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Tag: "iran"

Two questions for Glenn Reynolds

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

(1)If Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by the Iranian government because he was reportedly sympathetic to opponents of it, would that terrorism?

(2) If on the other hand he was working an an atomic weapons program for the Iranian government, and was as a consequence quietly killed by the CIA, would that be terrorism?

This is an open book exam. Please be sure to support your answer with specific references to the relevant legal texts and doctrines.

Israeli Missile Defenses

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Check out this (somewhat dated) article on Israeli missile defenses. The article makes the point that Israel’s missile defenses have progressed to the point that even a concerted Iranian ballistic missile attack, fielding far more weapons that Iran is expected to have in the next twenty years, could not hope to destroy Israel’s capacity to retaliate. An Iranian attack on Israel might fail entirely, and in any case would be utterly suicidal. Also note that several Israeli officials argue that the Iranian regime is NOT suicidal. All of this kind of makes me wonder about two things:

1. Why do we continue to hear nonsense about “one bomb” being able to destroy Israel, followed quickly by nonsense about how the US would be unwilling to respond on behalf of a country that no longer exists? Neither of these points are defensible; while an advanced, massive multi-megaton Soviet nuclear warhead might be able to destroy Israel in one chunk, any Iranian weapon fielded in the next forty years is certain to have a yield measured in double digit kilotons, and thus incapable of destroying Israel in a moment. Such an attack would give Israel a really bad day/month/year/decade, but Israel would respond by giving Iran a really bad century/millenium/what’s longer than a millenium?.

2. Why does Israel need to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program? The answer would seem to be some sort of nebulous claim about how Iranian nuclear weapons would somehow immeasurably improve Iran’s negotiating position in the Middle East; Iran and its allies would suddenly become emboldened, or something. This ignores a) the reality that states balance against power and threat, and b) the reality that nuclear states very often have a bloody difficult time getting what they want from non-nuclear states. The entire argument seems based on a 1962 Paul Nitze vision of nuclear weapons, in which more nukes automatically grant extraordinary diplomatic leverage. Allowing that there’s something to the stability-instability paradox, I think it’s fair to say that nuclear weapons have, at best, proven to be blunt, unsophisticated, and not terribly useful tools of diplomacy.

The caveat is this, and it goes to the heart of problems with the strategic implications of ballistic missile defense. The tighter Israel weaves its ABM shield, the less likely that any attack by terrorists or by a suicidal (yes, I know) Iran is to be delivered by ballistic missile. The same is true for the United States; Heritage is dedicated to wasting everyone’s time by claiming that terrorists could launch a nuclear armed SCUD from an offshore barge, without ever asking why terrorists would bother to buy the SCUD when they could just sail the ship into Boston Harbor. Unlike the US, I don’t think that Israeli strategic ballistic missile defense is a waste of time; the country is small enough that a conventional ballistic missile assault could do damage, and has suffered such an attack in recent memory. But I suppose the takeaway is simply that there is no “magic bullet” that can provide complete security.

Better propaganda, please.

The "Bomb Iran" Lobby is Getting Kind of Amateurish…

[ 0 ] October 13, 2009 |

Jeffrey Herf has taken to The New Republic in an effort to convince Americans that negotiations will go nowhere unless we threaten Tehran with an extensive bombing campaign. Herf is a specialist on Germany; Divided Memory is an excellent study of the different ways in which East and West Germans remember Nazism, and War by Other Means is interesting enough, even as it rather misses the point by over-emphasizing the role of Germany (and the missile debate more generally) in ending the Cold War. The vast expansion of literature on the Soviet point of view, in particular, has not been kind to Herf’s argument. In any case, Herf has some theories about relations between democracies and autocracies, and Marty saw fit to give him a platform. Yglesias identifies some problems; here are some more.

