Believing the Worst About Iran Without Attacking

Apologism for Iran over its nuclear dreams doesn’t become progressives. Worse, it reinforces conservative preconceptions that we’re weak on national security. For their part, conservatives don’t need to accept that expelling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causes climate change. But they would be advised to at least admit that continuing to do so isn’t a good idea for the quality of life of their families. In the same vein, wherever Iran stands in the development of nuclear weapons, progressives need to stop insisting on the best-case scenario: either that Iran abandoned its nuclear-weapons work or that the West and Israel can live with a nuclear-weaponized Iran.

We don’t admit that because it’s like waving a red cape at hawks. But, just between us progressives, the danger that will exist if Iran develops the capacity to build nuclear weapons and/or actually goes ahead and does so is worse than we thought. But that’s not necessarily because of Iranian — or even Israeli — politics, but because of the nature of the circumstances in which the two states will find themselves.

In an article titled “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment” in the January-February 2011 Foreign Affairs, three members of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Eric S. Edelman, Evan Braden Montgomery, and Andrew F. Krepinevich, its president, explain. (No link — behind a pay wall.)

Writing in these pages last spring, James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, both of the Council on Foreign Relations, maintained that the United States could contain Iran even if it developed a nuclear arsenal by establishing clear “redlines” that Tehran would not be allowed to cross without risking some type of retaliation. … This argument reflects the public position of many senior U.S. and European officials, as well as a number of prominent academics and defense intellectuals.

After citing numerous reservations, they write:

The greatest concern [is] that either side [Iran or Israel] would launch a first strike on the other despite the enormous risks and costs involved. … Given Israel’s enormous quantitative and qualitative advantage in nuclear weapons … Tehran might fear a disarming preventive or preemptive strike. During a crisis, then, the Iranian leadership might face a “use them or lose them” dilemma with respect to its nuclear weapons and resolve it by attacking first.

For their part, Israeli leaders might also be willing to strike first, despite the enormous risks. Israel’s small size means that even a few nuclear detonations on its soil would be devastating. [Meanwhile] Iran’s nuclear arsenal is likely to be small at first and perhaps vulnerable to a preventive attack. … And the willingness to execute a preventive or preemptive strike when confronting a serious threat is a deeply ingrained element of Israel’s strategic culture, as Israel demonstrated in its attacks against Egypt in 1956 and 1967, against Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981, and against a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007.

In other words, both states would soon find themselves trapped inside the constricting world of nuclear strategy, where no good options exists, only horrific and, marginally less so, horrendous. Furthermore, given

… the close proximity of states in the Middle East, and the very short flight times of ballistic missiles in the region, any new nuclear powers might be compelled to “launch on warning” of an attack [retaliate before a nuclear attack is confirmed -- Ed.]

Moving down to yet another circle of danger:

Their governments might also delegate launch authority to lower-level commanders, heightening the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.

As you can see, the danger is not only the politics of Iran and Israel and their jittery leaders, but the possible consequences of mutual possession of nuclear weapons of disparate quantity and quality between two states in close proximity. Hawks call for an attack on Iran because it ostensibly seeks to create an “existential” threat to Israel. Progressives condemn Israel for its eagerness to attack a state that may be seeking to arm itself with weapons that Israel itself possess. Both camps need to take a step back and acknowledge the regional security concerns of both states.

If we focused on the impartial problems that nuclear weapons create for their possessors in such a context, we might [editor enters dream mode] make some headway in ratcheting down tensions between Israel (in tandem with Western hawks) and Iran. Instead of pointing fingers at states, point out the hazards that the situation, independent of the protagonists’ intentions, creates.