Friday, February 09, 2007

Continuing the Iran Discussion

David Habakkuk posted a comment yesterday raising the question as to whether a more democratic Iran would stop the nuclear program. We will be publishing in the next issue of The National Interest an essay by Ted Galen Carpenter and Jessica Ashoosh that notes, "... there is one problem with the regime change strategy that cannot be ignored: Even if the United States brought a secular, democratic government to power, said government would not necessarily end the nuclear program.


"Iran is located in a volatile and hostile region. Iranians are still emotionally scarred by Iraq’s 1980 invasion and the long, bloody war that followed. Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India all have nuclear weapons, so regional deterrence issues probably loom large for Tehran. Those security concerns would not change significantly for a democratic government.
Moreover, the vast majority of Iranian citizens seem to favor an indigenous nuclear program, whether for solely peaceful purposes or not—whatever the consequences. According to a January 2006 poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, 85 percent of Iranians support the program. When told it would bring economic sanctions, 64 percent still supported the program. (After decades of American embargoes, sanctions no longer rattle the Iranian public. “The sanctions will be useless”, insists one Tehran resident. “We do not have much foreign investment now either.”) However, the poll’s most striking finding is that 56 percent of respondents supported the program in the face of a military strike. And should that strike take place, “only one in six would blame Iran’s own government” for precipitating it."

I think the question is not whether a more democratic Iran wouldn't have an incentive to pursue the nuclear program but whether we (the West) would feel more comfortable with a government that is much more transparent and accountable pursuing nuclear energy.
My problem is that "democratic Iran" is code in Washington-speak for pro-US Iran, whether or not it is really democratic. A "democratic" Iran that responded to what the citizens want would pursue a nuclear program just it happened in democratic India and democratic Israel.
Conservative Realist,

I agree. The question that worries me is whether even an Iranian government that is more accountable and transparent would still destabilize the region by acquiring nuclear weapons. The prospects for a stable Middle East are likely to diminish if other states in the region feel more strongly the need to have nuclear capabilities of their own.

The great danger is that the region will remain an arena in which the security-maximizing behavior of individual states collectively reduces the security of all.
I do not think that we should be surprised by the results of these opinion polls, nor that we should focus on the internal character of Iran. These should be recognized as secondary or even peripheral concerns in creating an explanatory construct for evaluating interstate behavior and affecting solutions to regional crises. While several motivating factors towards nuclear status exist for Iran, that Iran requires an effective deterrent to protect and enhance its national security interests is perhaps the most predictable of these themes. Iran will not be dissuaded from nuclear status.

Consider that the US were to extend its nuclear umbrella over Iran in exchange for it abandoning its program. This would perhaps be the most effective and convincing option for affecting our goals. Yet, how possible is it that this option would even be considered by our current leadership? Even now, Japanese policy makers are reconsidering the efficacy of the US nuclear deterrent against future Korean and Chinese aggression, realizing instead the increased necessity for re-militarization through the acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent.

Furthermore, as the US invasion of Iraq has exacerbated Iranian trends towards acquisition, future US military actions against Iran could have the undesirable effect of further prompting other and more states towards acquisition. Where does this cycle end?
david billington:

We were attacked by Iraq - the perception here is that it was tacitly approved by your country.

Your Arab allies under-wrote the invasion of our country.

Your EU allies aided and abetted Iraq in her war of agression by extending credit and later
chemical weapons precursors p chief among them France & Germany.
Later, we found out that Iraq was very close to a nuclear bomb.

Your President identified us - an enemy of Israel - as an enemy of the United States.

Your government spurnned our trial balloon in 2005; I suppose fully expecting to overthrow the most democractic Muslim country after Iraq.

For the past 4 years we have listend to your government and EU governments and analysts and commentators threatenung us with sticks or offering us the usual trade-beads sticks.

In Januaray, your President again threatened us.

We have no choice but to resist you - we cannot phatom your policies - whatever they are.

Eventually, you will levae the Middle East - we only need to stand on our feet until that time.

At any rate - our problem with you is not due to lack of tranparency or accountability on our part (however justified that criticism might be). The problem is that we are opposed to your strategies in the Middle East - strategies that have so far have done more harm than good.
While Billington's narrative of what Iranians would say seems plausible, though a bit odd, it’s actually quite informative and reassuring to hear the Iranian ambassador's actual words. (I pulled this of

"The Persian Gulf region is in dire need of a truly inclusive arrangement for security and cooperation. Only through such regional cooperation, with the necessary international support, can we contain the current crisis and prevent future ones.