The essential problem is an old one in the history of negotiations between dictatorships and democracies. As was the case in the famous negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in the 1980s, there is a fundamental asymmetry whenever a dictatorship sits down at the table with a democracy…All the domestic political pressures of the debate will be asymmetric: They will have an impact only on the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

Herf doesn’t back this statement up, which suggests to me that he’s done almost no research on the issue. If he had, he’d know that there is in fact a literature on negotiation, and that democracies have some key advantages in negotiations with dictatorships. In particular, the constraints that democratic negotiators face can work to their advantage in determining outcomes within the range of mutually acceptable alternatives. Hard domestic constraints, assuming that they allow any agreement at all, are a massive plus at the negotiating table, because they limit what a negotiator can give away. It’s particularly fascinating that Herf invokes negotiations over the French and British nuclear arsenals, because, by his own account, the democracies won those negotiations, and won them because of electoral constraints. Indeed, democratic transparency often works to the advantage of negotiators; an American President can credibly argue that a treaty will not survive the Senate, while a Soviet General Secretary has much more trouble proving that the Red Army will veto a proposed arrangement. Herf would be well-advised to conduct additional research into the reasons why West prevailed on those negotiations, at least before engaging in another intellectual indefensible polemical exercise.

In December 1979, President Carter and our NATO allies agreed both to counter the new Soviet weapons by stationing American intermediate-range missiles in Europe and to propose a new round of arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, offering a scaled-backed NATO deployment in return for a reduction in their SS-20s. The USSR, however, demanded something more: that the nuclear weapons of Britain and France be counted in any negotiations. Under the Soviet scheme, Britain and France would have to pay the price for reductions in Soviet missiles by reducing or eliminating their nuclear arsenals, thus creating a “nuclear-free” Europe.

There’s rather a different way of thinking about this. Desiring the inclusion of British and French nuclear arsenals in the arms control negotiations may have been part of an actual, legitimate goal of Soviet foreign policy, rather than a negotiating “ploy”. The United Kingdom had, of course, developed its nuclear deterrent in collaboration with the United States. The primary delivery system for British nuclear weapons was the Polaris missile, designed in the United States. The United Kingdom was, moreover, tied to the United States through alliance in NATO. France was less constrained, and the French nuclear deterrent more independent, but nevertheless it’s hardly obvious that the Soviet desire to include the British and French arsenals as an element of the negotiations was either absurd or illegitimate. In the case of war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, British and French missiles could destroy Soviet cities with exactly the same effectiveness as American missiles. Thus, I’d rather refrain from using the term “gambit” to describe what most rational observers would conclude was a rational, legitimate objective of Soviet foreign policy.

This brings us to the one policy option that Tehran truly fears–and thus the only one that gives these negotiations any realistic chance of success: a credible threat of military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by the United States, perhaps joined by Britain and France, or Israel. If the Iranian leadership believed that such an attack was a real possibility, it, or some parts of it, might be persuaded to change course.

Right; the mullahs only understand the language of force, etc. Of course, if Dr. Herf had taken the US-Soviet analogy a bit farther, he might have been forced to notice that one of the key developments in the Soviet arms control stance in the mid-1980s was the Soviet realization that the US was not preparing to launch a preventive nuclear attack. Reagan’s rhetoric and arms buildup, whatever effect they may have had on the Soviet economy and on Soviet human rights, most certainly strengthened the hand of hardliners who argued that the US was planning to fight and win and offensive nuclear war. One of keys to Gorbachev’s success was his ability to argue that Reagan didn’t actually plan to attack, contrary to what appeared to be US preparations for war. In this sense, it was Soviet security, rather than Soviet vulnerability, that gave Gorbachev the ability to pursue arms control with Reagan. Had American hardliners such as Richard Perle and Dick Cheney prevailed, Reagan would have pursued a much more aggressive stance, and it’s unlikely that Gorbachev would have been able to budge the Soviet military-industrial complex. The Soviet Union would probably still have collapsed, but it almost certainly would have been a much more chaotic and bloody affair. Herf misses out on this because of either his inability or his refusal to understand that dictatorships also have factions, interest groups, and bureaucratic roadblocks, and his refusal to allow that the core interest of the Iranian leadership is their own security and survival, rather than nuclear weapons.

