Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran
I have been reading “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” -- a paper based on a series of meetings organized by Ambassadors William Luers, and Thomas Pickering and put out on the internet in the last few days. I salute Luers and Pickering who have done yeoman work on Iranian-American relation both in a sequence of previous articles and here. I hope you will read their Paper.
Because the topic is so important, perhaps nearly vital to us all and because the Paper was aimed at the largest possible American audience, it should be the beginning of rather than the end of a debate. The authors call for this: “Our hope is to encourage more informed and objective discussion of the military option by policy makers, the public, and the press.” I decided to accept their invitation to comment. I ask your (and their) indulgence and would appreciate your reaction.
The importance of this Paper, which is substantial, lies primarily, I believe, in the publicity it will, hopefully, generate to foster a reasoned approach to the issue of American-Iranian relations. Its weaknesses, which are several, arise primarily from its narrow focus. I regretted the lack of a weighing of the pros and cons of military action in the scales of American values and laws, both of which I will briefly consider below, and Iranian culture, religion and experience. As the authors point out, the Paper’s focus is restricted to “costs and benefits of military action.” Also, with the prejudice of the historian, I find the Paper skewed by a lack of, or insufficient attention to, history.
Who’s who: Probably you do what I do first: look to see who writes or endorses a demarche. Some 32 people signed it. Obviously, the men who originated the project, Bill Luers and Tom Pickering, attempted to get together a group, at least some of whom American readers would recognize as serious, experienced and able. Having attempted to assemble a group for the conference I chaired this year in Washington on “Affordable World Security,” I know how difficult a task that is and I commend them for their effort. Practically every educated American will find a few names he or she will recognize.
A few words on the participants: I find only one person among them who I believe knows Iran intimately. So, not surprisingly, there is little appreciation of Persian culture, religion or politics. Some of the authors have been deeply affected either or both professionally or personally by the Iran “problem.” One was in charge of the abortive Carter administration mission to rescue the hostages, one was fired for opposition to current policy and another is known to have accepted payments from a dissident terrorist organization, the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The opinions of others may have been shaped by their involvement in American policy. Lay readers, who cannot be expected to know much about them, should have been given somewhat more than just the signatures of the participants in order to evaluate the group’s opinion. I certainly did not know all of them, and I doubt that others will. Their backgrounds matter.
The Paper’s signers are divided among backgrounds: 8 are or were diplomats; 3 were senior non-diplomatic government policy officers; 7 have military backgrounds; 3 are current or former senators; 2, academic administrators; 3, foundation presidents, 1 each, a banker, businesswoman, financial expert, business school professor, and former journalist. Given the American system of “career migration,” most fall in multiple categories.
Who’s Not Who: It is easy, of course, to lament the absence of others. Rightly, the organizers feared that a larger group would be unwieldy, but in the emphasis on “insiders” a few “outside” voices needed to be heard. I didn’t hear them. It would not have been impossible to include at least one critical journalist. I think of the Leveretts, Sy Hersh, or Gareth Porter. And why no Congressman? Admittedly there are few who could offer informed comments, but regardless of their intelligence (or lack of it) several play significant roles in the formulation of American policy.
Three “slots” are notably unfilled: 1) a constitutional lawyer who could have commented on how any course of action affects our system of law, 2) an authority on Shi’a Islam on how it affects the Iranians and (3) an experienced former intelligence analyst who now could speak freely and could discuss how we know what we know and whether we know what we think we know. On the latter issue, I think of several members of the organization of “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity,”
Sponsorship of the Paper is impeccable: the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
To get at the fundamental question posed in the Paper, allow me an analogy: think of the assumed Iranian nuclear danger as an onion. Should it be peeled or sliced? The Paper focuses on slicing, that is, military action. An alternate, not here considered, is peeling. That is, negotiating. But there is a more fundamental question which is only briefly dealt with here and is hardly ever brought up in the media: is there really a onion?
It was the failure to ask the last question, the existence of the problem or crisis – that is, the danger to US national security posed by the existence of a nuclear weapon in the hands of the ruler of a hostile country – that led to the disastrous American war in Iraq. Iraq had none. Is there one in Iran? In December 2007, the 16 US intelligence organizations, gathered in the National Intelligence Council, produced a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) judging “with high confidence” that Iran had no weapon and showed no sign of planning to produce one. After an intense period of further investigation, the essential element of the 2007 NIE was reconfirmed in 2010.
The signers of the Paper maintain that “While there is no evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader has decided the country should develop a nuclear weapon [and it is significant that he issued a religious ordinance, a fatwa, “prohibiting the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons (Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, “We’re not building a bomb,” International Herald Tribune, February 5-6, 2008)], many observers believe that Iran’s leaders want the country to be capable of making a bomb if they perceive one to be needed.“ I believe the signers of the Paper are right, as I wrote in my 2009 book, Understanding Iran. Having a nuclear capacity but not going for a bomb, “breaking out” in the current jargon, is the de facto policy of a number of other countries including Japan, Brazil, Argentina among others. The question is whether the Iranian regime has come to the conclusion that it needs a weapon in order to defend itself. That question is not fully addressed in the Paper.
