convinced itself that Iran Must Not Be Allowed to Have Nukes Because The World Will End Or Something, and the advisors Obama has chosen are part of that consensus, although by no means the most enthusiastic faction.  This doesn’t mean that an attack will necessarily happen, but it means that there’s a chance; I’d guess 25% given the latest from the IAEA.  If it happens, this will represent a gruesome mistake in what has otherwise been a fairly credible foreign policy record.

Third, while Rothkopf seems to think that Obama will enjoy a significant domestic bump from the attack, I’m not at all certain.  It’s true that Presidents tend to get a temporary bump during foreign policy crises, but it’s just as well known that this bump fades.  In this case, I suspect that Obama would enjoy temporary support from “independents” while permanently losing a small but crucial portion of his base.  I also doubt that the international uncertainty surrounding an attack will have any benefits for the US economy. It is by no means clear, however, that Obama and his advisors share this view of the domestic consequences of an attack.

Bomb Beijing! Er… Tehran!

[ 35 ] November 1, 2011 |

Hey now, it’s not as if knowing whether China has nuclear weapons is at all relevant to the practice of American foreign policy:

I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States… we already have superiority in terms of our military capability, and I plan to get away from making cutting our defense a priority and make investing in our military capability a priority, going back to my statement: peace through strength and clarity. So yes they’re a military threat. They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.

In the interest of balance and of due fairness to Herman Cain, the argument against the Chinese nuclear program is startlingly similar to the case against the Iranian, although I don’t believe that Iran is buidling aircraft carriers…

On a related note, the thought that Avigdor Lieberman was the only remaining obstacle to an Israeli-Iranian war is… alarming.  At times like this, I take some solace in the fact that the world exploding is Good for Rob. If the long nightmare of peace and prosperity that prevailed under Bill Clinton still held, I might not even have job…

THE DEADLINE PASSES

[ 6 ] July 19, 2011 |

Who could have known that Michael Oren wasn’t an entirely reliable source regarding Israel’s military plans?  After all, he totally predicted that Israel would strike Iran within eighteen months of January 2007.  That must mean that he’s really, really well connected. The only other explanation is that members of the Israeli strategic class are quite comfortable lying to American journalists about Israeli interests.  But really, that’s just too crazy to be believed.

In related news, Jeffrey Goldberg is now arguing that publicly noting that attacking Iran is a bad idea undermines Israeli deterrence and makes Israel more likely to attack Iran.  Clever.  I’m curious, however, how seriously Goldberg took this argument when he was writing the original article.  For example, would subjecting the self-interested claims of Israeli policymakers to a trifle more scrutiny have accidentally revealed Israel’s reluctance to strike, and therefore damaged Israeli security?  Would depicting the Israeli strategic class as divided on the wisdom of strikes against Iran have undermined Israel’s “deterrent credibility?” In other words, given Jeffrey Goldberg’s deep concern about the wisdom of pointing out the abject stupidity of attacking Iran, I have to wonder how credible he is as a reporter on Israeli strategic thought.

Iraq Did Not Have F-14s

[ 17 ] February 5, 2011 |

It’s kind of a minor point, but if a Democratic Senator made a similar error (especially in the context of arguing for military disengagement) I suspect that we’d hear no end of rage and mockery from the right wing milblogger crew. I’d also add that the United States did actually get paid for most of the weapons that it shipped to Iran, both before and after the fall of the Shah.

Explaining Variance

[ 23 ] January 31, 2011 |

Ok, so let’s assume that Mubarak takes the easy way out and heads for healthier climes.  What explains the difference between the failure of the Green Revolution and the success of the Egyptian?  Some potential hypotheses:

  1. Ahmadinejad, whether or not (or by how much) he adjusted the election results, still had greater popular support than Mubarak.  A larger percentage of the population was either tolerant or enthusiastic about his rule.
  2. The existence of the Revolutionary Guard provide the Iranian state with a parallel security apparatus to the Army.  While the loyalty of the latter might have wavered, the loyalty of the former meant that any further revolutionary effort would have been extremely bloody.
  3. The Iranian state provides more avenues for democratic participation than the Egyptian, thus blunting the force of the protests.
  4. The ambivalently pro-transition position of the US in both cases resulted in different implications.  In Iran, the regime could use tepid US support of the Green Movement to play the patriotism card.  In Egypt, anti-Americanism wasn’t an option for Mubarak, especially as it became clear that the US wasn’t excited about the possibility of his ouster.

Other thoughts?