And this gets rather to the core of the problems with Herf’s approach. He assumes away Iranian domestic constraints, in spite of overwhelming evidence that a) dictatorships face internal constraints based on public pressure on bureaucratic infighting, b) that domestic constraints have unpredictable, and indeed often positive, effects on negotiating stances, and c) that dire military threats often empower the domestic actors in target countries that we’re least interested in seeing gain power. He seems to believe that since the regime successfully stole an election and hasn’t collapsed in the past three months, that it is free of domestic constraints. Such a position does not, as they say, demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of the way that authoritarian regimes operate; indeed, it would likely get Herf laughed out of an Introduction to Comparative Politics course.

In addition, Herf displays a cavalier ignorance of the Iranian regime; I suspect that the one thing the leadership TRULY fears is being overthrown by its domestic enemies, but not being an Iran specialist I try to refrain from writing statements like “the one thing Tehran truly fears.” Other than all that, however, Herf’s essay is just spiffy.

The Sanctions Question

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, via Phil Korsnes:

if Iran is as close to nuclear capability as it is claimed, it should have a strong interest in non-proliferation. Making it difficult for a newcomer to join the nuclear club would enhance the value of its own potential membership and dissuade rivals from taking a similar path. If a major goal of sanctions against Iran is to dissuade other countries from taking the path to nuclear capability that Iran has taken, the possibility to make that case with “Iran as a partner” should be kept in mind…

This doesn’t make much sense to me; we strengthen non-proliferation institutions by not making a fuss about the Iranian nuclear program? Why would anyone ever believe a claim that went like this: “No, seriously; Iran is the LAST country that we’ll tolerate as part of the nuclear club. Nobody else gets in.” Indeed, I suspect that non-proliferation would suffer much more from toleration of and acquiesence in Iran’s nuclear program than in challenge to it, even if Iran manages to get a nuke anyway. There’s some value to both the international opprobrium that comes from violating non-proliferation rules (if Iran violates such rules by moving farther along the road to nukes), and to the added costs created by sanctions against such violation. I happen to think that the NPT has been a wildly successful international institution, and that preserving as much of its essence as possible is a worthy US security goal, and that defending the NPT through tolerating Iranian nukes makes about as much sense as fighting for non-proliferation by browbeating the Japanese into going nuclear.

That said, Salehi-Isfahani’s larger point about the effectiveness of sanctions is well taken. It’s not clear how sanctions lead to either a)regime change, or b)the end of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Although the Iranian opposition has been surprisingly critical of the regime’s foreign policy stance, I’d still be surprised if aggressive sanctions regime didn’t produce a “rally-round-the-flag” effect. At the same time, I think that international disapproval is something that states take into account when they develop policy, and that the clear demonstration of such disapproval is sensible. Iran’s compliance with the IAEA is twitchy at best, although its announcement of the Qom facility and guarantee to allow inspections improves the situation. It’s key to note, however, that countries announce the existence of nuclear facilities and allow inspections of those facilities because they wish to remain in compliance with international law; agreements matter, and sanctions for flouting agreements also matter.

Iranian Ballistic Missiles

[ 0 ] September 14, 2009 |

It’s hard to say how to take this long post on the Iranian ballistic missile program; there’s a lot of detail, but where evidence is not openly available conclusions are always questionable. The assertions that Iran is receiving substantial missile technology support from North Korea (not surprising), China, (not really surprising), and Russia (very mildly surprising) is probably the biggest takeaway. In any case, give it a read if you’re interested in Iran, ballistic missiles, or the proliferation of “illicit” technology.

A Giant Space Vacuum Cleaner!

