Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Putative Iranian Bomb

Brad Delong writes much that is good here, but there's two parts that I disagree with. Unfortunately, one is a fundamental one, and comes early:
It is widely believed that the ruling regime in Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps the ruling regime in Iran is merely seeking to persuade everybody that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons. A country's political leverage is maximized when it is nearly able to acquire nuclear weapons but has not yet done so.
The third option is that Iran is trying to build a threshold nuclear capability -- as is explicitly allowed, and encouraged, under the NPT -- that would theoretically allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon within 18-24 months of giving a "go" order.

It is problematic for the Iranian regime to pursue nuclear weapons: the only two Supreme Jurisprudents that Iran has had since 1979 (Khomeini and Khameini) both explicitly and repeatedly decreed that nuclear weapons are irreconcilable with the tenets of Islam. Nevertheless, Iran's main concern is not Israel -- who've had nuclear weapons since the 1960s without Iran batting an eye -- but originally Iraq, and now Pakistan. The United Nations did a thorough job of disarming Iraq, so the Iranian nuclear program was mothballed during most of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, once Pakistan demonstrated a nuclear weapon, there was a clear danger to Iran: the Pakistani military and intelligence services are riddled with extremists who, via the Taliban in Afghanistan, have already committed anti-Shia ethnic cleansing campaigns.

We're very used to the idea of Israel threatened by crazy Iranian mullahs, but there's another alternative: Iranian mullahs threatened by crazy Pakistani Islamists. All it takes is one magic bullet, and Musharraf is gone, after all. So Iran has a dilemma: nuclear weapons are forbidden by the theocracy, but things with Pakistan could go really bad, really quickly, with little warning. The answer, as much as there's an answer to any of these things, is the threshold nuclear capability I mentioned above.

This is not the same as wanting a nuclear bomb. It is the kind of nuclear technology that is, by the international law of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, supposed to be available to all countries around the world, including Iran. (This is the gaping hole at the heart of the NPT: it is fundamentally contradictory, and so long as we insist on "peaceful uses" of nuclear technology, we will by definition be risking a more dangerous world.)

The second thing I disagree with Prof. Delong on:
The best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for all powers in the region--India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel--to do what makes their people safest: for all to give up their nuclear weapons programs. The second best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for Iran to do what makes its own people safest: for it to give up its nuclear ambitions, whether or not it receives substantial security guarantees that deter the possibility of attacks on Iran in return. Even if Israel and Pakistan keep their nuclear weapons, the devastating consequences for Israel and Pakistan of using nuclear weapons against Iran is a more effective deterrent than an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be.
Uh, what "devastating" consequences could we inflict on nuclear-armed Israel or Pakistan that would make up for Tehran being a glowing, ashen wasteland? Are we willing to promise the Pakistanis or Israelis that Jerusalem or Islamabad would be similarly reduced? Why would we threaten our allies like that? Short of that, what kind of guarantees could we give Iran that would make them give up the bomb? Iran has lived under US sanctions for decades, and their elites have done just fine thank you. They know quite well how ineffective diplomatic means are at deterring military threats, and they also watched Indian and Pakistani tensions calm down after both parties had nuclear weapons.

So no, there is no more effective deterrent in Iranian eyes than posessing the ability to produce nuclear weapons. And here is where we reach, in my eyes, the most crucial and under-explored aspect of this whole issue:

So far, Iran has done absolutely nothing -- nothing at all -- that places it in breach of the NPT. So why is the US going crazy over this? Well, strident anti-semitism is never a good thing for foreign leaders in the US' eyes, unless you happen to be James "fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyways" Baker. But more crucially, Iran is one of, what, three countries that has publicly and successfully humbled the American government: only Cuba and Venezuela, I think, would get a similar kind of reaction from the US*. Clearly, the US is not thinking objectively about risks to either itself or Israel -- Pakistan is a greater danger on both counts, but gets billions in aid. This has less to do with a real calculus of risk, and more to do with America's own issues with Iran -- dating back to the Carter administration, for God's sake.