About Those Missiles…

[ 15 ] December 1, 2010 |

One of the more interesting cables revealed by Wikileaks involved a meeting between Russian and US diplomats that touched on the question of Iran-North Korea collaboration. One of the key charges made by the Americans was that a number of BM-25 ballistic missiles had been shipped, in various states of construction, from North Korea to Iran in 2005. If you read the cable, you’ll note that the Russians are surprised by the claim, and refuse to give it much credence. The Russian objections seem quite sensible to me, although the US diplomats have some decent responses. An article in the WaPo today gives some detail about the motivations of both sides, and puts into severe question the claim that 19 whole missiles were transferred.  This degree of doubt (and, you know, reporting) was utterly absent in the New York Times coverage of the same cable, which failed to even note Russian objections to the US claims.  See also.

I also kind of have to wonder whatever happened to this report, which involved essentially the same missile.

David Broder is a Terribly Stupid Man

[ 39 ] October 31, 2010 |

It’s not as if there are a lot of good arguments for war against Iran, but Broder has constructed what has to be the worst.  Duss does the necessary demolition work. Prepping for war against Iran in order to improve the economy is not unlike staying in on a 2-7 offsuit in order to maximize your chances for a straight flush.

The Iran Bits…

[ 12 ] October 23, 2010 |

There’s obviously much of interest in the Wikileaks Iraq release; for the moment the Iran stuff holds the bulk of my attention:

But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.

Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.

As the article notes, the release doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to the extent of Iran’s role in Iraq over the past eight years (although I think that both the direct and circumstantial evidence of such involvement is exceedingly strong) because we don’t have Iranian or Iraqi documents; the release is simply the view of the US military. It does confirm, however, that US claims of Iranian influence weren’t simply strategic; the US military really believes that Iran has supported Iraqi militias, conducted operations based on such belief, and isn’t exclusively using such claims to either blame US failures or Iran or lay the foundation for military action against Iran.

This last part is particularly interesting, because as far as I can tell there has been relatively little support within the uniformed military for direct action against Iran. Almost all such calls have been made by hawkish civilians, and not through the channels that the military normally uses to make its views known. I don’t doubt that there are some within the military who believe that direct action within Iraq would be sensible, but there doesn’t seem to have been an institutional consensus to that effect. This is mildly surprising, because in other cases where an insurgency has derived support from actors across international borders (Taliban using Pakistani havens and receiving support from ISI, NLF and PAVN using Cambodian sanctuaries in the Vietnam War) military attitudes on the appropriateness of cross-border strikes have been rather strongly affirmative. Indeed, in a non-COIN case, civilian reluctance to escalate the Korean War across an international border provided the setting for one of the most dangerous civil-military conflicts in American history.

In this case, the military seems to have been resigned to fighting Iran within Iraq, in spite of the presence of a civilian faction strongly in support of direct attacks on Iran. I find that somewhat surprising; if there’s any evidence to the contrary (that the military did support cross-border operations against Iran), I’d like to see it.

…to be clear, while I’d be reluctant to suggest that Iran had a moral or legal right to intervene in Iraq, I consider it utterly unsurprising that Iran did so; attempting to manage the political situation in a neighboring country, while simultaneously weakening a potential enemy, is something that countries do.  Indignation about Iranian intervention is absurd.

The Long Play

[ 17 ] August 13, 2010 |

I’m not terribly interested in the project of calling Jeffrey Goldberg out as a propagandist; he’s Jeffrey Goldberg, so of course he’s a propagandist. As I suggested yesterday, I don’t find the claims put forward in the article particularly new or revelatory. Essentially the same argument was put forth in a “major” article in the January 2007 New Republic by Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi. I’d rather read Oren directly than have Goldberg as a mediator, but whatever. What I’m more interested in is the Israeli strategic mindset that Goldberg depicts. The two article have the same central argument: Iranian nukes pose an indirect threat to the long term survival of Israel, and the United States should do something about that.

First on timelines. Goldberg writes:

I have been exploring the possibility that such a strike will eventually occur for more than seven years… The reasoning offered by Israeli decision makers was uncomplicated: Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability (often understood to be the capacity to assemble more than one missile-ready nuclear device within about three months of deciding to do so)

Allowing that Goldberg emphasizes the period since July 2009, I have to wonder how long Israelis have been telling him that Iran is 1-3 years away from a bomb. To put it as delicately as possible, Israel has a robust history of either a) being wrong, or b) lying about Iran’s progress on a nuclear weapon. Assuming that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (and I believe it does, even if I don’t believe it represents justification for war), it has progressed at a rate far slower than that predicted by the Israelis. Since I don’t believe that Israeli intelligence is really that bad, I have to conclude that the Israelis have consistently been lying about their estimates of Iranian nuclear capability. For example, the 2007 Oren and Halevi article asserted that “according to Israeli intelligence, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb as soon as 2009.” I’m not naive; this is the international system, and even friends lie. There’s no injunction, however, to believing those lies or failing to call them out. What the nature of these lies indicate, however, is that the key purpose of these articles is to convince the United States to do something.