So crucial is this issue to American policy on war in Iran that a brief look at the history of Iran’s flirtation with nuclear activity is necessary. It is not dealt with, as I believe it should have been, in the Iran Paper. (David Patrikarakos in the London Review of Books, December 1, 2011 and in the June 18, 2009 New Statesman, based on interviews with the founder and first head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Akbar Etemad.)
In the Eisenhower administration’s “Atoms for Peace” project America gave Iran its first nuclear reactor. Initially nothing was done with it. Allegedly, it was hardly uncrated. But, on July 1, 1968, the Shah’s government signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) apparently as a gesture to reassure the world that its intentions were peaceful. It is significant in today’s events, although never discussed in today’s media or in the Iran Paper, that from that time, Iranians have regarded the NPT as unfair.
It was the dramatic rise in oil prices in 1973 that promoted Iranian interest in nuclear affairs: the Shah decided that oil was too valuable to burn to generate electricity and that Iran should develop nuclear energy. (That remains the policy of the current regime.) Moreover, the Shah agreed with other Third World rulers, including India’s Indira Gandhi, that nuclear technology was the key to modernization, that is, to becoming a “First World” nation. (That remains the policy of the Iranian and the Indian governments.) Iran signed agreements to buy reactors from West German and French firms and Westinghouse.
In public, the Shah said that Iran did not need nuclear weapons because its army was strong enough to implement his policy of hegemony over the Gulf area and he feared precisely the issue facing the current government: as he told Akbar Etemad, the quest for nuclear weapons would be dangerous because it “might actually force others to go nuclear and wipe out our conventional arms advantage.” But, continued Etemad, “he also said that if things ever changed – if our security was threatened – he would give the order.”
What changed was the Revolution and the Iraqi invasion. The 1979 revolution brought to power an Islamic theocracy that opposed nuclear weapons and in 1980 Iraq invaded. The war was devastating for Iran. It suffered at least 250,000 casualties. And the war dragged on without resolution. Finally, the effective ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, decided to accept a cease fire because, as he said, his military commander informed him that Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon to defend itself. To do so, he said, would be like drinking poison. Nuclear weapons, he ruled, were unclean, sacrilegious, illegal.
In the following years large numbers of young Iranians studied in the West and many became physicists or technicians. Apparently, the Iranian regime began to dabble, with Pakistani help, in the nuclear weapons field. At least by 2003, however, it stopped. Intense investigation by the CIA, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, the British intelligence agency MI-6 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) led them to conclude that after 2003 Iran did not pursue acquiring a nuclear weapon. The US National Intelligence Council has recently reconfirmed this finding and its appreciation is shared by both MI-6 and Mossad. (See The New York Times, March 18, 2012, James Risen, “Iran’s Nukes: What US Intelligence Really Believes.”)
What disturbs some observers is that the logical course for Iran is to get a nuclear weapon as quickly and as secretly as possible. That is what we, the Russians, the Israelis, and others have done. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly said recently (according to Seumas Milne in the December 8, 2011 Guardian), “if he were an Iranian leader he would ‘probably’ want nuclear weapons.” Going even further, the noted Israeli military historian/strategist Martin van Creveld said in 2004 (according to Ralph Nader in the January 12, 2012 Reader Supported News) , that Iranians “would be crazy not to build nuclear weapons considering the security threats they face.” So sure are some writers that this logic is compelling that they “cook” the evidence: In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Matthew Kroenig wrote that “according to the IAEA, Iran already appears fully committed to developing a nuclear weapons program…” That is simply not true. (IPS, September 12, 2012, Gareth Porter wrote that the latest IAEA report “reveals that Iran has actually reduced the amount of 20-percent enriched uranium available for any possible ‘breakout’ to weapons grade enrichment over the last three months rather than increasing it.”)
I turn now to the structure and substance of the Paper. 
The quest for both brevity and range naturally affected the writing. Failure to put events or statements about them in context repeatedly presented problems. I found myself saying “yes, but…” or questioning how the choice of words would affect the argument.
For example, the authors’ first point in “SHARED UNDERSTANDINGS” (page 7) is that “a nuclear-armed Iran would pose dangerous challenges to U.S. interests and security…” The non-specialist reader, for whom this Paper is intended, would probably read this to mean that Iran is either now or soon is going to be nuclear armed whereas the 16 US Intelligence agencies are sure this is not the case, and, as I have said, their appreciation is shared by both MI 6 and Mossad. The authors of the Paper acknowledge this, but I fear that the non-specialist reader will be left with the impression that Iran already possesses nuclear weapons since he or she will have been given that impression over and over again in media reportage.
Another example: the authors’ second point in “SHARED UNDERSTANDINGS” is that “Iran has twice in the past attempted to expand its nuclear program secretly [and its actions are characterized by] evasive responses to questions about the past record of deception [and its regime has prevented the IAEA from gaining] full access to Iran’s military facilities.“ The choice of words – “secretly,” “evasive” and “deception” – suggest, subliminally at least, that the Iranians are wily, deceitful people who cannot be trusted. If so, then anything short of war will be unavailing. The “onion” should be sliced.
A more balanced statement would indicate, on the negative side, that no nuclear power has opened its facilities to inspection during the period of acquisition and few have done so even after acquisition. To my certain knowledge (as the Member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East and cleared for all nuclear information) , Israel would not allow even its close ally, the US, to access any information on its nuclear-weapons facility at Dimona in the 1960s. Nor, of course, did China and the USSR open their facilities or allow observation of their tests – which is why we built the U-2 spy plane. India, Pakistan and Israel, to take just those in Iran’s “neighborhood,” have not joined the NPT, and Israel does not even admit to having nuclear weapons. It is thought to have 300 to 400. India and Pakistan each are thought to have over a hundred.
On the positive side, after the Shah joined the NPT, this regime has stayed in. It also has allowed what must be admitted to be a surprising degree access to its facilities, even when its government believed that the inspectors from the IAEA were infiltrated by intelligence “moles” from the CIA (Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2012. Scott Peterson, “Iran nuclear talks Why the trust gap is so great: Part of the reason for Iran’s distrust lies in the CIA’s infiltration of a UN weapons inspection team in Iraq in the 1990s.”) and when it believed that the inspectors were gathering information to be used in an attack on Iran.
These and other problems of context and balance, could have been, at least in part, ameliorated if not solved by short factual asides. For example, on the second point:
“As have all the other states that were acquiring nuclear capacity, including the US, Britain, the USSR, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, Iran sought to restrict outsiders’ access to its programs. We believe it should have allowed more. However, it is significant that neither India, Pakistan nor Israel, Iran’s neighbors, is a signatory to the NPT nor allows IAEA inspections.”
Journalists have frequently quoted Iranian officials, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, threatening to “wipe Israel off the map.” In fact, what he said was somewhat less bellicose although certainly not friendly: he said that Israel will “vanish from the pages of time.” But the chances of understanding between Israel and Iran are little helped by a correction of the translation of his remark because, in reverse, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, the ultra Orthodox sect which is the fourth largest party in the Knesset, said, (according to The Jerusalem Post August 27, 2012, as quoted by IPS correspondent Daniel Luban) “Destroy them God, obliterate them from the face of the earth…wipe them out, kill them.” He had earlier proclaimed, “it is forbidden to be merciful to them [Iranians and Lebanese Hizbullah members]. You [the Israeli government] must send missiles to them and annihilate them.” Little hope for peace there!
Missing from the Paper are two absolutely critical questions:
First, what is the logic behind Iranian actions? Unless the authors assume that there is no logic, it is important to ask what it is. Otherwise, there is no way to answer the main question posed by this Paper and highlighted in the opening section: what are “the potential benefits of military action?” Or, more pointedly, “will an attack be effective?”
Of course, none of us is privy to the thinking of the Iranian regime, but I suggest that we can infer four probable motivations in Iranian nuclear programing:
1) the Iranians are sensitive to history. In many conversations, officials have mentioned the contrast between what happened to Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, and North Korea, which did. Iraq was “regime changed” and nearly destroyed while North Korea was offered an aid program. One does not have to be sophisticated to draw the policy lesson: get a bomb.
2) Iranians feel surrounded by us. They are. In addition to the reinforced 5th Fleet in the Gulf and Arabian Sea, we maintain at least 35 bases near Iran’s frontier. No part of Iran is more than an hour’s flight time from one or more of these bases or from a carrier. (That is, roughly the distance from New York to Washington.) In addition we have remote bases such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and others in various parts of Europe and the Continental USA. Iranians turn their apprehension into a joke: “There are just two countries in the world that have only the US as their neighbor. The other one is Canada.” We have the means to mount a devastating attack at any moment.
3) Do we have the motivation? The Iranians would have to be deaf and blind not to notice that day after day for years our government, members of the Congress, the media and powerful lobbies and advisers to our government such as the Zionists, the neoconservatives and the Christian Right, have kept up a steady drumbeat urging an attack on Iran.
4) More than just words, we have acted in ways that buttress the Iranian fear of attack. (Scores of articles substantiate this statement. The most complete account is the July 7 & 14, 2008 New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh, “Preparing the Battlefield.” More recent is David Rohde’s September 19, 2012 article in Foreign Policy, “The Obama Doctrine: Obama’s Secret Wars.”) Iranians have been invaded and attacked by our drones, Special Forces and proxy terrorist units which we have trained, paid and armed. With cyberwarfare, we and/or the Israelis have invaded their most protected areas to destroy their equipment. And, in a program of assassination, in which we were almost certainly complicit, senior Iranian officials have been murdered. The Iranian regime has been only sporadically successful in defending itself and its territory.
Sooner or later, as the former CIA director, General Michael Hayden, has pointed out (cited by Josh Rogin in the January 2012 Foreign Policy), senior officials of the US government concluded that if we keep hitting them, we are going to drive the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons.
Short of acquiring weapons, the Iranian regime has at least three other reasons to acquire a nuclear capacity. 1) There are about 800,000 Iranians with cancer, to treat which they believe they desperately need atomic isotopes. No government, even a theocracy, can afford to ignore the urgent demand of such a large bloc of its citizenry. 2) Today’s regime realizes that the Shah was right, oil at $100 a barrel is too valuable to be burned. So, Iran wants to do what France, Germany, England, Japan and other countries have done (and what Saudi Arabia and the UAE have announced plans to do), generate electricity by nuclear power. 3) Finally, as I have mentioned, under both the Shah and the Ayatollahs, Iranians are determined to become part of the “First World.” They believe they must access nuclear technology to lift themselves out of poverty and “underdevelopment. “
The second critical question, also not addressed in the Paper, is what are the political, legal and strategic parameters around possible American policy?
The issue of threat has been extensively, if not always intelligently, dealt with in dozens of media accounts in recent years. It is a centerpiece in both the 1945 UN Charter and in the legal doctrine that emerged from the Nuremberg Trials. Both emphasize prohibitions of threat and recourse to war. The UN Charter was ratified by the US Senate and so is embodied in American law. That legal doctrine, which is or should be binding on us as well as on the Iranians, has been flouted for years, but devotion to law is something Americans would be wise not to give up because, as President Eisenhower memorably put it, “There can be no peace – without law. And there can be no law -- if we were to invoke one code of international conduct for those who oppose us and another for our friends.“ Onwards from Eisenhower’s time, devotion to law has been periodically reasserted.
More dramatically, the American devotion to the rule of law has periodically been breached. As a consequence, the strategic strength of America has been weakened by the growing belief among peoples not only in Iran but also more generally among the 1.6 billion Muslims – a quarter of the world’s population -- that America has become a rogue state, unbound by law and in its ruthless pursuit of hegemony a determined enemy of their religion. (A Doha Institute poll of Muslims in 12 countries found that 22% of the 16,000 responders thought the US was their major threat.) The widespread and violent reaction in the last few days to a silly film on the life of Muhammad is an indication of deep anger and disillusionment. I am sensitive to this, beyond what the polls tell me, because during my professional lifetime over the last half century, I often traveled freely in areas I can no longer safely visit.
And it is not only among Arabs or even Muslims that American rectitude has been called into question: Further afield, the Chinese government this year allowed the publication of an article in which an official of the Ministry of Commerce commented on US policy by saying “the numerous economic sanctions initiated by the United States… [will] create a serious humanitarian disaster… At the beginning of the founding of New China, the United States imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on China…The Chinese people have strong feelings about the humanitarian suffering caused by sanctions, and will never agree to impose the same suffering on the innocent people of other countries.” (Renmin Ribao, January 12, 2012) India also is disinclined to follow American policy toward Iran and keeps buying Iranian oil despite the US push for boycott. (Juan Cole Blog, March 18, 2012, “India Trade Delegation Bucks US Sanctions on Iran.”) More generally, the 120 nations that are members of the non-aligned movement, meeting in Tehran this month, unanimously criticized current American policy “to isolate and punish Iran.”
Perception that America has lost “the hearts and minds” of a large part of the world has, apparently, begun to be shared – and feared – by Americans. Many now believe that despite our massive allocation of resources to “security,” we are less secure today than we were just a few years ago. (As former CIA officer Haviland Smith wrote in the September 22, 2011 Nieman Watchdog, , “America, 10 years after 9/11, is as vulnerable as ever.”
Thus, the legal issue is neither abstract nor peripheral. It is apt to be central in the coming years and probably even earlier, should the decision be made to attack Iran.
Can America afford to put the legal and moral issues aside? I think not. One of the lessons the last half century of the history of Iran offers is that strength is not solely to be measured by the number and skill of soldiers or the amount and power of their equipment but also by a perception of rectitude. In 1979, Iran’s army was regarded as world-class, but it collapsed before a shot was fired. Today, Iran’s army is certainly not world-class but if, under threat or in the heat of action, Iranians rally to protect their religion, their way of life and their nation, or even the regime, outside military action may prove, as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, more a danger to us than an effective policy toward them. I do not find this issue adequately dealt with in the Paper although the signers agree that “an attack would strengthen the Iranian regime instead of weakening it…”
The perception of just action or unjust aggression obviously impacts on another issue which the authors wisely do bring forward – an exit strategy. How to get out and leave behind more than ruins and graves should also be a critical determinant of evaluation of the military “option.” And it should be considered before rather than after the action.
What is likely? The answer we get from previous wars varies according to the level of social and political organization. We “cut and ran” from Vietnam, famously flying out the last evacuees by helicopter, but we did not leave chaos behind. That was not because of what we did but because, having won the war, the Viet Minh had in place a shadow government that was ready to take over. We are finding the idea of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly difficult to imagine because our military action shattered not only the political structure of the two countries but also their social composition (with massive exodus) and their social “contract” (with the violent displacement of the traditional Sunni Muslim order by a Shi’a Muslim order in Iraq and the imposition of a Westernized puppet kleptocracy in Afghanistan which has not been able to overcome regionalism or even to control its own security forces).
