26 December 2009

Setting the East Ablaze

There is a seriously ill-considered op-ed piece in The New York Times, 23 December 2009, on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program and what to do about it, contributed by Alan J. Kuperman, Director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr Kuperman writes here that President Obama should sigh with relief that Iran has rejected his nuclear deal, “which was ill-conceived from the start”.

After explaining why he thinks the Obama approach to be ill-conceived, Dr Kuperman comes to the conclusion that peaceful sticks and carrots cannot work to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability, and an invasion would be foolhardy. That, in his view, leaves the United States with a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Notably, he never addresses the question of whether Iran is actually pursuing a nuclear weapons program, a question which is by no means settled.

The risks of acquiescence are said to include “too great” a risk that Iran “could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb”.  The latter risk flows, in Dr Kuperman’s view, from the fact that “Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes”.  In my view, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Iran would provide nuclear weapons to any terrorist group, and every reason to believe that it would not. The current Iranian regime is an unpleasant one, but it is not irrational, and like every rational regime its primary concern is its own survival, an objective unlikely to be met if it were to start handing out nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.

Apart from that, there is no precedent that I am aware of for a state to relinquish control of any of its nuclear weapons even to another state, let alone a non-state actor.

The desire of the regime to endure impacts also on the prospect of Iran becoming a “neighborhood bully”. There is abundant literature to the effect that nuclear weapons, effective as they might be as a final deterrent, are a very blunt weapon for any state to apply in pursuit of objectives short of mass destruction. The existence of a nuclear capability does not deter unless the antagonist believes there is a plausible possibility of it being used in the relevant circumstances, and everyone would perceive that any use of nuclear capability by Iran would lead with certainty to massive retaliation by the United States or Israel or both.

Having convinced himself that acquiescence in the acquisition by Iran of a nuclear capability is not a policy option, Dr Kuperman acknowledges the difficulty of bombing it to a standstill:

As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work. Some Iranian facilities are buried too deeply to destroy from the air. There may also be sites that American intelligence is unaware of. And military action could backfire in various ways, including by undermining Iran’s political opposition, accelerating the bomb program or provoking retaliation against American forces and allies in the region.

But history suggests that military strikes could work ... [although] Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

On the question of who should undertake the bombing campaign, Dr Kuperman is adamant that it should be the United States. He acknowledges that Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not see that as a material problem because “it does that anyway”. Indeed, “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to”.

To the proposition that Iran already intervenes in Iraq and Afghanistan I would reply, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”. Iran has a vital interest in the stability of both of its neighbours and accordingly there are important degrees of alignment of Iranian objectives with those of the United States (Iran was after all the main beneficiary of the invasion of Iraq, and it has no affection for the Sunni extremists of the Taliban). Accordingly, its interventions in them are currently limited and cautious. These rules of engagement would be transformed by a United States attack on Iran.

It is not too much of a caricature to summarise Dr Kuperman’s approach as, “Bombing the Iranian nuclear sites mightn’t work, but then again it might, so what the hell, let’s give it a go, and the sooner the better”.

Two ill-considered military adventures in a decade is not enough, apparently. To borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan’s 1960s classic, Blowin’ in the Wind, when will they ever learn?

No comments: