Blogs > HNN > The Iranian Threat

Jul 28, 2005 2:50 pm

The Iranian Threat

According to the Lebanon newspaper, The Daily Star , President Mohammad Khatami of Iran announced that his country “will end a suspension of sensitive uranium ore conversion activities regardless of what proposals the European Union makes in the coming days to change its mind.”

In 2003, Iran revealed its uranium enrichment program to the world, claiming that it was for peaceful purposes only and inviting the IAEA to visit. In September 2004, Iran rejected the International Atomic Energy Agency's call for closing down its nuclear fuel production programme (which many in the United States and Israel believe to be linked to a covert nuclear weapons programme). Iran then test fired a ballistic missile with sufficient range to hit targets in Israel as well as US military installations in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Before the matter could be brought before the Security Council for possible sanctions however, in November of 2004, Iran cut a deal with Germany, France and Britain to end its uranium enrichment program and the IAEA confirmed it. What the IAEA could not confirm was whether or not Iran was conducting covert nuclear activities.

Israel: According to the Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, “under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession.” Since October 2003 Israel had a plan in place for a pre-emptive strike against Iran's major nuclear facilities, but this would not be as easy as their strike on the Iraq Osirak plant in 1981. The excellent article located here gives a more complete analysis of the military dimension, and the Daily Star had a pretty compelling editorial on why it is unlikely to happen, but ultimately, Israel will be unable to act without implicating the United States (since they will have to use US/Iraq airspace to get to Iran) and the potential for an Iranian retaliation is far greater today than it was with Iraq in 1981. This is to say nothing of the logistics of such an effort, given the geographical scope of Iran’s program. Right now, Israel is simply biding its time and hoping that the US and the EU can resolve the matter before forcing their hand.

Russia and China both have energy interests in Iran, and both could veto any sanctions proposed by the Security Council. Furthermore, any attempts at imposing stiffer sanctions without the support of Russia or China could prove far less effective than with them on board.

France and Germany seem to be unworried about the potential for a nuclear Iran, even though it would effect them in the long run just as surely as it would the US. As recent history has shown, these countries seem to believe that all problems and conflicts can be revolved peacefully and diplomatically if they just wait patently and ask nicely. It truly seems like any type of punishment at all is strenuously avoided, as if a world of international law and cooperation is incompatible with actual enforcement of such laws.

The United States finds itself in a jam, due in no smart part to its decision to spend all of our international capital, and military resources on the Iraq debacle. As numerous observes have commented, an invasion of Iran is almost sure to result in chaos. The Iranian people are far more homogenous, and more nationalistic than its Iraqi neighbors and ironically enough, probably the most pro-American population in the region. Such sentiments however, would never support seeing US forces in their country, and the Iranian regime, while hated by many, is not so brutally totalitarian as to make average Iranians prefer the inevitable anarchy of their neighbor to the current political climate. No, any military action taken against Iran must be directed at eliminating the nuclear threat, NOT changing the regime and this means total war with the Islamic state should not even be in consideration. The alternative to war, of course, would be to compel Iran to disarm peacefully.

The problem is that unlike North Korea, where the US has a great deal it can offer in exchange for compliance, it is Europe that has the most to offer and the most to threaten with. According to an article signed by the Canadian external affairs minister, as well as 5 former European foreign ministers, and former Secretary of State Albright, “Europeans must prove to the Iranians that severe political and economic consequences will result if Iran does not renounce the nuclear weapons option. In the event that diplomacy fails and Iran decides not to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Europeans should be ready for alternative courses of action, including going to the U.N. Security Council, and they should repeatedly stress their willingness to act.”

Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
In 2001, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani , the number two man in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi, called on Muslim countries “to use nuclear weapon against Israel, assuring them that while such an attack would annihilate Israel, it would cost them “damages only.” Whether or not this was just saber-rattling, a nuclear Iran would surely create a standoff with Israel the likes of which would likely be as serious or worse than the standoff several years ago between India and Pakistan. Furthermore, the stability of Iran’s political leadership is currently in doubt, as calls for reform continues to echo throughout the country.

Finally, although the so-called “domino-theory” has largely been discredited since Vietnam, the reality is that if Iran is able to acquire nuclear weapons, thereby indefinitely postponing any American attack, it is not unfair to ask why other states would not immediately follow with their own programs, both because they can see that they will get away with it and to protect themselves from an increasingly nuclear world.

