February 3, 2010

The Bomb Iran Crowd Returns (part 1)

Daniel Pipes has a surefire way to save the Obama presidency: Bomb Iran.

Pointing to polls which show that most Americans would support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Pipes argues that such a campaign would “dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene. It would sideline health care, prompt Republicans to work with Democrats, and make the netroots squeal, independents reconsider, and conservatives swoon.”

Of course, Pipes doesn’t want to bomb Iran for the sake of Obama’s presidency. “I do not customarily offer advice to a president whose election I opposed, whose goals I fear, and whose policies I work against.” Rather, he argues that it’s essential for the security of both the Middle East and the United States. As he writes, “if the apocalyptic-minded leaders in Tehran get the Bomb, they render the Middle East yet more volatile and dangerous. They might deploy these weapons in the region, leading to massive death and destruction. Eventually, they could launch an electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States, utterly devastating the country.” If you follow the hyperlink for apocalyptic-minded leaders, you’ll see that Pipes actually just means one leader, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now this is more or less the same argument neoconservatives gave for the Iraq War: He (Saddam Hussein/Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) is crazy, and if we don’t stop him, he might use his weapons of mass destructions (which might or might not actually exist) against other countries in the Middle East and possibly even the United States.

There were, of course, many problems with the argument as it pertained to Iraq, and there are many problems with the argument as it pertains to Iran. Most significantly, even if Ahmadinejad were crazy, even if, as Pipes has argued elsewhere, he really believed in the imminent return of the Mahdi (a messiah-like figure that some Muslims believe will usher in the end of the world), and even if this actually affected his policies, it wouldn’t matter. For Ahmadinejad is not an autocrat; rather, he is just one player in a fairly complicated political system [.pdf], at the top of which resides the Supreme Leader. So Ahmadinejad couldn’t authorize a nuclear strike against Israel and/or the United States even if he (1) had nuclear weapons and (2) was crazy enough to use them.

And even if we suppose that Ahmadinejad had control over a non-existent Iranian Nuclear Football, there wouldn’t be any compelling reasons to believe that he would make use of it. Whether he sincerely believes the Mahdi will soon return is subject to debate. From everything I’ve read, it seems just as likely that Ahmadinejad uses religious language in his speeches for the political advantages it affords him. But even if he did believe that the Mahdi was about to return and usher in the Last Judgment, it’s not clear why this would impel him to launch a nuclear war, for doing so would kill innocent people, something which is clearly condemned by the teachings of Islam. In other words, if Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for a global nuclear disarmament, truly believed he were about to be judged by his creator, then it’s hard to understand why he would undertake an action that would result in the death of thousands, perhaps millions, of civilians, thus putting his own soul at risk of eternal condemnation.

Pipes goes on to argue that no one other than “the Iranian rulers and their agents denies that the regime is rushing headlong to build a large nuclear arsenal.” As proof for this, he references a January Reuters article which, he writes, shows that “U.S. intelligence agencies have reversed their preposterous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the one that claimed with ‘high confidence’ that Tehran had ‘halted its nuclear weapons program.’”

The problem with Pipes’ reasoning here is that the unnamed officials in the Reuters story, along with some unnamed officials quoted in a September Newsweek story, do not believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The officials quoted in the Reuters story merely believe that Iran has been conducting research into nuclear weapons. As one official put it, “Basically, we’re talking about research (resuming)—not about the Iranians barreling full steam ahead on a bomb program.” This, of course, completely contradicts Pipes’ claim that Iran is “rushing headlong to build a large nuclear arsenal.”

This cannot be emphasized enough. Although Iran is currently enriching uranium, there is absolutely no evidence that it is building nuclear weapons. To the contrary, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has had a safeguards agreement [.pdf] with Iran since 1974, continues verifying that Iran has not diverted any of its uranium to non-peaceful purposes.

The best explanation for Iran’s nuclear-related activities seems to be that it intends to achieve nuclear latency. In other words, rather than actually building nuclear weapons, Iran wants to achieve the ability to build such weapons in a short amount of time. As Juan Cole writes, this explanation makes sense of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons in 2005, Iran’s apparent interest in knowing how to build a bomb, and its refusal to actually do so. Iran’s leaders understand that developing a bomb would result in more sanctions, but they evidently believe, and understandably so, that having nuclear latency would deter an Israeli/American attack.

Seeing the way the U.S. has dealt with North Korea has no doubt justified this approach. After expelling IAEA inspectors, North Korea faced an onslaught of harsh sanctions. And yet, because Kim Jong-il’s regime has nuclear weapons, nobody seriously believes that the U.S. is going to launch a military campaign against Pyongyang. So Iran probably reasons that achieving nuclear latency is the best way to (1) minimize sanctions and (2) thwart an Israeli/American attack.

Stated differently, if Iran really is trying to develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons, it’s only doing so as a defensive measure. And who can blame it? Three countries over sits Israel, which has a long history of threatening, bombing, and invading neighboring countries. And then in Iraq and Afghanistan there are a total of two hundred thousand soldiers from the United States, which also has a long history of threatening and attacking foreign nations. So it’s understandable why Iran would want a deterrence. Who wouldn’t?