Weighed in the scales of these experiences what might lie ahead in Iran?
Optimists would note that the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 was followed immediately by the re-imposition of the Shah. If the present government were gravely weakened or overthrown during an invasion, is there a potential replacement? The Shah managed to stay in power 26 years. Would a successor to the current government be capable of a similar feat of longevity? Or at least stay long enough to obscure our withdrawal? Of course, we cannot know. But we can both assess the probabilities and make some reasonable guesses on the forces that would shape whatever political system survives. For what it is worth, my hunch is that a successor regime, perhaps after an initial period of chaos following a war with the West, would seek, probably even more actively than the present government, to acquire a complete nuclear capacity including weapons. As I have mentioned, this was also the opinion of the CIA under President Bush.
A successor regime, which the neoconservatives hope will be different, would be, in my opinion, almost certainly be much like the current regime. Whether I am right or wrong in this prediction, few can doubt that it would be committed to an active nuclear policy. Right, Left and Center, religious and secular, regime and dissidents, Iranians want to be part of the “First World.” It is difficult to imagine a government that would just bow its head to the West. Consequently, the stated objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb, which in practical terms means its giving up virtually all knowledge of and ability to produce even non-military nuclear power, is, in my opinion, highly unlikely.
So, to get Iran to give up the nuclear option, even for the short term, what would have to be done?
The authors, rightly in my opinion, believe (pages 9-10) “that objective is unlikely to be achieved through a military action that relies on aerial strikes supplemented by cyber attacks, covert operations, and perhaps special operations forces.” They predict that a military assault might set Iran back from an attempt to become a nuclear power – which our huge and lavish intelligence organization tells us they have so far not decided to become – perhaps for up to four years. Even achieving this relatively modest result might require repeated attacks and almost certainly would require the continued positioning of forces around Iran. Indeed, as the authors of the Paper and other commentators have observed, the attempt to control Iran might require the occupation of most or all of the country by American ground forces. It is perhaps worth remembering that putting ground troops into Asia is a move that General Douglas MacArthur thought was madness.
Why? Because the occupation of Iran would almost certainly provoke insurgency. Iran today has forces, many of which are already trained, equipped and ready for guerrilla resistance, thus the ability to mount what would be for us an unwinnable and ruinously costly war. As the Paper’s authors write, “Given Iran’s large size and population, and the strength of Iranian nationalism, we estimate that the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater that what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
We should try to estimate realistically what that statement means.
Although many of the costs of those two wars have been disguised, obscured or unreported, we are now beginning to get an overall view. It is horrifying. US dead in Iraq and Afghanistan amount to at least 7,000; wounded, to at least 100,000 plus almost half a million brain damaged or otherwise partially incapacitated soldiers who will require long term medical and financial support. Due to the analysis of Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes, we can, at least, discuss monetary costs. Using standard accounting measures, Iraq and Afghanistan have so far cost perhaps as much as $6 trillion dollars or more than a third as much as our national debt.
The cost of destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has so far not even been guessed. The single battle of Fallujah was a small-scale Stalingrad with the city reduced to rubble. The figures for casualties are impossible to add accurately, but about 3 million casualties would not be far off with wounded perhaps that many or more. Additionally, about 3 million Iraqis (of whom 1.3 million are in Syria) and 3 million Afghans (of whom 1 million are in Iran) fled their countries.
So, if the Iran Paper is accurate in its prediction, an attack on Iran might lead to the displacement, grievous wounding or death of 12 million or so Iranians and a monetary cost to Americans of an amount perhaps as large as the current American debt of c. $15 trillion.
Even if these figures are exaggerated and the cost would be half that much, could the US, as rich and powerful as it is, afford a war on Iran? Given our already large debt – itself unsustainable in the opinion of some economists and many politicians -- it is at least problematical that, America could borrow enough to carry out a war policy toward Iran. Worse, current lenders might call a part of their existing loans.
In addition to these human and material costs would almost certainly be what might be called “foreign policy costs.” The Paper’s authors believe, and I agree, that “Iran would retaliate, costing American lives; damaging U.S. facilities in the region; and affecting U.S. interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Iran would draw on its extensive conventional rocket capability and IRGC anti-ship missiles, small submarines, fast attack boats, and mine warfare in the Gulf. Iran might attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz [through which passes about 20% of the world’s energy] and cause a significant spike [-- some analysts predict $200 or more/barrel --] in oil prices…” This alone would cause chaos. “Gas[oline] prices would soar, economic recovery would stall worldwide, and European nations now struggling to deal with unprecedented unemployment levels would watch the eurozone collapse…” (wrote the former CIA officer Philip Giraldi in September 3, 2012 The American Conservative.)