I wrote in these pages almost four years ago that the removal of Saddam Hussein provided a unique opportunity to finally realize the long sought objective of regional confidence-building and cooperation, as well as to reverse the dangerous trend of confrontation, exclusion and rivalry.

We have lost many valuable opportunities to effect this arrangement, with hundreds of thousands of innocent lives shattered in the interim. The forthcoming meeting of Iraq's neighbors, to be held in Baghdad next month, will be a good place to begin this difficult but necessary journey toward regional security."

While in the end security concerns trump the internal characteristics of a given state, these words portend good news for accommodating a regional arrangement whether it involves a nuclear Iran or not.
Anonymous 7:31,

I apologize if my words conveyed an air of presumption. My private views are not congruent with those of the present US leadership, as my remarks below should make clear. You are probably right that America is on its way out of your region.

My point in my post above is to ask whether it is in your interest, not America's or Israel's, to acquire nuclear technology in the region as it presently is. Your doing so will result in your Arab neighbors getting nuclear capabilities of their own in short order. We cannot stop you from becoming a nuclear state in the long run. An advanced nation of 77 million will have that ability if its people want it. But surely you recognize that you will not be the last nation in the region to go nuclear.

Iran cannot be asked unilaterally to disarm, when other nations of comparable standing have nuclear weapons. General nuclear disarmament is not practical for the foreseeable future. But a few years ago, I corresponded with an Iranian professor, who defended his country's right to develop nuclear energy, but who also agreed with me that if the United States offered to share control of a strategic missile defense with a nuclear Iran and with the other nuclear powers of Eurasia, Iran would have to give serious consideration to the offer if it was sincere. What would you say to such an idea?

The present US administration may not be possible for you to deal with, but there will be future administrations in America. If the great powers do not embark on a program to share control of outer space and share a defense against missile launches, there will be a nuclear arms race in Eurasia and a worldwide military space race. The world will be less stable as nuclear and other unconventional weapons proliferate.

America has tried to reorder the world unilaterally and failed. The question now is what the world, in particular the larger nations, of which Iran is one, will do to build a more secure future for all.
david billington:

There are no defenses against missiles - that is a pipe dream. You can just fire-off a large of number of decoys, for example, and defeat the system. Alternatively, you can use large numbers of cruise missiles - the technology for which is being reverse-engineered in Iran.

I cannot think of any Arab country in Asia that could possibly undertake the building of infrastructure for nuclear weapons; not Iraq, not Saudi Arabia, not Qatar. They just do not have that knowledge or state cohesion to carry out such a program. These states, however, can buy weapons from Pakistan - that is legal under NPT but which I cannot credit Pakistan doing.

Egypt and perhaps Algeria could - over decades build bombs. Algeria is not and enemy and Egypt as an enemy can be managed - she is too far from us.

I am not frightened - at any rate - most Arab states showed their deep enmity to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. They are our enemies.

The Western demands on Iran are maximalist - no nuclear enrichment and no Heavy Water Reactor. If you take those out of NPT, NAM states will walk out of NPT. Anyway, we will no give up enrichment etc., and isolation is something that we are quite used to by now.

On a practical matter, the dissolution of Iraqi State, the destruction of Taliban, and the failure of US in Palestine has left us in a pretty good position in the Levant and the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Zarif's statements are essentially a proposal to reach agreement with US on the contours of US-Iranian spheres of influence in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He is willing to sweeten it by offering to put the Iranian enrichment plant under international control.

I am not sure that any US government will agree to that sort of settlement. I am certain that US will never commit - could never commit - herself to defend Iran against Pakistan, Israel, or India - that just is not in the cards.

My reading of USG and in fact Washington is that they have an exaggerated opinion of US power and do not feel the need to accommodate Iranian power - they want to break it - just like Clinton tried to bankrupt us in early 1990s.

I believe that to be a futile effort for a variety of reasons but people will have to try that, won't they?