There are so many dimensions to this problem, I wanted to make this post a first attempt at simplifying them, since much of what I have written is only the tip of the iceberg, but there is one last element that should be addressed. Some might ask why we should care about Iran when Israel, Pakistan, India, etc. have nuclear weapons. The answer is simple: There is nothing we can now do about those countries having nuclear weapons, although I would prefer that they did not.

Further, there is no real risk that Israel would ever actually use such a devise for any other reason than to save its very existence. It did not use them in 1967, even though according to William Burroms and Robert Windrem in their book, Critical Mass (1994) it had them to use. It did not use them in 1973, even though the Israeli front lines were overrun, nor did it use them against Iraq in 1991 even though it had been attacked without cause. In short, I am bias in favor of democracies and will sooner trust a democracy with The Bomb than a non-democracy any day of the week. Of course perhaps the greatest argument against this “all-or-nothing” logic is the same argument people use to support gun control in the US. Even if some of the bad guys will get them anyway, it is no reason the government should encourage its unfettered spread.

Nuclear weapons, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, have the potential to destroy the world with enough of them, and no one should be so cavalier as to advocate their spreading simply because some countries already have them. If the European community is unable to do what is necessary to secure any semblance of nonproliferation in the Middle East, than the United States cannot be blamed for taking actions necessary to ensure it.

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Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 8/1/2005

I appreciate your post. You are quite correct about my assertion. It is questionable whether or not a democracy is the least likely to use a nuclear weapon arbitrarily or needlessly compared to non-democracies. It is, however, a claim that I stand by, despite its obviously normative nature. Nevertheless, the one time we did use them was neither (in my humble opinion) arbitrary or needless. The closest we probably came was during the Cuban Missile Crisis (in which the Soviets backed down) and the conflict in Vietnam (in which our leaders refused to make the ultimate decision in probably the greatest moral catastrophe since slavery).

As for Bush’s plan to build more nuclear weapons, indeed I do find immensely discomforting, and counterproductive, and hypocritical.

As Vietnam has shown, as Iran, as Guatemala, as countless other covert actions throughout the world has shown, democracies need not always be virtuous. I would maintain however, that in general, and when it comes to who I feel more comfortable with having the bomb, I do believe that an overview of history will reveal that, on average, democracies with the means to do so behaved less belligerently than non-democracies with the means to do so.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/1/2005


You've made some good points, but there are some assertions that are questionable. The most questionable is your assumption that a democracy "is the least likely [type of nation] to actually use a nuclear weapon arbitrarily or needlessly. "

1. The only nation to ever use nuclear weapons was a democracy. Did the US use them to start a war? No. And unlike many people, I can see why American leaders thought it was the least worst option at the time. However, it is a reminder that American leaders might use nuclear weapons if they seem to offer a quick solution to a long war.

2. The Cold War gives no evidence of democratic superiority. I have no desire to make the Soviets paragons of virtue in this. I do note that faced with rapidly increasing weakness in the mid to late 1980s, they did not resort to a nuclear option. Would America have done the same if the situation were reversed? Given the costs of nuclear warfare I would like to think so, but I don't know. Neither do you.

3. At least in the United States (I cannot comment on Israel in this), wars are converted to crusades. Our cause is not simply in our self interest; it is the cause of goodness--however defined--itself. While our democratic institutions make it difficult to start such wars, once started they are very hard to stop short of victory. Right now we are in a war that, like World War II, many people perceive as being the result of not seeing an earlier war to a better, more clear-cut conclusion. I don't see any logical reasons for using nuclear weapons in any portion of our "War on Terror" (however defined). However, I find it more than a little discomforting that the Bush administration wants to build new specialized nukes for tactical first-strike purposes. You should find it discomforting to, as it is a major strike against your argument of democratic superiority.

4. An extension of 3. Every so often a dictator can act more virtuously than a democratic leader. Would a democratic Egypt have made peace with Israel when it did and for the terms that it accepted? One can imagine cases when nuclear war would be more popular than the alternative. What would a president do then?

Putting the last point a bit differently, democracies do not guarantee a virtuous majority.

Tom Bruscino - 7/30/2005

Is that a haiku?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/30/2005

Forgive me, Mr. Kislock, I am not entirely certain of what you mean.

Stephen Francis Kislock III - 7/29/2005

The United States under President Bush, did not Attack Iraq, with Nuclear Weapons, though Saddam, did not have any WMD.
Sane or MAD, the OIL, was saved.
We must have Trust in both forms of Government democracie and what passes for it.
The USA and Iran?
Stephen F. Kislock III

E. Simon - 7/29/2005

Agreed and well said.