Armchair generals have spoken as though the war could be managed in a sort of “surgical” fashion and contained to a small area of Iran. “A targeted U.S. operation need not threaten Tehran in such a fundamental way,” wrote one analyst about regime change. “To make sure it doesn’t and to reassure the Iranian regime, the United States could first make clear that it is interested only in destroying Iran’s nuclear program, not in overthrowing the government.” As the bombs rain down, Iranians are likely to miss this delicate distinction! (This fantasy is laid out and advocated by Matthew Kroenig (in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, “Time to Attack Iran. Kroenig was partially countered by Colin H. Kahl in the next issue.) But those who have seen war know that it is always unpredictable and, that once begun, it is likely both to become less controlled -- Kroenig has obviously not read Tolstoy or Stendhal -- and to spread.
Consider just Iran’s “neighborhood.” We know that the Lebanese Shi’a political movement, Hizbullah, has a large rocket force – said to number 40,000 to 50,000 – targeted on Israel. (Time, August 31, 2012, Karl Vick and Aaron J. Klein, “Exclusive: U.S. Scales-Back Military Exercise with Israel, Affecting Potential Iran Strike.”) Hizbullah’s rockets are said to be relatively primitive and inaccurate, and Israel is believed to have the latest counter-missile equipment, but in such numbers, it is difficult to believe that they would not do considerable damage. Syria, also, would probably be dragged into the fray since it has a mutual defense treaty with Iran. Its rocket force is believed to be much more modern and accurate. The Israeli government is said to be taking civil defense measures such as issuing gas masks and checking out shelters, but is anticipating at least 500 casualties. (The estimate of Defense Minister Ehud Barak) but others, including the former Director of Israeli Intelligence Meir Dagan, believe that an attack on Iran would precipitate a “regional war that would endanger the state’s existence.” (IPS, February 4, 2012, Gareth Porter, “U.S. Leak on Israeli Attack Weakened a Warning to Netanyahu.”) In Iraq, also, we should anticipate attacks on the 16,000 American soldiers, officials and private citizens still there. In Baghdad alone, there are several thousand Americans who would be virtual hostages.
In retaliation for Israeli, American and proxy assassinations and other acts of aggression, the Iranians have begun to mount their own state terrorism. So far, they have not been so successful as the Israelis and the Americans, but in the event of full-scale war, they and their allies and coreligionists could probably make life very uncomfortable for us and our allies. Either directly from Iran or from Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq, jihadis (warriors of the faith) would be able to hit targets in many areas of the Middle East and beyond. As one able and experienced commentator put it, “A US or Israeli attack on Iran would turn that regional maelstrom into a global firestorm.” (The Guardian, Dec 8, 2011, Seumas Milne, “War on Iran has already begun. Act [to stop it] before it threatens all of us.”) I do not think that the Paper took this “cost” sufficiently into account.
The Paper takes note of the belief by some commentators that Iran might not retaliate for an attack. I find this wishful thinking to be a dangerous fantasy.
I base my opinion, in part, on a politico-military war game run by the US government in the Pentagon in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (in which I played a minor role). In the ensuing game, I was the political member of “Red Team.” When confronted with a “Blue Team” provocation – a devastating attack on a Russian city – we opted for general war. (I discuss this episode in my book Understanding Iran.) While Red Team realized that such retaliation was not in “our” national interest, we also realized that we could not survive as a government or even as individuals if we failed to act.
I feel sure that the members of the Iranian regime would reach a similar conclusion. And, even if personal survival were not their main motivation, I cannot see how they could simply turn the other cheek after what would be a devastating and humiliating attack. In short, the mistake in this wishful thinking scenario, as I pointed out in the 1963 Soviet-American game, is to confuse the “interest of state” with the “interest of government.” Those interests are separate and are sometimes in conflict. When they are, history shows that the interest of government usually predominates. Let me consider this in the Iranian context:
The inevitable harm done by the attack on Iran will leave the population embittered, wounded, grieving, and probably without adequate food and shelter. (Dozens of reports and predictions paint a picture of the death of whole sectors of the population with near nuclear levels of devastation. For example, 2010 Oxford Research Group, “Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects.”) Iran’s Shi’a Islam is acutely sensitive to victimhood. The martyrdom of Iran’s “patron saint,” Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, 1,400 years ago is still today the most vivid emotional experience of Iranians. The casualties of the decade of war with Iran are living memories. But these are relatively remote in comparison to what would happen in the event of an modern blitzkrieg. Misery would shape the ruins. The influence of the radical right wing, already strong, would be greatly increased. The path to political reform would be blocked. And not only the extremists but a far larger slice of the Iranian population would certainly demand that whatever government survives – or emerges -- do everything in its power (or perhaps even beyond its power) to acquire a nuclear weapon. As the writers of the Paper correctly set out, “…a U.S. attack on Iran would increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb…” Under these changed circumstances, it is not beyond imagination that another nuclear state – Pakistan? North Korea? Even India? -- might be willing to help it.
