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Iran Special: 5 Very Bad Reasons to Start a War

We are at the cusp of another calamitous event. Even though Iraq is still warm from the withdrawal of US troops, after almost nine years of war and occupation, some politicians, pundits, and "experts" set their sights on the next target of Iran. This steady push for an attack is in its early stages, manifesting itself in the form of advocacy of "a limited strike" against Iran's nuclear enrichment sites. Make no mistake, though: even the "limited" of bombs and missiles will have catastrophic results. This being said, the utter dishonesty displayed in the arguments in favor of such a strike is stunning.

Such an argument was made by Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, "5 Reasons to Attack Iran". It is a not-so-shining example of the standard line of ignoring difficult truths in favorr of convenient lies. I post the entirety of Mr. Kroenig's article in quotes and address each argument individually.  

Iran continues to make steady progress on its nuclear program.

The international community, led by the United States, is imposing increasingly tough sanctions on Tehran, including a European ban on oil imports from Iran. The world should hope that Iran will negotiate away its uranium enrichment program.

 But that is highly unlikely. And so, in the coming months, Washington might be forced to choose between simply letting Iran have nuclear weapons or conducting a military strike 

designed to prevent that from happening. The options are awful, but here are five reasons why, if faced with that decision, the United States should strike:

Right off the bat, convenient lies prevail. Notice how suddenly "nuclear program" in the first paragraph transitions into "nuclear weapons" in the next? Simply because 1000 op/eds have been published accusing Iran of wanting to get nuclear weapons does not mean that Tehran does indeed want them.

Throwing around last November's International Atomic Energy report does not make it true, either, since  the document does little to establish that Iran is really on the path to getting nukes. As Think Progress's Ali Gharib wrote on 8 November: 

ThinkProgress reported yesterday that the new evidence introduced in the IAEA report wouldn’t necessarily contradict previous U.S. intelligence estimates. Today, after the IAEA report was widely circulated, the Obama administration re-affirmed those estimates. The National Journal quoted a senior administration official on background saying:

 "The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program nor does it have a program [sic] about how advanced the programs really are." 

Secondly, why is the author so sure that it is "highly unlikely" that Iran would not negotiate over its uranium enrichment program? Iran's economy is practically in free fall, with the Rial falling to historic lows against the US dollar. Its economy is on the brink. Why not wait and see the outcome of the combination of the internal strain and the sanctions?

The truth here is that for those advocating an attack, none of this matters just as it didn't in 2002/3. Iraq and missing WMDs, anyone? 

Now on to the reasons. 

1. A nuclear-armed Iran poses a grave threat to international peace and security. Iran currently restrains its foreign policy because it fears US and Israeli retaliation. With nuclear weapons, Tehran will be emboldened by the confidence that it can engage in provocation and use its nuclear weapons to deter the worst forms of retaliation. A more aggressive Iran will increase its support to terrorists and engage in tougher coercive diplomacy.

Nuclear weapons in Tehran will cause global nuclear proliferation, as other states in the Middle East seek their own nuclear weapons in response, and as Iran provides uranium enrichment technology to US enemies. The global nonproliferation regime would be weakened.

A nuclear Iran could threaten nuclear war to stop developments contrary to its interests, giving the world a nuclear scare every few years. And given that the nuclear balance between Iran and its adversaries would be less stable than the one that held between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war, these future crises could very well spiral out of control resulting in a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel or even Iran and the United States.

If Iran already is supporting Lebanon's Hezbollah, insurgent groups in Iraq, and the regime in Syria, I am not sure how Kroenig can argue that the threat to bomb "currently restrains [Tehran's] foreign policy". 

And if you are going to use nuclear proliferation, shouldn't the US have attacked North Korea when it was on the cusp of getting weapons? Or Israel? Or Pakistan, when it supplied nuclear weapons' technology to other countries? Why is it that Iran must be attacked and others must be spared?

Let's say Iran does want nukes and it gets them. Let's also admit that Israel has the weapons. Why would the nuclear balance between Iran and Israel be less stable than the one between the Soviet Union and the United States? Washington and Moscow did not even have anyone to police them, asIsrael and Iran do. Yet they didn't start a hot war and Iran and Israel will? No explanation whatsoever.  

2. Deterrence is costly and might not work. In practice, deterring a nuclear Iran means extending the US nuclear umbrella and pledging to fight nuclear wars on behalf of America’s regional partners. But, is the US really willing to trade New York for Riyadh?

To make this inherently incredible threat credible, the US would have to station troops and forward-deployed nuclear weapons in the region, ensuring that the United States will be dragged into any future conflict. These and other costly measures would have to remain in place as long as Iran exists as a state and has nuclear weapons, which could be decades or longer.

And, while the threat of US retaliation could deter Iran from intentionally launching a nuclear war, the threat to go to war with a nuclear-armed Iran – especially after America was unwilling to fight a nonnuclear Iran – would be irrelevant or incredible as a response to other Iranian challenges. That means the US  would simply have to live with those other challenges.

So let's just bomb Iran's nuclear facility because that is the cheapest option. More on that later. 

Rather than puffing, "the US would have to station troops and forward-deployed nuclear weapons in the region", Kroenig might have noticed that America is already there at the cost of billions of US taxpayer dollars. An aircraft carrier just moved through the Straits of Hormuz, supported by  the US navy base in Bahrain --- the presence of which is a big reason why months-long repression of Bahrainis gets a blind eye from the West.

What this argument  ignores is the doctrine of deterrence itself. Iran does not need US nukes 50 miles from its borders to understand that any strike against an American ally would result in its complete and utter annihilation.  