E. Simon - 7/29/2005

Minor point that Iran violates the NPT that Chris wants Israel to sign. Indeed, he degrades the idea of not signing as hypocrisy. If marriage symbolizes a relationship of a contractual nature, as it is traditionally and metaphorically understood, the analogy would be that a woman should not be allowed to divorce or even to refuse marriage to a man who violates the very existence of what their marriage is all about by serially beating her. What a progressive vision for humanity.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/29/2005

Mr. Simon,
As usual, excellent points, every one of them. I will now proceed to list why I agree with each one in minute detail… just kidding. You are quite right, my responses do tend to be overly detailed, but since there is often a problem I have with almost every segment of someone’s post, I tend to try and be as thorough as possible.

You are right about self-interest, of course. Even were it not philosophically necessary, it is human nature, and has been the nature of international relations before there even were nations. This is what makes democracy so important, because it is the only system of government where the only thing a self-interested leadership can do is to obey the wishes of its people enough to win re-election.

Self-interest is not something that can be debated any more than the necessity human have for air or water. This doesn’t mean that we cannot build an international world order, or that international laws don’t work, or that cooperation is impossible. It simply means that all of those things must be seen in that elemental context.

P.S. “Marc” is fine with me.

E. Simon - 7/29/2005

wikipedia says comity "is a term used in international law (and in the law governing relations between U.S. states) to describe an informal principle that nations will extend certain courtesies to other nations, particularly by recognizing the validity and effect of their executive, legislative and judicial acts. This principle is most frequently invoked by courts, which will not act in a way that demeans the jurisdiction, laws or judicial decisions of another country."

Part of the presumption of comity is that other nations will reciprocate the courtesy shown to them. Many statutes relating to the enforcement of foreign judgments require that the judgments of a particular country will only be recognized and enforced by a forum to the extent that the other country would recognize and enforce the judgments rendered by that forum.

Chris' "position" is absolutely laughable. Israel should revoke an implement of ultimate suasion against Iran, and further, should codify that decision in treaty law. By what logic? Iran, in the capacity of whatever bizarre state organ that forms its policy-making or "executive" branch, by funding Hizbullah and others and through direct actions, to murder (one of the principal actors in this capacity) Israel's civilian non-combattant population is violating Israel's laws against murder. I don't know if chris is against murder laws, or if he is against comity, or believes it to be an obstacle to the "evolution" to a more enlightened state, but I hope the case by analogy I made for it in the previous post made sense. Perhaps he wants to equivocate between violating murder laws and some other worse offense he might offer, as yet to be determined - perhaps in an arena of internationalist theory.

Israel should reach out, extend its hand to the country who murders its civilian non-combattants by agreeing to revoke its ability to end that country's authoritarian existence as we know it, as a reward, or incentive, or whatever, for such actions. There is no legally justifiable reasoning in this and less gray matter necessary to come up with it; chris is taking the stand of a pure propogandist. The only way to proclaim something so unnatural is as an absolute pacifist. If someone threatens one's life and routinely makes good on proving the reality of carrying out such intentions, I would lose no sleep on taking that person out in the face of their acting on such a threat or otherwise incapacitating their ability for this. Perhaps chris would not. But then, he might have to be comfortable with the prospect of winding up sleeping in the dirt due to this lack of "interest" in self-preservation on his part. That's his right; I hope if so he would be comfortable with the decision in whatever afterlife he does or does not envision for himself. But he has no right to force it on others. And to even encourage or promote such twisted injuriousness on others is unethical to the point of a tragicomic delusion of sickening nonsense.

E. Simon - 7/28/2005

Marc (or, if you prefer, Mr. Bacharach):

First, thanks. I think we, (as well as, I would think many others engaging thoughtfully), find many problems in the positions chris takes particularly in regards to this sort of issue. I have read some of your response - mostly the first part (forgive me for being remiss, but we tend to employ different styles, and your responses can be _very_ detailed! - not that that's a bad thing), and believe there are good points so far. I can go over them in detail in a subsequent post if you like.

However, I feel compelled to point out that what I find to be the most troubling problem (intellectually as well as morally) with chris' take on this sort of issue generally, since he does it consistently. Like nothing less than a Pavlovian response.

