Blogs > Cliopatria > The Façade of Diplomacy – why this confrontation is about more than Iranian nukes

Apr 8, 2006 11:32 pm

The Façade of Diplomacy – why this confrontation is about more than Iranian nukes

A piece by Seymour Hersh in this week’s New Yorker provides some fascinating new fodder for the Iran debate. In particular, regarding the theme of my two previous posts on the topic, (here and here, and also discussed on oxblog here), namely, that the intransigence of the US administration’s position has exacerbated the confrontation with Iran. Or, as a senior British official put it – they are not looking for a solution, but rather for a crisis. But why?

What becomes quite clear from the Hersh piece is that this confrontation is about much more than Iran’s nuclear capability. Again, like with Iraq, nuclear development is being used as the Trojan Horse to sell a strike with wider strategic aims – regime change, stability of oil supply, to stop Iranian support for terror etc. Each can be debated on its own merits, but lets stop pretending that this is just about nuclear weapons.

As briefly as possible, the article illuminates the following:

The Plan: Hersh reports that a massive bombing campaign is being planned with the hopes of stalling nuclear development and forcing regime change. A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon told Hersh that “a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.” He added, “I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, ‘What are they smoking?’ If this is the meat of the plan, we should indeed be concerned.

The idea is to hit several hundred targets and includes the use of tactical nuclear weapons to strike underground centrifuge production facilities.

The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles.

While ostensibly to slow nuclear production capability (by 3-5 years), the strike plan goes far beyond this.

The Pentagon adviser said that, in the event of an attack, the Air Force intended to strike many hundreds of targets in Iran but that “ninety-nine per cent of them have nothing to do with proliferation. There are people who believe it’s the way to operate”—that the Administration can achieve its policy goals in Iran with a bombing campaign, an idea that has been supported by neoconservatives.

And on a geopolitical level:

“This is much more than a nuclear issue,” one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. “That’s just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.”

Again, the nuclear issue is clearly being used as the selling point for wider strategic aims – regime change and control in the middle east.

Opposition: There is significant opposition to such a strike and to the use of nuclear weapons. This comes from among others, the British government, from within the UN military and from the IAEA.

First, “The Brits think this is a very bad idea,” Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staff member who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, told Hersh. “but they’re really worried we’re going to do it.”

Second, many within the US military are against the strike. A Pentagon advisor told Hersh that there was a serious push from some in the administration to use tactical nukes. Again, this shows that the push is coming from civilian, rather than military leadership:

He called it “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. “There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,” the adviser told me. “This goes to high levels.” The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. “The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks,” the adviser said. “And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.”

Third, the IAEA is amazed at the lack of interest in actually inspecting to see if Iran has production capability. The reasons for this should be obvious.

The threat of American military action has created dismay at the headquarters of the I.A.E.A., in Vienna. The agency’s officials believe that Iran wants to be able to make a nuclear weapon, but “nobody has presented an inch of evidence of a parallel nuclear-weapons program in Iran”
Another diplomat in Vienna asked me, “Why would the West take the risk of going to war against that kind of target without giving it to the I.A.E.A. to verify? We’re low-cost, and we can create a program that will force Iran to put its cards on the table.” A Western Ambassador in Vienna expressed similar distress at the White House’s dismissal of the I.A.E.A. He said, “If you don’t believe that the I.A.E.A. can establish an inspection system—if you don’t trust them—you can only bomb.”

Consequences: As I have commented before, the consequences of a strike against Iran are potentially massive and must be seen as part of the strategic calculus. Like the post war period in Iraq, human costs must be viewed in a strategic light. As Richard Armitage poignantly told Hersh:

“What will happen in the other Islamic countries? What ability does Iran have to reach us and touch us globally—that is, terrorism? Will Syria and Lebanon up the pressure on Israel? What does the attack do to our already diminished international standing? And what does this mean for Russia, China, and the U.N. Security Council?”