Finally, on the issue of cost, I am increasingly worried about the impact of an exhausting, fear-inspiring and probably lingering war on American mores and civil liberties. Every war, even short and successful wars, have cost us some of our freedom and our trust in one another. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the “Alien and Sedition Act” nearly poisoned the new republic; in the Civil War, Lincoln suspended the most precious piece of the heritage of English Common Law, the right of habeas corpus; in the aftermath of the First World War, the Palmer Raids were an obscenity that most Americans wished to forget; during the Second World War, the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent has left lingering scars; and during the Cold War, McCarthyism made us suspect and turn against one another. Today, as Dana Priest (Top Secret America) and Chris Hedges (War is A Force that Gives Us Meaning) warn us, we are rapidly turning our country into the “security” state of George Orwell’s nightmare.
I can only imagine – and dread – what the result of a war on Iran would be. The cost in our liberty would at best be great and might even be fatal. The Paper does not even consider this cost.
The bedrock of our political system is the Constitution. Declaring war is not the prerogative of the president but of the Congress. Past presidents have flouted this provision partly by the fiction that military action is not war. Presidents Bush and Obama have precedent for their actions. But, over our relatively short history, we have seen that succeeding generations have been horrified by what their forbearers did to weaken our national purpose. We have not reached the “end of history,” and I believe we will eventually – hopefully soon – recognize we are on the brink of a wrong turn.
Embodied in American law are two major treaties: the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact which was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 85 to 1 and the 1945 United Nations charter which was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 89 to 2. These treaties aimed to avoid war by requiring negotiated settlement of international disputes and by prohibiting the threat or use of force. Passed by the Senate, they became binding American law. (Francis Boyle, Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois, personal communication of July 29, 2012, “…as a ratified treaty the UN Charter is the Supreme Law of the Land under Article VI of the US Constitution.” Also see Richard Falk, “Why not Get the Law and Politics Right on Iran?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 2012.) In turn, they formed the basis of the so-called Nuremberg Doctrine which was the centerpiece and proudest achievement of our defeat of Nazism.
In summary, these fundamental agreements hold that the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, except in clear instances of self-defense, ranks as a war crime. Since Iran cannot possibly threaten the United States, it is at least arguable that the military option is illegal.
One of the signers of the Paper, former staff director of the National Security Council, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote (in the April 25, 2006 International Herald Tribune): “In the absence of an imminent threat…the attack would be a unilateral act of war. If undertaken without formal Congressional declaration, it would be unconstitutional and merit the impeachment of the President. Similarly, if undertaken without the sanction of the UN Security Council either alone by the United States or in complicity with Israel, it would stamp the perpetrator(s) as an international outlaw(s)…[Moreover,] an attack on Iran would be an act of political folly.”
Another signer of the paper, a former New York Times editor and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb wrote (in the January 17, 2012 Daily Beast ) ““We're doing this terrible thing all over again. As before, we're letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts draw "red line" ultimatums. As before, we're letting them quick-march us off to war. This time their target is Iran.”
So what are the alternatives to an attack on Iran? I suggest these are the major categories:
1) Negotiation. Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, has said, “I think ultimately the solution has to be a negotiated one.” (Quoted by Tony Karon in The National, April 4, 2010) But each side deeply distrusts the other. Thus, so far at least, negotiation has been sterile. As the Iranian-American commentator, Trita Parsi has written (The Diplomat, July 21, 2012), “…a long series of miscalculated escalations have brought the two states to the current deadlock. Iran and the United States are entrapped in a paradigm of enmity…both assume the worst about the other’s intentions. The ‘other’ embodies almost pure evil [and] this mindset has created a self-fulfilling prophecy [thus] information that appears to vindicate the mistrust has been seized upon, while data that contradict it have been dismissed, neglected or disbelieved.”
The record shows that the United States has been at least as obstructive as the Iranians. The New York Times commentator, Nicholas D. Kristof, summarized the American side in “Hang up! Tehran is calling,” (International Herald Tribune, January 22, 2007): “In 2003, Iran sent the United States a detailed message offering to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the United States lifting sanctions. Some diplomats liked the idea, but administration hawks rejected it at once…the State Department sent a cable to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who looks after U.S. interests in Iran, scolding him for even forwarding the package to Washington.”
More recently in 2010, with the intense diplomatic help of Turkey and Brazil, Iran agreed to what was essentially President Obama’s proposal on swapping nuclear fuel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed ahead on sanctions. Parsi again, “…Tehran read that as evidence that Obama’s true intent was to sanction Iran regardless of what compromises Iran would agree to.” Pointedly, Parsi asked, “Can Washington take ‘yes’ for an answer?”
On its side, the American government in both the Bush and the Obama administrations has viewed Iranian actions that seem to favor negotiation as ploys to delay action while Iran secretly moves to acquire a nuclear weapon. This interpretation has been vigorously pushed by the current Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Two men who experienced personally the low point in Iranian-American relations, when they were taken hostage, the chargé d’affaires and the chief political officer of the US embassy in Tehran, Bruce Laingen and John Limbert, warned (Christian Science Monitor January 17, 2012), that “America should not paint itself into a rhetorical corner. American presidents have said that a nuclear-armed Iran is ‘unacceptable.’ So, presumably, is a nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, or North Korea. The Berlin wall was also unacceptable. In all these cases, however, Americans remained smart and did not become captive to their own rhetoric.” The message is that we should keep trying to create a “negotiating climate.” To do so, we not only need to tone down our rhetoric but also to stop our harmful actions.
