Iran and the Bomb

The Bush administration is tone deaf. It decides which other countries it doesn’t like and then decides what to do about them. I have seen no evidence over the past four years that the gunslingers in the White House and the Pentagon give a damn about how other countries perceive their interests and why they behave the way they do. They’re either for us or agin us. End of story.

Iran is a case in point. We don’t care why the Iranians seem interested in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The fact is they are, and we don’t like it, and we aim to face up to them and tell them we don’t like it and make them back down or face the consequences. We are resolute. The mark of true leadership. Or so the TV sound bites tell us.

There are other ways of looking at the problem. Iran’s way, for starters. Here is a big country with a lot of oil and a strategic location between the Middle East and South Asia. It has a history of independence and empire going back several millennia. When I lived there in the mid-’60’s, the country was developing rapidly, and a lot of that development was military muscle we were supplying. The Shah was boasting that by the end of the century Iran would overtake Germany as an economic powerhouse. But then the people, led by the ayatollahs, kicked him out. They did this partly because he was beholden to us, but mainly because he was a dictator who relied on secret police instead of the ballot box, and they wanted more freedom. The ayatollahs disapponted them, and now they are edging toward another regime change, hopefully peaceful, that will let an increasingly worldly-wise population have more of the freedom they want and are ready for.

Iran was relatively isolated geographically until 9/11, but then, quite suddenly, the neighborhood got a bit crowded. We knocked out Saddam, Iran’s foe, which was a plus from Iran’s perspective, but the advantage was tempered by the fact that our troops didn’t go home, they settled in, just west of their border. And US forces had already established themselves just east of their border on the Afghan side. Meanwhile we were forging a new strategic relationship with Uzbekistan and its neighbors, just up to the north. The world’s military superpower had been on the other side of the world; now it was sitting in their lap. This might have been tolerable except for the obvious fact that Bush tends to do what Israel’s Sharon tells him to do, and Israel is truly hostile, and armed with its own nukes.

The Iranians are not stupid. Given the new regional climate, they figured they needed nukes of their own, and they needed them fast, not to attack Israel or anyone else, but to act as a deterrent against an attack by Israel, with the US playing some kind of accessory role. It is the old chicken game known as mutual deterrence–if you nuke us we’ll nuke you back. It’s the same psychology that drove the Russians in the early ‘50’s to match our new weapons, and then drove us when we were under the impression the Russians had forged ahead (the famous “missile gap.”) Any nation worth its salt that feels threatened is going to try to do something about it. Isn’t this what we’re doing with the “war on terror?”

The Iranians know that the process of getting nukes of their own will be very tricky, and there will be a period of maximum danger after they’ve crossed the Rubicon and before they have an effective deterrent. But they’ve had a lot of experience with tricky diplomacy over the last several millennia and they’re about as good at the game as anyone. Plus the internal politics. The ayatollahs have a bear by the tail, in this democracy movement, and they know that the best way to keep their populace in line is by scaring the bejeesus out of them with an external threat. Sound familiar? So they are not all that averse to risk-taking, as they plot their tricky course through the minefield that lies between their present condition and the acquisition of an effective deterrent. The name of their game is to get the rest of us mad at them, but not so mad that someone actuually takes a swat at them.

Unlike our own beblinkered leaders, the Europeans have a pretty good idea of what the stakes are and why the Iranians are behaving as they do. They are old hands at this kind of diplomatic chicken game themselves. They understand that Iran will have an effective nuclear power program come what may, and the best defense against its being converted it into a weapons program is through negotiations that persuade the Iranians to leave it at that, until further notice. This is a more limited objective than the one of persuading the Iranians to give up all development in the nuclear field, and it may work, at least for a while. It has the major collateral advantage of reducing the external pressure on Iran, and thereby enhancing the opportunities for the democrats to reform the regime.

If Bush were to be reelected the prospect would be for the United States to talk loudly while brandishing a very small stick. The neocons might urge us to seek a military solution but our professional military, already stretched painfully thin, would veto any such action. So the worst the ayatollahs would have to fear would be an Israeli air strike at their nascent facilities. This would just irritate them, and encourage them to burn their bridges and go for a nuke as fast as they could. The European thrust for compromise would be stymied, and our erstwhile friends across the Atlantic would have yet another reason to regard us as the bull in the china shop, the world’s number one threat to international peace and security.

Kerry’s stated posture toward Iran isn’t much more sensible than Bush’s, but he’ll have a different group of advisers, and perhaps reason will have a chance to prevail. I shall revisit this site next week, after the election, and hopefully will be able to excise the paragraph that begins with “If Bush were to be reelected.”

Carl Coon 10/26/04

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