[ 0 ] September 1, 2009 |

Anyone hyping the EMP threat ought to be laughed out of public life…

Once More with Feeling…

[ 0 ] August 18, 2009 |

Bernard Finel handles the latest attack-Iran nonsense capably, but I’d like to supplement three points:

  1. Fabius Maximus refers to General Wald’s post as part of a “years long project to start a war with Iran.” That’s true enough, but it’s also clear that General Wald envisions the war itself as lasting, well, years:
    Furthermore, while a successful bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development, Iran would undoubtedly retain its nuclear knowhow. An attack would also necessitate years of continued vigilance, both to retain the ability to strike previously undiscovered sites and to ensure that Iran does not revive its nuclear program.

    The point is clear; a military strike cannot “solve” the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons. Only many strikes over many years can do that…

  2. With due respect to General Wald, anyone who argues that a nuclear weapon will grant Iran dominance over the Persian Gulf is a liar, a moron, or both. If a tiny nuclear arsenal with no second strike capability and an unreliable delivery system, in conjunction with a years’ outdated conventional military that’s a vanishingly small fraction of the size of the US military or the military organizations of the chief American regional proxies can win “dominance,” then, well, we might as well give up right now. The floor is yours, Private Hudson:
  3. General Wald invokes the “existential” threat to Israel as a reason to attack Iran. It’s worth dwelling on that for just a moment. The existential threat to Israel isn’t so much the possibility that Iran will launch a nuke as it is that Iranian possession of nukes will make Israeli life intolerable. The slightly elevated chance of nuclear annihilation, combined with increased Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, will make life in Israel sufficiently sketchy and unpleasant that Israeli Jews will begin emigrating to the United States, Russian “Jews” will stop emigrating to Israel, and the demographic balance in Israel proper (to say nothing of Mandate Palestine) will shift decisively in favor of Israeli Arabs, effectively destroying the Jewish state. This argument has been made with varying degrees of explicitness by Michael Oren and other Israeli officials. These concerns are real enough, given a particular construction of Israeli national interest. They do not, however, amount to an “existential” threat in the sense that the United States and the Soviet Union posed existential threats to one another during the Cold War. Moreover, I can’t help but think that there’s a certain absurdity in Israeli policymakers demanding what amounts to an absolute degree of security. If David Ben-Gurion had employed the same existential standard, then the state of Israel would never have been founded. Statecraft is dirty, dangerous business, and existential threats are pretty much an inevitable part of doing that business. Of course, the revolutionary generation always accepts sacrifice in the hope that its children will reap the benefits, but it’s still difficult not to conclude that the apple has fallen rather far from the tree.


[ 0 ] August 10, 2009 |

John Boonstra, responding to Paul Johnson:

What we don’t know is if a successful Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would discredit the regime to the point that it would be forced out of power or if such an attack would be used to discredit the opposition, causing Iranians to close ranks behind their extremist leaders.

Generally, when bombs fall on people, they get mad at the people doing the bombing. It’s a simple enough lesson, but one that many, in their unconsidered haste to bring about the regime’s downfall, miss quite entirely. The second of Johnson’s possibilities, or a version of it at least, seems much more likely to result from a missile attack; this would only enhance the government’s hardline posture, and give needless credibility to its attempts to focus attention on outside “enemies.”

If Israeli bombing discredits the Iranian regime, it will be approximately the first time in the history of the world that such a thing has happened. The closest case would appear to be that of Slobodan Milosevic after the Kosovo War, but a much more compelling argument can be made that Milosevic fell because he gave up, rather than because he fought.

The World Cannot Allow a Nuclear China…

[ 0 ] July 8, 2009 |

Speaking of Chiang Kai Shek, I have a short article up at Foreign Policy comparing the Chinese and (purported) Iranian nuclear weapon programs:

Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a “paper tiger,” and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: “We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?”

A Green Light?

[ 0 ] July 6, 2009 |

I guess that I don’t read Biden’s comment in the same way that Marc Lynch:

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They’re entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

I read this as Biden distancing the United States from any Israeli attack; this is to say that, if the Israelis do attack Iran, that the United States had nothing to do with it. I don’t really see it as the US giving Israel a green light; why would such a message ever been given in public? I probably wouldn’t have used the phrase “entitled” but the point seems to be to draw a distinction between Israel and the US, rather than to indicate a preferred course of action to the Israelis.