First, we should be very aware of his ideology by now. Whatever has a semblance of consensus by acting international jurists at bettering a hypothetical anti-nationstate, international juridical order is, according to chris, practically the sine qua non of anything good in bettering the state of a world that he sees as fundamentally f'd up. Fine. I will outline the problems with this as follows:

He couples this with a renunciation of self-interest. This is a huge problem. Sure, self-interest can lead to problems. Especially if not coupled with a logically defensible system of ethics. But without it we are essentially automotons. Borg. Drone and worker bees. I suppose in his mindset the "greater good" of the international order he envisions justifies this. But without self-interest, I would not eat, sleep, etc., and in short, engage in any activity that I like. I suppose I would force the responsibility for all this on others, an incredible burden but a necessary one according to Chris seeing as how he values human well-being generally. We would seek out our happiness or fall in love and do all the things for our significant others that make them happy on a personal level, as well as, by extension, all the people that care for them. We would not take these people out to dinner and contribute to the employment of people who own restaurants and work in them; take them to the movies and increase business for the employees there, amusement parks, buying homes, it's hard to imagine where it ends. Assuming happiness is a personal sentiment, the sensation belongs to one's self. Without self-interest we do not form relationships, period. Personal or economic. No one can outsource the ability to feel their own happiness, or the actions (including the formation and conduct of relationships) that contribute so much to it.

So with international law, before there were written codes there was something called comity. There was customary international law. Nations dealt with each other in a way that benefitted them(selves) mutually because mutual benefit (as with all other productive relationships) presupposes individual benefit, by definition. And these behaviors that defined the nature of the relationships between nations became encultured, and at some point, codified. Nations developed codes of diplomatic behavior. When things got good enough, as when a couple takes a marriage contract, they developed treaties. Treaties, like marriage contracts, should be voluntary, and therefore, revocable; reflecting the nature of the relationship. But like a kid whose parents are in a bad marriage, chris thinks treaties, like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty example he uses, are so important, that they should basically be exhorted to the point of practical coercion.

The way he does this is by denigrating the nation-states, the principal autonomous actors between whom these contracts are conducted, and for whose benefit they exist. Chris thinks a hypothetical international construction can replace this, but to nobody's knowledge has the U.N. been able to provide to the people(s) of the world the material benefits and legal protections offered - (again, sine qua non's, in his own terms), on a comparable scale, of that of the developed, liberal democracies; lowly nation-states though they are.

Israel is particularly egregious in his mindset because the parliamentary embodiment of the international order (the UNGA) has so bashed Israel and disregarded the situation its neighbors have forced on it that in the simplistic, comic-book version of this story that chris endorses, it is seen as adversarial of the international order. So like black Americans in the historically biased eyes of the American justice system, Israel becomes enemy #1 of the international order, even if in many cases by default of ignorance on both counts.

However, it is shocking that chris would go to the length of bashing the voluntary nature of treaty law. It is analogous to telling a minority victim of prejudice that if they don't like the injustice dispensed in their newfound country, tough luck. Not even a chance to emigrate out of the system for Israel. There is nothing more morally offensive than the intrusive arm of coercion for coercion's sake. At the least individuals and nations should be given a choice.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/28/2005

Mr. Simon,
Very true. I believe I address precisely this difference between Israel and Iran in my response to Chris and would appriciate your thoughts on it.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/28/2005

Two things.
First, do let me respond before chastising me about the answer you “figure” I will give, thank you very much.

Second, should the US and Israel be “permitted” to keep their nukes? Well, the word “permitted” implies that there is some authority allowing them (or permitting them, if you will) to have them. There is no such authority.

Let us then restate the question, should the US and Israel voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons, and of course, since you are perfectly fair and balanced individual (of the Fox News sort, that is- sorry, low blow but I couldn’t help it), I assume you really mean to ask; should the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel (am I missing anyone?) all voluntarily give them up. That would be nice. If there were some way that every nation on earth could get rid of their weapons, I would support the measure. However, since Superman has no apparent interest in flinging them all into the sun a la Superman IV, I am afraid the answer to the original inquiry is an obvious NO, the US should not voluntarily give up its nukes. It should keep them for the following reasons (among others):

1- The US is the worlds only superpower and as such would be the largest target for any attack. Thus the greater risk incurred by virtue of our status warrants our retention of the greatest weapons.

2- It is extremely likely that the possession of nuclear weapons has been the principle reason total war has never erupted since WWII. Although the likelihood of a conventional military defeat is extremely low, the possibility of total war would increase dramatically without the arsenal of nuclear weapons to use as a last resort. For 50 years after WWII, this threat not only protected the US, but almost all of our weaker allies as well (even China dared not become directly involved in Vietnam).