“If you attack,” a high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna, “Ahmadinejad will be the new Saddam Hussein of the Arab world, but with more credibility and more power. You must bite the bullet and sit down with the Iranians.”

As a Pentagon advisor also stated: “If the diplomatic process doesn’t work, there is no military ‘solution.’ There may be a military option, but the impact could be catastrophic.”

Messianic?: A frightening aspect of this debate (or lack thereof) is the messianic nature of many comments by Bush. As one official told Hersh:

Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

But is diplomacy being actually taken seriously? Most evidence seems to suggest that it is not. As a senior diplomat told Hersh: “There are people in Washington who would be unhappy if we found a solution.” The reason for this gall should be apparent. Diplomacy could only serve to stop nuclear production. It will not result in regime change, or in a US ally in control, nor in permanent military bases in Iran. Just like in Iraq, containment may have worked to stop WMD production, but it was not deemed sufficient for wider US aims. Plus ca change...

(cross posted at

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More Comments:

John H. Lederer - 4/11/2006

Do you really see the ethics as cut and dried?

I have trouble with the ethics being dependent on a declaration of war. It has a sort of smack of chivalry about it.."Arm yourself, sir, for I mean to have at you.."

If it were ethical to do it, why is it ethical to do it only if you first give warning so as to make it less likely you will succeed?

Jason KEuter - 4/11/2006

Actually, it is about nuclear weapons - first and foremost. All of the other issues you brought up become non-issues once the present regime in Iran acquires nukes. Therefore, this is no Torjan Horse. What you're saying, in fact, rationalizes the present regimes pursuit of nuclear weapons as a defense against US actions against some kind imaginary Iranian sovereignty that somehow wishes to join the community of nations as equals - as opposed to wiping out Israel, the Sunnis of Iraq and Saudi Arabia and beyond, etc, etc

Jonathan Dresner - 4/10/2006

And my point, of course, is that I don't agree.

Our ability to bomb with great precision has not resulted in an ability to kill specific members of leadership with great precision in situations of declared hostilities.

It's not like we haven't been trying. And, unlike you, I think the ethical situation is pretty cut and dried: in a declared war, you attack anything you want within the confines of the rules of war. Without a declaration of war (or substantially similar mission, like peacekeeping), you don't attack anything except in immediate self-defense, and assassination doesn't qualify.

John H. Lederer - 4/10/2006

"So far, I can't think of a single case of decapitating strikes actually working, "

My point, of course, was that this is an area where past experience is not a valid guide because it is at a major spearhead of technological change. One might as well say on August 5th, 1945 "so far I cannot think of a single case of a single bomber destroying a city"

Jonathan Dresner - 4/9/2006

There is that, isn't there?

But we're years from having to make desperation decisions: I've not seen a credible source which suggested that the Iranians were less than five years away from having a bomb, and most of the credible ones I've seen say its closer to ten.

The administration seems to be operating on the assumption that it's going to be sooner than that (or that there's some 'point of no return' along the way; either way, they're not explaining things to us) and focusing attention that should be going towards settling the issues we're already embroiled in.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/9/2006

But the combination of nukes and a fanatical, erratic government is a different matter.

You still haven't explained North Korea...

John H. Lederer - 4/9/2006

"Each can be debated on its own merits, but lets stop pretending that this is just about nuclear weapons."

Of course it isn't. Five countries have vecome nuclear powers without the US taking action.

But the combination of nukes and a fanatical, erratic government is a different matter.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab:

"The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land,"
As the Imam [Khomeinei] said, Israel must be wiped off the map,"

Jonathan Dresner - 4/9/2006

So far, I can't think of a single case of decapitating strikes actually working, and in a situation of declared war, I'm sure the Iranians (or the Zimbabweans) would take precautions making it unlikely to succeed easily or quickly. The potential still is greater than the actuality, unless you're willing to dispense with the rules of war and go straight to "if we don't like you, we'll blow you up" vigilantism.

