The debate on Iran

The debate on the situation with respect to Iran continues at Winds of Change with three lengthy posts by three different people with three different prescriptions in as many days. In a comment to one of these posts the always-thoughtful Jeff Medcalf of Caerdroia proposes a useful framework for considering alternatives and for understanding the reasoning behind the alternatives. Jeff’s framework consists of five questions:

  1. Does Iran have an active nuclear weapons development program?
  2. Unless something changes how long will it take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon?
  3. How should time between now and then be used?
  4. Will Israel solve the problem for us? Do we want them to?
  5. How should the U. S. act if the matter comes to war?

I’ll put my cards on the table and answer the questions.

Does Iran have an active nuclear weapons development program?

I think that the preponderance of the evidence, some of which I linked to in my Options on Iran II post, limits the reasonable conjectures on Iran’s conduct to just two: 1) Iran has an active nuclear weapons development program or 2) The Iranian regime wants us to believe that they have an active nuclear weapons development program.

The reasoning behind explanation 2 is explained in my post The game of rat and dragon which relies on an article by George Friedman of Stratfor.

I also think that prudence requires us to respond to either alternative identically.

We can’t have metaphysical certitude about what’s actually going on in Iran. I believe that our intelligence in Iran is quite poor (poorer even than our intelligence was in Saddam’s Iraq and you know how that came out) because the regime has been successful in its purges of the military and its elimination of opposition.

Unless something changes how long will it take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon?

Relying on the same sources as above, recent reports on activities in Iran, the behavior of our putative allies, and the recent behavior of the Iranian president I believe that Iran will have the Bomb in 1 year ± 1 year (as little as now and as long as two years). I think that the 1½ years ± 1½ years is a very rosy scenario and prudence requires that we consider and act along a shorter horizon.

I’ll also answer another question here: I think it’s a bad thing if the present Iranian regime gets nuclear weapons. I don’t think there’s anything worse about Iranians getting the Bomb than anybody else but I do think that this particular Iranian regime’s getting the Bomb is extremely problematic due to their undoubted close ties to and support of terrorism and the likelihood that either they’re nuts enough to actually use the Bomb preemptively or their rational calculation may lead them in that direction or to act through proxies.

How should time between now and then be used?

I think that 15 years ago we should have had an energy policy in place that would wean us away from oil. The hand was writing on the wall. Plans were proposed but, like good Americans, we ignored them. I think that 5 years ago we should have announced an official policy of regime change in Iran analogous to the policy we adopted in 1999 towards Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and started supporting opposition and dissident groups as actively as seemed prudent. For all I know we may have done this but it hasn’t been enormously effective.

I think that 2 years ago we should have been warning the Iranian people of the dangers of their situation.

Not having a Wayback Machine handy we can’t do any of those things now. We should immediately, as France has done, re-assert our policy of nuclear deterrence both at home and abroad. If attacked with a nuclear weapon by anybody whatsoever, we will respond massively and in kind. And, yes, lots of civilians will be killed. And, no, those civilians will not be innocents since they passively allowed their government to proceed. The detectable signature of fissibles will indicate the source of the bomb and, at this point in history, nuclear weapons require a government.

I also think we should, with the world’s agreement if possible, failing that with NATO’s agreement, failing that unilaterally blockade Iran as tightly as we can while explaining to the rest of the world and, most especially to the Iranian people, what needs to happen in Iran.

And, as I wrote earlier this week in Carrots, sticks, and Iran, we should have some very juicy carrots handy, as well. What kind of carrots? Beats me.

From our experience with Iraq we know that voluntary sanctions are meaningless, particularly in dealing with a regime that is really determined and that doesn’t really care about what happens to their own people. And, IMO, a blockade, while damaging to the Iranian people and to the world economy, will be far preferable either to invasion or a sustained bombing campaign or obliteration of the Iranian nuclear weapons development program from afar.

What will happen if the price of oil triples? No one actually knows but, since IIRC it did triple between 1999 and 2005, it’s possible that the results won’t be nearly as dire as some predict. And not nearly as dire as the results of a thermonuclear retaliation against an Iranian attack that takes out the entire productive capacity of the Gulf would be.

Will Israel solve the problem for us? Do we want them to?

Israel will not solve this problem for us and we don’t want them to. See my “Options on Iran II” post cited above.

How should the United States react if the matter comes to war?

I believe that the only conditions under which the situation in Iran will come to war is if the Iranians use their nuclear weapon(s) against Israel. If that happens I believe that Israel’s (and possibly the U. S.’s) retaliation will spell the end for the Iranian people and for much of the Gulf. We should be willing to make some sacrifices to prevent that from happening.

I would like to see a much more engaged, intelligent dispassionate debate in the blogosphere (and in the media) on this subject. This whole situation is not merely a domestic political ploy.

Here’s some of what I’ve seen so far:

Tom Holsinger, guest posting on Winds of Change makes the case for war.

Joe Katzman of Winds of Change makes the case that it’s too late.

Marc Danziger (Armed Liberal) of Winds of Change makes the case that it’s not too late. He argues for an energy policy and dialogue.

Hoder makes the case for constructive engagement.

Brad Plumer, a voice in the Left Blogosphere writing intelligently on the subject, makes the cases for engagement and being patient.

David Ignatius in The Washington Post makes the case for containment (and says that’s Washington’s plan).

Dean Esmay isn’t happy about that.

Hillary Clinton criticizes Bush for downplaying the threat.


Jeanne at Body and Soul recommends criticizing Iran’s human rights record and otherwise staying out of its way. I think that that’s probably the right assessment if you believe as she does (taking her cue from Shirin Ebadi) that Iran is 10 years from a nuclear weapon. I think that’s a misreading of the intelligence reports, BTW. I believe that what has been said is 8 years ± 2 years.

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