2) Keeping Iran in poverty and pain through what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “crushing sanctions.”
Without going into detail, the record shows that sanctions – which were tried against the Mossadegh government in the 1950s and frequently implemented since the 1979 Revolution -- do not force beneficial change. As the former head of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies and current head of the German Institute for International Security Affairs, Christoph Bertram, wrote (Centre for European Reform Bulletin #59) “Sanctions will not work.” They hurt the country’s poor but not its rulers. And they create hatred. So, usually, they cause a nationalist reaction which is exactly what they were intended to stop. Moreover, they stifle the thrust of domestic reformers to bring about change. (See Thomas Endbrink, “Iranian Opposition Warns Against Stricter Sanctions, ” The Washington Post, Oct 1, 2009.)
3) Weakening the Iranian state by acts of subversion and terror.
I have briefly described (above) what we have done to try to weaken the Iranian state by actions short of invasion. They have not worked; they have simply exacerbated relations and inflamed mistrust. “In March 2009, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly warned the Obama administration that Iran has intercepted communications between U.S. officials and Jundallah militants.( Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, www.RaceForIran.com November 3, 2010). , ‘Bandits, terrorists, and murder[er]s are in touch with American officers in a neighboring country,’ he said. ‘[The Americans] say, ‘let’s negotiate. Let’s start relations…[But] Change has to be real. You change and we shall change as well.’” Then in November 3, 2010, the US did designated Jundallah a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, just a few days ago it removed the listing of another terrorist organization, Mojahedin-e Khalq.
4) Since “pin pricks” have not worked, what about invasion? Leave aside the issues of cost and legality (which I have touched on above) and focus on effectiveness. As Milt Bearden, who ran the anti-Soviet CIA operations in Afghanistan, warned, (International Herald Tribune, February 7, 2007) “…in the past century, no nation that has started a major war has ended up winning it. Moreover, in the last 50 years, no nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation has lost…” This should be a sobering observation. I find that practically all those who know Iran and/or have studied the Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan wars agree with it. In my book Violent Politics, I show it in a dozen insurgencies.
5) Allowing Iran to acquire the bomb. If none of the other options has, or will, work in an acceptable fashion at acceptable cost, we may not have any choice but to endure the inevitable, eventual result, as we have done in our relationship with the USSR, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. What are the dangers and is there any conceivable benefit?
I see two dangers: first, Israel may unilaterally strike Iran. It could not “win” according to the Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff, Noam Sheizaf who said “Israel has no military option in Iran. (http://972mag.com/yedioth-idf-chief-of-staff-told-us-israel-has-no-military-option-in-Iran/ Yedioth Ahronoth Newspaper: February 4, 2011), But it could begin a war that would almost inevitably drag in America.
Second, if Iran actually acquires a nuclear weapon, doing so may stimulate other countries (Saudi Arabia? The UAE? Egypt? ) to follow. The spread of nuclear weapons should be avoided as much as possible. In my opinion, which I should admit was much formed by my experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons anywhere are a danger to people everywhere. So a wise policy would aim at disarmament. This, indeed, was the US policy 30 years ago. At the behest of the US, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687 in 1981 mandating the establishment “in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.” (Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, private communication, January 16, 2012)
Despite the finding of a Brookings Institution Saban Center poll showing that “by a ratio of two to one, Israelis support an agreement that would make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, (Noted by the then Saudi Foreign Minister Turki bin Faisal, private letter to Marina Ottaway on January 15, 2012, email@example.com.) no Israeli regime would give up its nuclear weapons so long as it has a monopoly.
The remaining policy to be explored is take advantage of the inevitable change in the “context.” That is, when sooner or later, in war or “peace,” Iran also acquires a nuclear weapon capacity. At that point, a “grand bargain” including joint disarmament would be in Israel’s interest, and a wise Israeli government would seek, at least, to explore it. The consequences of that recognition might be the best chance we have to avoid the tragedy of war in which all the dangers I have described above might come to pass.
Very sincerely yours, Bill
 The founder and first head of the Shah’s nuclear agency, and a determined enemy of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Etemad, commented. “We should never have signed it. It was not a fair treaty…Only small countries joined – Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, the Fiji Islands. The countries that actually had a chance of getting nuclear power – India, Pakistan, Israel – they stayed out. Only we signed.”
 Where something is controversial, I will cite a source. I should mention that as a part of my therapy, following my 4th operation for cancer this year, I have “read myself” back into Iranian affairs. I have gone back over, and summarized, hundreds of press and other clippings, government and “think tanks” papers, and notes dating from the time I finished my book Understanding Iran. I will not, however, burden this comment with more than a perhaps crucial few citations.