War With Iran


1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran
2. Which War Do You Want?
3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran

"Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.." So crooned Sen. John McCain to an old Beach Boys tune during the presidential campaign. With the recent disclosure of a hidden nuclear processing facility near a Qum military base, the rhetoric is again ratcheting up for the West to begin considering military options against Iran. Boiled down to their essentials, the arguments is that nothing but military action will prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons, and war is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Why is war preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran? We have acquiesced in the nuclearization of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, and most recently North Korea, without feeling compelled to go to war. Granted, all of these but North Korea were on better terms with us than is Iran. But notwithstanding the outlandish statements of Iran's president about the future of Israel, it has to be understood that nuclear weapons are primarily a defensive weapon - they are for deterrence, not for conquest. That is not to say they cannot be used offensively, but to do so, particularly for a small country with limited weapons and no missile defense system, would be suicidal.

In all our other policies, we quite rightly assume that the Iranian leaders are rational. That is the basis of our sanctions policies, our efforts at signalling, UN Security Council resolutions, and our negotiations. So why, when we contemplate their developing nukes, do we revert to thinking that they are crazed religious ideologues who are bent on national suicide in the name of some holy jihad?

Moreover, other regimes with either limited evidence of rationality (North Korea), or questionable stability and volatile relations (Pakistan) have managed to develop nuclear weapons without using them. What makes Iran so different that it justifies the use of force. For the second part of this equation is that war is preferable - and yet war against Iran will have horrendous consequences. We are already engaged in conflicts caused in part by the enmity of a small minority of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups. War with Iran would add immeasurable to that problem. Our security will be diminished.

Turning to the first premise, why is military action the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? The assumptions here is that Iran is both malevolent and hostile, and that it desires nuclear weapons to attack us. But is that assumption right? Iran is unquestionably hostile to Israel. It also seeks to expand its influence in the region. But it is also no doubt insecure and justifiably nervous about U.S. intentions. Memories of the U.S. orchestrated coup in 1953 are fresh in Iran. George Bush listed Iran as one of three counties comprising an "Axis of Evil", following which the U.S. invaded the first country on the list. Look at a map of the region and colour in red the countries in which U.S. forces are based - Iran is almost entirely surrounded. Seymour Hersh has written about the extensive operations that have been ongoing within Iran, by U.S. operatives and local agents under the aegis of the CIA.

Those who argue for military strikes assume that Iran will not cave to sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions, or other forms of political and economic pressure. But they do not consider the effect we might achieve by reducing their felt need to develop weapons systems as a deterrent against U.S. or Western attacks. Barack Obama was on the right track when he made overtures at the beginning of the year. The apparent illegitimacy of the election and subsequent human rights abuses complicate those efforts, but the right-wing realists now clamouring for war used argue against confusing human rights issues and foreign policy imperatives. We can make Iran feel safer without betraying the Iranian victims of oppression. But of course, those on the right cannot escape the paradigm of appeasement, as though Munich was the only lesson ever handed down by history.

At this juncture, the case for war with Iran, is no more sound than slogans like "better dead than red". War should always be a very last resort, and we are very far from that indeed. - Gamma.

2. Which War Do You Want?

Uhhh...I just don't think that we can hug our way out of this one.

It is not sensible to assume that Iran's leadership is governed by rationality. They are thugs, pure and simple. To make it worse they are thugs who cloak their actions in a paranoid religiosity. They are motivated by power and fear - irrationality's handmaidens - and they are deeply manipulative and dishonest. I would not expect game theory to run to your rescue.

But, those quibbles aside, you are right in that no-one should want war with Iran. What we have remembered with Iraq and Afghanistan is just how utterly horrible and destructive war is to peoples' lives, to our moral fibre, to our national character and to our economy. But the real threat of war is, sometimes, a necessary evil.

It was, I had hoped, going to be the next great age of diplomacy. So far, we have seen only glimpses of promise. There is still time but, as Garry Wills writes in the New York Review of Books, so many of the sins of the Bush administration have lingered in that of his successor. It is much easier to talk about new places where the ship of state ought to sail than it is to steer it there. But I digress. [Hours after I wrote this, Obama was awarded the nobel peace prize. Hard to fathom. Apparantly talking about what you would like to do is just as good as doing it in the eyes of the committee. Has it really come to this? - Beta]

Even if we give the velvet glove of diplomacy a chance, we need to be mindful of the need for an iron fist to back it up. Imminent violence lurks in the dark heart of effective diplomacy. As ghastly as it is to admit, without the threat of military action, words are drained of potency pretty quickly. And any such threat needs to be credible and direct and rational - and not just to Iran but also to her allies, enablers, and enemies.

So, in choosing a credible military option, ask yourself which war would you like to have (or to sell to your allies as part of a broader strategy):

1. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets before they posess functional nuclear weapons;

2. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets after they posess functional nuclear weapons;

3. the defense of Israel from regional foes in response to Israel's pre-emptive strike of Iran's nuclear facilities;

4. the punitive invasion of Iran after it - contrary to the dictates of reason - wipes out an Israeli city with a pre-emptive nuclear strike; or

5. World War Three.

If none of the above is not a viable option, I would take the first choice. And, I would hold it as a last resport but I would make damn sure it was on the table. And then I would sit at the table and get down to the serious business of diplomacy, including working on removing both real and perceived threats from the picture. This is precisely what we should have done with North Korea and other rogue states. Instead, we pussyfooted around, wagged our fingers and then shrugged helplessly as they nuked up. I'll admit that no-one tried getting all Dr. Phil on them as you're suggesting, but that just might be for the best. - Beta

3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

Beta's argument provides an illustration of the fallacies and internal contradictions that are typical of the case for war. This begins with the caricature of the Iranian leadership as being irrational thugs - "motivated by power and fear...and...deeply manipulative and dishonest." As though from over there, our leaders do not look motivated by power and fear, manipulative and dishonest. Such stereotypes of course are an obstacle to true understanding and a recipe for serious misperception and miscalculation.

Beta next argues that effective diplomacy requires credible threats of military force. That assumes, necessarily, that one's adversary is rational. So we go from irrational thugs cloaked in religiosity, to cold-eyed Machiavellians who understand the logic of armed threats. Right.

Finally, there is the assertion that we should get serious in "removing the threats". But there is no principled reason why Iran, particularly, should be precluded from joining the nuclear club. Sure, doing so would be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the U.S. under Bush violated the three fundamental pillars that formed the quid pro quo that made the treaty possible - that the nuclear powers would make efforts to disarm, that they would commit never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and that only treaty members would be assisted with the development of non-military nuclear technology.

The U.S. has refused to ratify the test-ban treaty, it has developed plans to create new generations of warheads, it has developed a formal strategy that contemplates the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and it has entered into an agreement to supply India, a rogue nuclear state and non-party to the NPT, with nuclear technology. Until we are ready to reduce the threat we ourselves pose to the world, we are in no principled position to "remove threats." Obama's movement in that direction partly explains his surprising Nobel Prize.

And, of course, simply because Iran is developing nuclear weapons would not form any basis under international law for a military strike against it. The Bush Doctrine is not law. So the final irony is that we will be citing breaches of the NPT, a treaty we ourselves have gutted, as a highly legalistic foundation for our own illegal military strike against a country that is little different from several other nuclear states - except that we consider them to be our enemy. - Gamma



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