One of the key points of both the Goldberg and the 2007 TNR articles is that while Israelis are happy to tell the rubes in the United States that Iran is planning to commit national suicide by lobbing a nuclear warhead at Tel Aviv, they don’t actually seem to believe it:

The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.

“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.

Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.

“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”

Three observations. First, I think it’s plausible that the Israeli strategic leadership really believes this. Although there’s good reason to believe that they’re exaggerating these claims in order to convince the United States to go to war, it’s hard to say something like this over and over again without coming to believe it. Second, by publicly making outsized claims regarding the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, they actually make the situation worse; if the problem is that people will believe the Iranians are insane and thus leave, then talking about how insane the Iranians are all the time doesn’t help the perceptual problem. Third, the belief that an Iranian nuclear weapon can destroy Israel by osmosis is palpably insane, regardless of how firmly Netanyahu believes it.

This last clearly bears elaboration. First, the actual mechanism of how the Iranian bomb is supposed to destroy Israel without being dropped are deeply suspect. I discussed the violence this argument did to reality back when the Halevi and Oren article came out, and nothing has changed since then. There isn’t the faintest reason to believe that any of the mechanisms that the Israelis discuss (more rockets, more terrorism, etc.) will actually be affected by the presence of an Iranian nuke.  The stability-instability paradox (the idea that high level nuclear stability produces low level conventional instability) is important, but doesn’t preclude response to conventional provocation by proxies.  The United States, after all, waged open war against several Soviet proxies during the Cold War.  I expect that the Israelis will promptly bomb the bejeezus out of Hamas and Hezbollah as soon as Iran goes nuclear, just to reinforce perceptions of “resolve” and “credibility.”

Second, an Israeli strike on Iran cannot solve the problem. If the issue is really a feeling of insecurity on the part of Israelis, then the very existence of an Islamic Republic of Iran with an interest in developing a nuclear weapon provides that insecurity, whether or not the weapon is ever developed. Israel could probably delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, but no one thinks that it can completely destroy the program. Barring either regime change or the annihilation of Iran (and even the former might not do the trick), the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon would do precisely the work that Israel’s leadership claims an actual warhead will do; create uncertainty. Nevertheless, Goldberg badly misrepresents the effects of the Osirak strike, suggesting that it ended Iraq’s nuclear program when in fact it appears to have accelerated that program. What ended that program was a major war in 1991 combined with a long campaign of sanctions and bombing, followed by another major war in 2003. This is beyond Israel’s capability, which is probably why the US is being so aggressively pushed towards war. Joshua Pollack details the nonsense of the idea that an Israeli bombing campaign could permanently prevent Iran from developing a nuke. The Israelis are proposing an extremely short-term solution to what they themselves assert is a problem that will play out on the scale of decades.

Finally, this entire concept rests on the notion that Israel has enjoyed some fundamental level of existential security that will be lost if Iran finds a nuke is, to reiterate, mind-boggling insane. It’s ISRAEL, for crying out loud. The entire national myth is built around the idea of existential vulnerability, just as the myths of the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars are predicated on the notion that if something had gone wrong, the Arabs might have pushed the Jews into the sea. The conflict with the Palestinians is invariably depicted in existential terms; Hamas cannot be negotiated with because it threatens Israel’s existence. The idea that some nebulous concern about an event that even Israel’s leaders do not believe likely will drive Jews to resettle elsewhere is absurd on its face. If the Swedes suddenly faced an existential crisis, I’d be interested in thinking about how that might affect Swedish society, immigration patterns, etc.   Israel was built around the idea of permanent existential crisis.

It’s also more than a little irritating that both the Goldberg and the Halevi/Oren articles try to construct the Iran situation as a US problem.  We are simultaneously asked to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people, AND that it really, really poses a more serious threat to the United States.  The best I can say about this is that it’s incoherent; no one will be moving out of the United States because of a fear of Iranian nukes.

And this is where it would have been useful to have somebody that wasn’t Jeffrey Goldberg conduct the various interviews. While I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to the case for war could have gotten the access that Goldberg enjoyed, it nevertheless would have been nice if Goldberg had brought up these objections.  They aren’t particularly complicated or novel.   What he did manage to do was transmit Israeli propaganda to a US audience.   I preferred the propaganda when it came directly from Israeli officials.

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