Iran is not a large nation - only 70 million and projected to reach 100 million in a few decades. For her cohesion and security Iran should have nuclear arms. Iran ought to have left NPT in 1998 after the nuclear detonations of Inidia and Pakistan. Our leadership was plain stupid - now perhaps it is too late to leave NPT and - moreover - we are not getting anything out of NPT.

So, we are at an impass in Iran, you guys are at an impass and Air Power's application to Iran will not chnage the strategic situation on the ground - the presence of Iranian power from Chineses border to the Mediterranean Sea. Iraq and Afghanistan have 40 years (2 generations) of hardwork ahead of them to get them back to where they were in 1958 and in 1974 respectively.

Seems that a settlment would be in everyone's interest except Russia, Israel and certain Arab states.
david billington:

I omitted the following statements:

US seems to have lost sight of what you are there (Persian Gulf) for: making sure oil flows freely out of the Persian Gulf by protecting Saudi Arabia, Qattar, and Kuwait. You seem now to be interested in pursuing power for power's sake.

Persoanlly, I think US staying in the Persian Gulf id beneficial to Iran - we would not have to carry the security burden of securing teh sea lanes and fighting future adventurer's like Saddam Hussein.
Anonymous 7:43/7:53,

Thank you for your patience in discussing these matters with me. Please refer to the Bush administration and not to me personally when referring to current US policy.

I thought that Aegis cruisers with anti-missile systems can intercept rockets in the boost phase if the launches are close enough to the cruisers, and I believe that Iran, Israel, and the countries between them are within that range. Regarding cruise missiles, these are indeed a short-range threat but they travel at subsonic speeds and I don't believe that any nation regards them as the basis for a strategic nuclear capability.

But even if anti-missile defenses are not effective today, and if we disregard as unproven lasers and other kinds of directed energy weapons operating from space that could mature in a few decades, there is still no disputing that the defenses of all the major nations will depend increasingly on outer space. The militarization of space will destabilize strategic balances on Earth. Only a shared system will prevent this from happening.

Cooperation on this level does not require 100 percent effectiveness against attack to be meaningful. NATO was never designed to be 100 percent effective at stopping an attack. That did not make NATO cooperation a pipe dream.

Many NATO members were at war with each other in two conflicts before 1945 but buried their differences afterwards. My question is whether the nuclear states of Asia (including Iran) can bury their differences to form a common security organization without first having to go through such an ordeal. I think they can but I would like to know what you think.

Nuclear arsenals and military space capabilities in Asia are growing. It is clear that some of this growth is to defend against the United States. But the question is the one I am pleased that you now pose: whether an American presence can also serve a useful purpose. If an American maritime presence is to Iran's advantage, now might be a good time to propose some basis on which Iran would approve it and cooperate to relieve American concerns about Iran's intentions in matters besides oil.

I do not share your view that a maritime presence alone will secure the flow of oil or that we will expend blood and treasure forever to get it from your part of the world. My sense is that, one or two presidents from now, America will simply tire of policing the region if it is still doing so. We can make up the oil we import from the Persian Gulf by keeping the oil we export to Japan or by buying it from Canada, if we still need oil to the present extent. I hope there are those in your country who are considering the geopolitical consequences of a complete American withdrawal and what Asia needs to do to remain at peace.
david billington:

I do not know about the Aegis system. I cannot see how it could protect Tehran from a missile fired deep inside the Pakistani territory.
For 600 years the foreign policy of England was to prevent the emergence of a hegemon on the Continent. They were quite successful in it and thus there never was a state powerful enough in Europe to maintain the peace. That all ended with WWII - England ushered in US and USSR as the hegemons of Europe. Note that once the Eastern Hegemon withdrew - war broke out.
The lesson, at least to me, is that you need a local hegemons to keep the peace. (US is still the hegemon of at least the Western part of Europe). In the Middle East you have to ask who can be the hegemon? Can US maintain the Peace? Can Turkey? Can Iran? Can Pakistan? Who is to call the shots in Persian Gulf and the Levant?
I think the militarization of space is inevitable. If you listen to Putin's speech at Munich you can see the shape of things to come: more proliferation, more militarization, and more mistrust of Western intentions. And you know what, he has a very valid point.
The kind of cooperative thread-management that you are suggesting is not doable (however desirable) since the basis for it does not exist. Who is to be protected from whom? In the Persian Gulf, are we to be protected from Israel? Or Russia? Or India? Or Pakistan? Is NATO in Afghanistan to wage a war against Taliban or to attack us from the East? Is Partnership for Peace a threat against Russia? Against Iran when the time comes? Must we in Iran be ready to occupy both Azerbaijan Republic and Georgia to pre-empt a pre-emptive attack by US-EU-NATO on us? There is a very very deep level of mistrust that goes back, in my estimation, to the Iran-Iraq War, Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, and Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The only neighbor of Iran that is not a threat to us is the Christian Armenia. All of our Muslim brothers neighborly states have this deep-seated dislike of us the causes of which you have to ask them – it was not because of anything we did to them.
Do the Iranians in their government appreciate what US is doing? I do not know. I am sure that I am not a minority of one who comprehends these types of issues, Whether that has made it into the consciousness of the Iranian decision makers, I do not know. You have to ask those who have met Iranian leaders. My hunch is that they are willing to live with US presence in the Southern part of the Persian Gulf but are discounting the threats from out-of-theatre states.
If Iran feels it necessary to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter the ambitions of Pakistan and Israel, might it be possible that a nuclear Iran would have a stabilizing effect to this regional system?
David Billington:

I fully agree that general nuclear disarmament is not practical for the forseeable future. I think that rather like peace between the major European powers, it may well become so eventually, but only after the folly of present courses has been demonstrated by a catastrophe – in this case a nuclear war.

Much of the responsibility for this situation, I am afraid, rests with the United States and Britain. When Gorbachev espoused the Pugwash/Kennan agenda for the abolition of nuclear weapons, NATO was not even prepared to concede that the use of these weapons should be restricted to the deterrence, or if necessary retaliation against, their use by others.

This was so despite the fact that it was patently obvious, at the time, that information technology was radically transforming conventional weaponry, in a way that would give the United States an unquestionable superiority in the forms of such weaponry required for waging large-scale land warfare.

To insist on the indispensability of threats of first-use, when one is their natural target, seems to me a case of shooting oneself in the foot on a truly spectacular scale. Essentially, it represents an incitement to potential enemies of the United States to think that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a kind of security panacea which can protect against American power without significant risks.

travis whetsell:

A central point comes out of the work of Bruce Blair, the former Minuteman launch control officer who is currently President of the World Security Institute -- of which central themes are elaborated in brief in his nuclear column, available at

What Blair -- and others -- have conclusively demonstrated is that the notion of strategic stability based upon a secure second strike retaliatory capability, which was fundamental to Western thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in the international system, was essentially chimerical. As he established in his seminal 1993 study The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, the actual nuclear posture of the United and the Soviet Union was not designed to ride out an attack, but rather to launch on warning. The reason for this was not that those who did the planning were wicked men. It was that a secure second strike retaliatory capability presupposes a command and control system which is robust against nuclear attack. Neither American or Soviet military planners thought they had such a system.

Accordingly, the confrontation was on a hair trigger. And, as Blair demonstrates, when two nuclear arsenals are on a hair trigger the risks of inadvertent nuclear war are very considerable.

Attempts to get out of the dilemmas posed by command and control vulnerability get one into insuperable problems. Essentially, the more one tries to maintain effective central control, to minimise risks of accidental use, the more one renders oneself vulnerable to decapitation.

It is highly likely that the same problems are already occurring in the subcontinent. My suspicion is that a multipolar arms race is likely to be more potentially unstable than a bipolar one.

We shall see.
Reading all these erudite commentaries, I am left aghast with two frightening factbasedrealities.

First - there are no good options and no concensus on what to do about Iran, - or Iraq for that matter.

Second and far more alarming, is the factbasedreality that no matter what idea's, or policies, or visions, however brilliant, or logical, or bipartisan, or workable - may be put forward, - the fascist warmongers, profiteers, and religious fanaticus in the Bush government will continue "full steam ahead", obdurate, and unrestrained in the reckless escalation of the war in Iraq, the needless provocations and preparations for war against Iran, the ruthless dismembering of the Constitution, the insipid perverting of the core principles that formally defined America, the throwing of sand in the face of the rule of law and the laws of the land, and the arrogant spitting in the face of the American people and congress who are demanding accountability, a real plan, and a "change of course" in Iraq, and openly resisting another ill-concieved, woefully mismanaged, deceptive, enormously bloody, costly, noendinsight horrorshow, and excuse for wanton profiteering against Iran.