*Question for the audience: In you view, is it better that the revolutionary movements in Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela have humbled the US government, even at the cost of unquestionable misery in Cuba and Iran, and the worsening autocracy that is Venezuela?


Gar Lipow said...

>*Question for the audience: In you view, is it better that the revolutionary movements in Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela have humbled the US government, even at the cost of unquestionable misery in Cuba and Iran, and the worsening autocracy that is Venezuela?

I question your premise in two of the three cases. Cuba is a nasty dictatorship, but far less the Batista dictatorship it replaced. Venezuela is no more autocratic under Chavez than under the governments that preceded him. (For example the recent non-renewal of broadcast licenses came under a decades old law that gives the President the right to veto such renewals.) In short politically these countries are probably less repressive than the previous governments. And economically the vast majority are better off. In the case of Cuba, a lot the misery that does exist is deliberately imposed by the U.S. Not excusing Cuba being a dictorship, or the occasional excesses of Chavez (who, at the moment anyway is not a dictator).

I won't comment on Iran, because I know less about it than the other two nations. Maybe misery under rule of the Ayahtollahs has been greater than under that of the Shah's torturers. I'll leave comment on that to someone who knows. But I would not assume just because it is conventional wisdom that people are worse off now than under the Shaw.

john said...

"Venezuela is no more autocratic under Chavez than under the governments that preceded him."

Perhaps, but he's more autocratic in 2007 then he was in 2002. I consider that a worrisome trend. The TV license is a trifle, and I still try and defend Chavez when I think he's being unreasonably criticized, but the extent of laws designed to extend his personal powers is worrisome.

Ditto Iran -- comparisons with the Shah aren't really relevant, when the crackdown that's going on right now is bad enough.

Gar W. Lipow said...

I think that in Venezuela that overall any autocratic tendencies are in response to a real existential threat -- a far more dangerous threat the has been used in the U.S. to justify a move in an authoritarian direction.

More to the point I don't see how "humiliation of the U.S." ties to increasing misery. Most of things the things that have earned these nations the ire of the U.S. are things that were in the interest of their people. The embargo against Cuba was originally passed in response to nationalizing of the sugar plantations. (I seem to remember that paying their value plus interest or returning them to their Batista era owners is legally still a condition that would have to be met to end the embargo, but I could be wrong ont that.)

In terms of Chavez, you can criticize him on a number of grounds, but when you look at what pissed the U.S. off it is almost all the stuff that either made his people better off or that wasn't wise, but was harmless and that he had a perfect right to do (like undiplomatic language in criticizing Busy).

In short what you don't make a case is that a majority of either Venezuela or Cuba would be less miserable if they had not humbled the U.S.

Iran is another question. Maybe the Iranian people would be better off if the Shah's son were currently ruling instead of the Ayatollah. I would say the burden of proof is on you for that. But you are linking the misery in all three nations specifically to their defiance of the U.S. I'm pretty sure that is not the case in Cuba or Venezuela. I'm pretty sure both nations have less misery and autocracy than if old guard had been left in power. And I'm pretty sure that in order for either Castro or Chavez to not have alienated the U.S. government, it would not have been enough for them to have skipped the things John McGrath and Gar Lipow disapprove of; they would have had maintain a small wealthy power elite and continue to grind down everyone else in their nation.

I just don't know enough about Iran. I suspect there is real argument to be made that people (especially female people) are worse off under the theocratic oligarchy than under the Shah. Though even there I will note the U.S. tolerates stuff just as bad or worse in allies. Which means that a generally bad system rather than humiliating the U.S. which makes Iran badly governed.

Noumenon said...

So how does this post look in retrospect? If it's true that Iran dismantled its nuclear program in 2003, does that mean they were really afraid of Saddam and not Pakistan? Or just that they are more afraid of America next door with an army than Pakistan two countries over? Do the American forces in Afghanistan have any influence over Pakistan's nuclear calculus?

john said...

Undoubtedly, the 2003 date has something to do with Iraq. The question I'm waiting for an answer on is why Iran hasn't restarted it yet.

I don't know what it says that I was more conservative in my guesses than the US govt.