… to clarify a bit, Israel is unlikely to ask for overflight permission from anyone, Iraqi, Saudi, or American, if it wants to attack Iran. The chances of US aircraft shooting down attacking Israeli fighters as they cross Iraq is approximately zero, and the Iraqis don’t have the capability. This is to say that the Israelis do not need our permission to attack Iran, whether they’re crossing Iraqi airspace or Saudi. What I read this statement as saying is this: “What the Israelis do, they do on their own. An Israeli attack on Iran is not part of US policy.”

I should add that this is yet another case in which supposedly clear “messages” turn out to be remarkably murky.

European political leader who believed in Iraqi WMD has sophisticated foreign policy opinions about Iran, too

[ 0 ] June 28, 2009 |

Um, no one cares what Jose Maria Aznar thinks, but this is an especially useless effort. The comparisons between Iran and the Soviet Union are delivered with the stupidity that’s customary for the genre; it’s hard, for example, to know where to begin his claim that Western support for Soviet dissidents (a) made Soviet leaders fearful of treating them badly, and (b) eventually brought town the government itself. Whatever force “the Free World” was able to exert upon Soviet human rights was a direct result of the fact that the US and the Soviet Union had, from 1963 through the mid-1970s, established a reasonably successful record of negotiating on a variety of issues of mutual interest (e.g, nuclear testing and arms limitations, grain shipments, etc.) So far as dissidents were concerned, their treatment during this period was mild by the obviously unpleasant by historical standards — not because the government feared Johnson, Nixon or Ford (who were, it’s worth pointing out, not hollering conspicuously about Soviet dissidents) but because Soviet leadership saw little to be gained domestically from “ruthlessly [doing] away with them,” as Aznar insists they would have. After Khrushchev’s disclosures, a full revival of Stalinist brutality was probably an impossibility; whatever ill needs to be spoken of the post-Stalin era, it’s insane to claim their behavior was held in check simply out of fear of external punishment. The state viewed dissidents as enemies of the regime and suppressed them as best they could, but by the late 1970s and 1980s — when Aznar presumably believes US support for dissidents was most consequential — the Soviet leadership hardly required the aid of dissenters (or critiques by American leaders) to bring discredit to its own project.

That said, it’s hard to imagine what sort of guidance Aznar thinks his flawed history might provide for the Obama administration. This is of course a problem for anyone who’s been insisting that Obama Must Do SomethingTM, but Aznar captures the vagueness of the argument with impressive brevity:

This is no time for hesitation on the part of the West. If, as part of an attempt to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the leaders of democratic nations turn their backs on the dissidents they will be making a terrible mistake.

President Obama has said he refuses to “meddle” in Iran’s internal affairs, but this is a poor excuse for passivity. If the international community is not able to stop, or at least set limits on, the repressive violence of the Islamic regime, the protesters will end up as so many have in the past — in exile, in prison, or in the cemetery. And with them, all hope for change will be gone.

See, I’d been under the mistaken impression that the US would be hard-pressed to find a constructive role to play with respect to the Iranian crisis. But I forgot that by simply not hesitating* and by facing the protesters squarely in solidarity**, we could actually set limits*** on the behavior of the Iranian state!

* Whatever the hell that means.
** Ibid.
*** Ibid.

Intelligence Gathering Opportunity?

[ 0 ] June 25, 2009 |

I had the same thought as Jason Zengerle; inviting Iranian diplomats to the July 4 embassy picnics was potentially an intelligence gathering opportunity. This appears not to be the case, however.

Also, this is the nicest thing that Ann Althouse has ever said about anyone associated with LGM. An attempt at engagement to end the longstanding rift between our two peoples? Or unwelcome interference in LGM affairs?

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