Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 10: Iran

The interim agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program has been praised by some as a diplomatic breakthrough and condemned by others as a prelude to nuclear disaster. A full appraisal must wait until we see what the follow-on agreements, if any, look like. In the meantime, here’s my take:

1. The only alternative to negotiations is a military strike powerful and sustained enough to not only destroy Iran’s current nuclear program but also to prevent its resurrection. Such actions are impossible in the current political climate — and probably in any environment.

Domestically, Americans are tired of wars, and our budget is already highly stressed. Internationally, we’ve developed a reputation as a bull in a china shop, so an American attack would be met with howls of indignation. It also would reinvigorate terrorism against Israel as Iran totally unleashed Hezbollah and Hamas.

A strike which prevented Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapons would not be surgical or short lived and might be impossible. At a minimum, it would require hundreds of thousands of American “boots on the ground” for years on end, and cost trillions of dollars. It probably would cost tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives.

Even with that level of effort, an American invasion probably would fail to achieve its objective since Iran would be a more powerful adversary than either Iraq or Afghanistan, both of which have failed to produce anything that might be called an American victory.

In 2010, TIME magazine explained why then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates advised against attacking Iran: “Military action, Gates warned, would solve nothing; in fact it would be more likely to drive Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Gates’ warning was echoed last year by former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright: “If they [the Iranians] have the intent, all the weapons in the world are not going to change that. … They can slow it down. They can delay it, some estimate two to five years. But that does not take away the intellectual capital.”

Also last year, Yuval Diskin, a former head of Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, warned that, contrary to its intention, attacking Iran might accelerate its nuclear program.

While a military strike is the only alternative to negotiations, the above arguments show that it is not a viable option. Diplomacy is our only real option, so the question becomes how to practice it most effectively.

2. Given that diplomacy is our only viable option, we need to recognize that our past negotiating position – and the one Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is demanding be reinstated – is a non-starter.

There’s no way Iran will dismantle its centrifuges and the rest of its nuclear program based on American promises of sanctions relief, especially when those promises might be rescinded by a new administration in 2015, over-ridden by Congress, or nullified by an Israeli attack.

Our broken promises to Gaddafi add to Iran’s mistrust. In 2003, when he gave up his nuclear weapons program, President Bush promised that this good behavior would be rewarded. Yet, in 2011, our airstrikes played a key role in toppling and murdering Gaddafi.

Iran also mistrusts us because we aided Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, even though we knew he was using chemical weapons – an action we later used as part of our tortured logic for deposing him.

For diplomacy to work, we will have to prove that we have experienced a fundamental change of heart with respect to Iran and are prepared to follow through on the promises we make.

3. Iran appears to be only months away from being able to make at least a crude nuclear weapon. While there’s plenty of blame to go around, Israel and the US need to stop putting all of the onus on Iran and recognize that we, too, played a part in creating the current mess.

Repeatedly threatening to attack Iran, including with nuclear weapons (a possibility threatened in President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review) would have made even the most rational Iranian leaders seek a deterrent. And their leadership over the last 30 years has often been far from rational. Fortunately, the current leadership appears more reasonable, and that’s an opening we need to test. If, instead, we maintain a bellicose posture, we will pull the rug out from under the moderates and empower the hardliners in Iran. Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar recently warned that American and Israeli hawks who mistrust diplomacy may be intentionally trying to strengthen hard-liners in Iran since they, too, oppose diplomacy.

While our intention was to halt nuclear proliferation, we have actually encouraged it – particularly in Iran and North Korea – with our militarized approach to foreign affairs.

I don’t like leaving Iran so close to having a nuclear capability, but the alternatives appear  far worse. It’s time to admit that our Iranian policy thus far has been a disaster and try something new – real diplomacy.

Martin Hellman

Suggestions for Further Reading
Harvard’s Belfer Center has a summary of the best arguments both pro and con on the interim agreement.

Dr. Abbas Milani, Co-Director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford’s Hoover Institution has an excellent article assessing Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani. 

Stanford’s News Service has a good summary of its nuclear and Iran experts. Dr. Abbas Milani (see above) and former Los Alamos Director Prof. Siegfried Hecker analyze the interim agreement.

Handout #5 from my Stanford seminar on “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope” applies critical thinking to North Korea and Iran. All handouts are accessible from my Courses Page.

Search this blog for occurrences of Iran.

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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