On the broader question, I don't have any argument with the idea that we've let our ethical obligations slide by failing to oppose brutal, atrocious regimes; I think we might be pleasantly surprised how much international help we'd get if we actually did that on a regular, instead of sporadic and self-serving, basis.

John H. Lederer - 4/9/2006

"I have difficulty believing that Israel would strike Iran without explicit support from the US.."

I have difficulty bel;ieving that Israel would allow the death of all its citizens and the end of its existence ..which if takes at face value the verbiage from Tehran would be the result of allowing Iran to gain nukes....

Jonathan Dresner - 4/9/2006

I have difficulty believing that Israel would strike Iran without explicit support from the US: unlike the Osirak reactor, a single strike or short wave of strikes just won't do the job, which is why the administration is talking about tactical nukes, etc. Israel has a fantastically powerful military by most measures, but I don't think they'd really be willing to enter into a long, drawn-out battle with Iran on their own (or even on the kind of tacit non-denials we gave Saddam Hussein before the Kuwait invasion...) that we're talking about here.

Again, I'm assuming rational actors. But if the issue were restraining Israel, I'd think that we'd see more actual effort being put into restraining Israel: granting them concessions in other areas, etc.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/9/2006

Is part of what is driving the consideration of military strikes against Iran the fear of an Israeli strike and its aftermath?

Put differently, if the only choices the US has are either our attacking Iran or the Israelis doing so, which option is better?

John H. Lederer - 4/9/2006

Bombing, since its inception has been oversold as a means of applying force. However, technological improvement in bombing will eventually overtake the oversell.

Has it done so yet? Who knows? That it can force regime chnage seems increasingly possible. Note the attempt to take out Saddam at the beginning of the Iraqi war by two separate strikes, both of which barely failed.

Granted Iraq was a special case because a one person (or one family) dictatorship. Noenetheless it seems quite foolish to me to select the arm that has most benefitted in efficacy from technology and say "Bombing has never historically forced regime change, ergo, it never will"

The ability to perform decapitating strikes raises all sorts of implications. Offhand, and contrary to Graylings assertion (though he was talking of mass bombings) it appears far ethical. However, decreasing the threshold for an act of war raises its own ethical problems.

Assuming, as appears to be the case, that Mugabe is a thoroughly rotten sort who has killed large numbers of his countrymen, both directly and indirectly (average life span in his country is now down to 34 years!), is it moral to perform an air strike to remove his presence from this earth? Is it immoral not to do so? What are the boundaries?

Shawn H - 4/9/2006

Couldn't agree more with the post. The Bush administration is attempting to sell another war, based solely on a country's nuclear weapons production. Ironically, the only country ever to use nuclear weapons is the United States. Either way, a war with Iran will cripple the U.S. The American military is already bogged down in Iraq. Bombing Iran will place American troops in Iraq at an even greater risk.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/9/2006

"only if the regime was at all rational in its calculus"

Jon, I agree with both you and Taylor. If this is the Administration's thinking it is frightening in its blundering stupidity. As the line I qhote above suggests, bombing alone does not change regimes.

In fact, we can even look to our own history. Many people quite sincerely said "better dead than red" when faced with the possibility of nuclear war. The Iranian leadership doesn't need to be any crazier than that to go to the mat for its beliefs.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/9/2006

Welcome to the Cliopatria family!

Two things I read recently reflect on what you've presented. First, Ron Paul's recent speech, in which he suggests that Iran's flirtation with Euro-denominated oil has more to do with our odd determination to force a confrotation than nuclear weapons. Second, A.C.Grayling's analysis of bombing campaigns, showing them to be terribly ineffective at forcing regime change (an analysis which would not change with the use of tactical nukes; only full-bore urban attacks would make a difference, and then only if the regime was at all rational in its calculus).

Then there's North Korea....