Sunday, February 12, 2012

Who's threatened by Iran?

Let me ask you a question: How many countries in possession of nuclear weapons have been attacked by a country not in possession of nuclear weapons? Take your time. In case you're still scratching your head, the correct answer is zero.

Let me ask you a second question: Does the United States possess nukes? Does Israel? (Yes, they both have lots of them, the US especially so).

Projecting past experience forward, then (the new riddle of induction notwithstanding), will the US or Israel be attacked by a non-nuclear Iran?

Okay, if you're still with me, let me ask you a third question: How many countries in possession of nuclear weapons have been attacked by a country also in possession of nuclear weapons? Again, take your time. In case you wanna cut to the chase, the correct answer (once more) is zero.

Projecting past experience forward, then, will the US or Israel be attacked by a nuclear Iran?

"Don't be silly," you say. "Just because something never happened in the past, doesn't mean it won't happen in the future. This time, my friend, really is different." Maybe so. But when there is a strikingly consistent pattern in the historical record, it's worth getting to the bottom of it. So let's.

Why have countries with nuclear weapons never been attacked by other countries? Here's a first stab at a solution. Political leaders, above all else, crave power. If they didn't, they wouldn't be willing to sacrifice as much as they do to acquire it, and to maintain it. In 1945, when the US demonstrated the destructive potential of nuclear weapons (essentially telling Japan, "if you give us so much as a papercut, we will set you on fire"), every political leader in the world was watching. What they learned is that, for small countries, getting nuked is a recipe for not having a country over which to rule anymore. For big countries, getting nuked is a recipe for losing power very, very quickly.

So, caring first and foremost about power, world leaders silently affirmed the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not fuck with nuclear states. Don't forget that, prior to 1945, war between great powers was the norm, not the exception. Since 1945, it's only been cold wars between nuclear states, which is to say, often tense but essentially non-violent relations.

"Don't be silly," you say again. "Iran isn't a cold, calculating government--it's a fanatical theocracy committed to the destruction of Israel. Nukes in its hands cannot be trusted." Maybe so. But consider this: How have the ayatollahs managed to (with relative stability) control Iran for 33 years? This is not a country whose government is protected from its people by outside governments. This is a country who has been the victim of CIA-led coups, internal uprisings egged on by outsiders, and social and economic volatility the likes of which Americans cannot even imagine. And yet these supposed loons have managed to maintain their grip. Something tells me that while they may be fanatical this-or-thats, they care a lot about political power, too. And something tells me that their cold, realistic calculations have a lot to do with why they still hold the reigns in what would otherwise be a tremendously unstable political environment. And recognition of the 11th commandment does not require a genius. So, why do you seem so sure that this time is different?

"Why, then, do they seem so hellbent on the development of a nuke?" you ask. Simple--when the most militarily powerful countries on Earth speak openly on a daily basis about their eagerness to destroy you, and when you know of the 11th commandment (refresher: Thou shalt not fuck with nuclear states), it would seem that getting hold of a nuke would help a lot with maintaining your grip on a country that is on the brink of revolution. Self-preservation is the name of the game in international relations.

Do I want Iran to have a nuke? Of course not. For one thing, lots of Iran's neighbors would be more or less defenseless against a nuclear Iran. The effect on the balance of power in the Middle East would almost certainly be unfavorable. And yes, the probability of Iran violating the 11th commandment is marginally higher than the probability of, say, Israel doing likewise. Nobody wants Iran to go nuclear. But that's not because Iran is a serious threat to US or Israeli security. It's simply for classic balance of power considerations.

What's in everyone's best interest is for a ratcheting down of tensions. If Iran is less concerned about the international community planning its destruction, it will be more willing to slow or halt its development of the bomb. And if we offer that, in exchange for healthier diplomatic relations, we may be able to create a more stable political situation in the Middle East than would otherwise obtain.

So, why aren't we doing that? Well, recall the 11th commandment. Once Iran has the bomb, we will no longer have the option of shaping their internal political situation (witness nuclear Pakistan, a fanatical government if there ever was one, who almost certainly hid bin Laden, but whom we don't give orders to). If we don't take out the ayatollahs while we have the chance, Iran is, for the foreseeable future, beyond our sphere of significant influence. But why do we care so much about influencing Iran? We obviously don't care much about influencing Syria at the moment (actions speak louder than words). The answer, not obvious to only the most deliberately obtuse, is that Iran has lots of oil. Our goal is not to steal their oil, or to secure it at a discount. Our goal--indeed, the Western world's goal, is to stabilize oil production and flows in international markets so as to minimize oil shocks to Western economies (the oil shocks of the late 2000s drove up headline inflation, triggering tighter monetary policy, triggering the worst recession since the Great Depression). Sure, we care about human rights, etc., too. But the reason we seem really eager to bomb some countries (Libya, Iran), and not others (Syria), is because access to a very important commodity is at stake. No conspiracy, no hegemony, just good old fashioned pursuit of strategic interests.

Let's, then, not sign off on another war without our eyes open to what's really at stake, and what our government's true motivations are.


  1. I don't think Iran really wants a nuclear weapon—that'd be a cause for certain parties to intervene for the sake of international law and security. Why would Iran want to justify its own invasion?

    The ideal is to stay on the brink—capable to enrich the uranium properly and build a delivery mechanism (and thereby dangerous), but not actually in possession of either (and thereby safe[er] from intervention).

  2. I agree, I don't think they'll build a nuke unless they actually think we'll attack. But, the closer they come to building one, the more support the West will be able to build for an attack. So, it's a vicious cycle, and I don't see it ending well unless people in the West take a more critical view of the whole thing. You don't need to be a pacifist or believe that the US is evil to realize that war with Iran makes no strategic sense except from the perspective that oil is our most important national security priority.