3- Since America’s most likely real challenger in the 21st century already has nuclear weapons (I won’t say which one, let’s just call it Fina, located in Feast Fasia), it makes little sense for us to unilaterally disarm

4- America is a democracy and thus is the least likely to actually use a nuclear weapon arbitrarily or needlessly.

I will not go over every country who has nuclear weapons (unless asked), but I have a strange hunch that your only real beef is with Israel, so the next question I will answer is why Israel should keep its weapons but Iran not be permitted to build them (notice that in this case, I can use the word “permitted” since there is an external authority who has the power to prevent it).

1- Israel is surrounded by countries whose stated objective to destroy the state. Iran has no such threat from anyone, particularly now that Saddam Hussein is gone.

2- Israel has fought a war for its very survival no less than 3 times, each of which could have resulted in genocidal extinction if it lost and the victors were able to take the conflict to its conclusion. Iran, by contrast, has not had its territorial existence seriously challenged in recent memory. Even the Iran-Iraq war, costly thought it was, with over a million casualties, was essentially a relatively minor land grab by Iraq, and would never have resulted in the subjugation, or destruction of the state as a sovereign political entity, only at worst the lose of over the resource-rich province of Khuzestan and a few other territorial concessions.

3- Israel is a democracy and thus is the least likely to actually use a nuclear weapon arbitrarily or needlessly. Iran, while moving in the right direction, could not yet in all seriousness be called a true and open democracy.

Bottom line: One of the greatest blunder the US made in the post-Cold War era was not to ensure that the WMDs of from the former Soviet Union were properly accounted for and destroyed. If there was any way to prevent Pakistan from going nuclear (and by extension India), that would have been nice too. In the meantime, just because we have been unable to close the flood gates of nuclear proliferation, must we then tolerate a widening of the breach?

You may live in a world of perfect moral clarity and total reciprocal justice, but I do not. In this case my friend, the perfect truly is the enemy of the good.

E. Simon - 7/28/2005

Of course, with Israel having acquired the bomb (actually they've had one for many decades now, but who's counting?), for God's sake, where does it end? Next thing you know, Lebanon - being their natural adversary in the region - will get the bomb, and of course, without a peace treaty these two behemoth nations will surely be on the brink of Armageddon, and wipe out 50% of life in the Middle East. Of course, the Armenians will join in since they are still at odds with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Azeris, being supported by Iran, will be encouraged by the peaceful, energy-loving Iranians to keep the inherently harmonious global order and deter evil Israel's natural ally in the Caucasus. Next come the Albanians. Why the Albanians? I don't know. I guess because like all these small, pesky nations, their sovereignty makes them stand out like an even greater sore thumb in the eye of the international, anti-nationstate order, (what gives them the right to not submit?) and of course, as everyone knows, pursuing one's sovereign national interest is the root of all evil. They will join in the fray and then tiny Singapore will of course feel threatened too. Next thing you know the micro-states of Oceania, having been pushed around for so long by atomic testing bullied over on them by the no less evil, but more powerful, larger nation states (except for Israel, the most powerful, evil nationstate ever devised), will acquire nukes. This scenario is an obvious, if not foregone conclusion, and surely a set-up to destroy the world. All because we let the tiny stubborn nations voluntary decide their own course and arrogantly refuse to sign treaties in the first place while making such a diversionary fuss over those like peaceful Iran that break them willingly - which is surely not as big a deal.

Of course, the only silver lining on this storm cloud is Hong Kong, since it has been successfully integrated into the legally stable non-hegemon, internationalist PRC. Watch out for Taiwan, though!

E. Simon - 7/28/2005

Is cp unaware that Israel has never sought the destruction of Iran, or does he just believe that it doesn't matter that Iran has consistently acted on its vocal proclamations to destroy Israel? Oh that's right - I forgot. They're nation-states and as long as one of them is destroyed (along with those pesky cogs in the great wheel of the international order, what do you call them...? oh, that's right, "civilian non-combattants") then our absolute objective of global peace under the just order of our great and exalted universal law is one step closer. You people will never learn. Democracy is a facade. Never question the authoritative keepers of the ideology (whoops! - make that the _non-ideology_) of the international judicial order. They do what they do for your benefit.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/28/2005

Chris --

There you go again with your misuse of the word "ideology."


chris l pettit - 7/28/2005

or are you going to take a hypocritical ideological stance?

I figured...