Take a look at North Korea. How many nuclear weapons did the US have to deploy on the Korean Peninsula to deter the Kims from attacking South Korea or Japan? Zero. There is no mystery here. North Korea knows and so does Iran that having nuclear weapons and using them are very different matters.

Iranians know this, which is one reason why the regime has never invaded another country. It even backed down from attacking the Taliban in the 1990s when they slaughtered Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan.

What we don't know here is why Kroenig thinks that Iran will choose to nuke another country, as he has already moved on.

3. A strike would significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program. A US strike would cause immense damage to Iran’s nuclear program. It is unlikely that Iran has significant operational nuclear facilities that America doesn’t know about. The United States could destroy Iran’s known facilities.

While US government officials have said that an Israeli strike would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by one to three years, the US, with its superior capabilities, would impose a greater delay of three to 10 years. This purchases much time for diplomacy or other events that could result in permanently keeping Tehran from the bomb.

In other words, buy more time for negotiations by going to war? Why not negotiate now while you can? Why not offer Iran something it might want?

Or maybe there is not anything you can offer Tehran now. It's been years --- awfully close to a decade - since the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program began --- with Tehran making the approach in 2003. So Kroenig's logic appears to be that we can go to war with Iran just to buy another decade of no progress...and then maybe we can go to war again.

There's no clear evidence of Iran nuclear weapons. There's no indication that Iran would use nukes if it had them. And yet war is okay so we can go through the whole 10-year cycle again.

An alternative might be to examine why negotiations have failed, considering the Bush years of hostility towards Tehran, three years of Obamaian indecision, and Iran's complex haggling --- with other countries and within its regime --- over the nuclear issue.

Then again, in Kroenig's world, we can forego that because war is "easier".   

4. The consequences of a strike are manageable: While serious, the consequences of a US strike on Iran’s nuclear program would be less grave than many people fear. The US could also put in place a strategy to mitigate the worst-case outcomes.

Some have speculated, for example, that a US strike would lead to a full-scale war. But, while Iran would certainly retaliate, it wouldn’t want to commit national suicide. It knows that a major conflict with the United States could lead to the destruction of its regime. It would almost certainly, therefore, aim for a calibrated response that allows it to save face, but that stops short of risking the regime’s survival.

America can play on Iran’s fears by clearly communicating the red lines that, if crossed, would provoke a devastating US response. One such red line would be Iran closing the strategic oil shipping gateway, the Strait of Hormuz.

By promising to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat, Washington should be able to get agreement from regional allies including Israel to stay out of the fight even if they become the victims of Iranian retaliation. And while the White House might feel political pressure to respond to Iranian provocations, the US should be content to trade Iran’s nuclear program for a round of retaliation, which would likely include missile and terror attacks against US and allied interests in the region. 

Apparently for Kroenig, a military assault provides stability, conserving US partnerships and resources in the long run, even if that stability which includes Iranian "missile and terror attacks against US and allied interests".

Here's a thought: if Kroenig is concerned about partnerships and resources, why not consider them in the extent of deterrence rather than risking Iranian retaliation --- which I assume would not be very good for American "resources" --- against US allies?

Maybe Kroenig would counter, if his logic was clear, that Iran will refrain from retaliation after a strike on its nuclear facilities. But why is that the case for the Iranian leadership if it is already being punished?If you are being destroyed in any case, what difference does it make if you can wreak a bit of havoc in return?

Oh, Kroenig completely ignores not only the economic effect of even the smallest Iranian retaliation.but also the human cost of the original strike and the retaliation. More on that in a moment.... 

5. A strike is the least bad option:  Make no mistake about it, a strike on Iran’s nuclear program is an unattractive option. But it is better than the even worse option of allowing a nuclear-armed Iran to threaten international peace and security for decades to come.

Successive US presidents have declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable” and that “all options are on the table” to prevent that from happening. America is rapidly reaching the point where it must accept the unacceptable or exercise its  last remaining option.

Faced with this choice, the United States should destroy Iran’s nuclear program, step back and absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. Dealing with the problem now will allow the US – and its friends and allies – to avoid an even greater threat in the future.

I guess Kroenig's analysis is insulted from reading the news, else he might have learned of Russian and Chinese opposition to any attacks on Iran and of the reluctance of America's European allies. So the US will have to lone-wolf this one. 

The world is already in a recession that has lasted four years and could continue for another half a decade or even more. A strike on Iran and retaliation against oil installations in the Persian Gulf --- however limited that retaliation --- will raise oil prices from $100 to God knows how much. Don't count on a Strategic Petroleum Reserve to keep the rest of the world afloat. 

If there is full-on war, then you can say goodbye to the US economy and the world's as we know it.

And then this, because I don't see it anywhere in Kroenig's case. How many people will die as a result of the strike, the retaliation, and a possible wider war? Several thousand? Several hundred thousand? Several million? Who knows?

Mentioning this seems to be undesirable. So is mentioning the fact that Iranian public opinion --- and that of many Iranians in exile --- is so opposed to this, that any future Iran, with or without the current leadership, would be strongly antipathetic towards the US.  

Mentioning this is undesirable, because those rationalising war still believe that if they continue to repeat lies and distortions over and over again, then those lies and distortions somehow become facts --- just as in Iraq 2003.

The claims that there is clear evidence that Iran is working towards nukes is a lie. Risking war, and ruining the world's economy based on this lie is irresponsible. More than irresponsible: given those who will die, unnoticed by Kroenig,  it is criminal. 

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