I want answers, not socalled realist regurgitations of information we already know.

What do, or can American do to constrain the Bush government bloody, costly, FAILING, reckless warmaking machinations?

What are the justifications for military engagement against Iran?

How much will said engagement cost the American people in blood and treasure.

What will define victory in a military engagement against Iran?

How long will American soldiers be committed to such an engagement, and what is the exit strategy?

What are the ultimate objectives of military engagement against Iran?

And lastly, MOST IMPORTANTLY, and most poignantly - and I want answers - not chatter and cloaked gibberish - who profits from a military engagement against Iran?
@tony foresta

Who profits is always the best question to ask!

I see it like that, George W. Bush is nothing but a sales-agent for the Standard-Oil offspring, the weapons-industry and the ones who charge the interest on the money that is being spend on those in terms of stabilization or national/international security strategically, totally destructive wars. There are solely logical strategical interests in the inevitability of the cumulative destabilization caused for years to come. And if someone accuses me of "conspiracy theorism", please be so kind to check out Exxon's profit and the profit of other companies in the mentioned sectors since the beginning of the war in Iraq.

The dubious structure of the Federal Reserve plays also an interesting part. It is not very different in Europe, for the sake of objectivity.

This is not an implication of a supposable necessity for revolutionary changes. There will always be powerful interests which are not easily checked and balanced, but it is also the people's fault if they accept "elections" like Bush vs. Al Gore. Who would definitely not have benefited from the presidency of the "pro-green-politician-Al Gore"? He is one of those guys who do not easily engage in military conflicts, agreements on weapons-trade that's the most you get out of guys like Al Gore, unless a real danger emerges from nowhere.

No one can persuade me that George W. Bush or anyone in the cabinet actually believed in a quick Iraq solution,...the destabilization of the region and the "kind of war" in Iraq were not secrets, this is not about misjudgment or ideological misguidance, this is about intentional ignorance and arbitrary use of power. The head of the US government has enough resources to get the applicable prediction on the most probable short- and longterm outcomes and costs of the war in Iraq. And he did get predictions, but all he cared about were the above mentioned interests and some strategical goals as follows to ensure a positive outcome for the above mentioned interests:

1. provocation of a Sunni-Shiite conflict throughout the Middle East , making the Saudis even more "cooperative" since the Shiite population sits on their oil (or Bahrain).
2. Strengthening of Israel's position through intensification of conflicts within the Muslim world.
3. Diversion of attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
4. Securing strategical military bases.
5. Destruction of the deterrence towards Iran by removal of Hussein and Taliban in the knowledge that a stronger Iran will make Iranian adversaries more cooperative concerning further US military involvement in the region.
6. Achieving a complete military encirclement on Iran.
7. Occupying "the oil street" in Iran, and if "the oil street" is blocked by Iran, this is a "causus belli" under international law anyway.

Surprisingly Iran`s Ahmadinedschad said everything possible to increase the odds of an US attack against Iran and said everything to maneuver his country into unacceptability of the Iranian nuclear program and a "back against the wall-position", the consequence, even if Tehran faces an US attack the suspension of nuclear activity will mean to lose face, therefore not possible, therefore US attack probable.

However, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has to be at least hampered, Iran has to suspend nuclear activity or carry the consequences.

I am very curious about Russia in the future. Something like a little cold war in the Middle East is emerging according to Putin's rhetoric. And this is also because the US government decided to expand missile defense further to Eastern Europe, right now, in those days, well, now that's really shaking international security.

No matter what happens the profiteers remain the same as mentioned above, no average citizen has anything to gain, neither from the war in Iraq nor from a confrontation with Iran, and if Iran has become dangerous to international security it is mainly because of the war in Iraq and previous support of Hussein.

Unless the American people beat George W. out of the White House and the Iranian people revolt against the regime of the Mullahs there will be a military conflict sooner or later, realistically spoken there will be a conflict.

And if someone is into securing oil for the West and rubbish of that kind, you can do lots of research with 400 billion Dollars or raise the overall quality of American infrastructure up to the level of "Silicon Valley". Unfortunately the profiteers will be the people and the country as a whole, well that's probably not the plan.
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