February 28, 2006

Don't Worry. Be Happy About Iran

If I listened long enough to you,
I'd find a way to believe that it's all true.
Knowing that you lied, straight-faced, while I cried,
Still I'd look to find a reason to believe.

-- "A Reason To Believe"

IS IT TOO MUCH TO ASK that a rich and powerful organ grinder like the New York Times spend a little money and hire a "Stupidity Editor" (SE) ? No, not an internal SE, since just riding herd on the anonymous Editorial scribblers would be a full time job for at least five Pulitzer finalists, but simply an external SE to play "Katie, bar the door!" for all the gunk that consistently seeps onto the OP portion of the OP/ED page.

An old friend who works at the New York Times once confessed to me, not without a certain shame, that the overarching game plan of the Times was to become "the national newspaper of teachers and college professors." And in this they are, beyond a doubt, succeeding. But that does not mean they have to give space every other day to the kind of sludge seeping from the hyperbolic sump pumps that ceaselessly churn in the petrified forests of the Groves of Academe.

Today's seepage is entitled, in a heart warming and positive manner, We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran . It was pumped out of the fervid mind of one Barry R. Posen, a professor of political "science" at MIT. It is a soothing, calming item that, blithely overlooking the unremitting dementia that has ruled Iran for decades, purports to prove that a nuclear Iran would simply be a 'management' problem for the Western Elites to 'handle.' On the one hand, the message of the essay is "Don't worry. Be happy," while on the other it is the parallel message of "What? Me worry?"

While there may in some alternate universe be a cogent argument for simply kicking back and letting events in Iran unfold as they will, there's nothing resembling it in Mr. Posen's article. The unstated premise is that an Islamic nuclear weapon developed by the world's leading Radical Islamic state would forever remain specific to that state. This concept evolves from the idea that nation states are still the only social structures of significance in the 21st century. It's a tidy concept, but it is wrong. The globalization of ideology driven by instant communication and the ability of men and material to be anywhere on earth within 48 hours, makes Posen's premise of nation states as the only significant actors on the world stage quaint to say the least.

What the "What? Me worry?" intellectuals in our universities fail to see, or, seeing, fail to credit, is the fact that Islamic Fascism is a global virus which is replicating with all the speed of other viruses in the modern age. Indeed, it is currently outpacing avian flu. While it may take the resources of a state controlled by religious fanatics and fat with oil funds to create a nuclear weapon, the distribution network for such devices is already in place use them.

For example: If we can only monitor 5% of the containers coming into US ports, how many containers can Mexico monitor? Indeed, to deliver a nuclear weapon to Mexico, you don't need a container or a port of entry at all. A fast boat and a beach in the Yucatan will do quite nicely, thank you. Once that's done, you don't have to control a US port to attack the US with a nuclear weapon, or even drive it into the country. You

merely have to get it into Mexico and truck it to the border fence at Juarez. Nuclear blasts are not stopped by border guards. [See Nukes South of the Border Will Do Nicely, Thank You published here in November of 2004.]

Still, Posen has no fret in him. He begins with a soothing bromide followed by a hopeful assertion:

Indeed, while it's seldom a positive thing when a new nuclear power emerges, there is reason to believe that we could readily manage a nuclear Iran.
Reflecting on that statement one could reasonably wonder about the odd moment when it is a positive thing to have a new member of the nuclear club. Denmark, perhaps? One would think that any increase in this club, especially now that North Korea's in, does not improve the prospects for world peace, something that Mr. Posen obviously yearns for.

As for Posen's "reason to believe," well there is always a "reason" to "believe" in a positive political outcome when dealing with Fascist states. That this belief is regularly confounded in past and present history has to also be factored into the equation. Mr. Chamberlain had many reasons to believe he had achieved "Peace in our time," when all he had achieved was to give the Nazi state the time and the space to arm and maneuver. Fascist states, during their rise, depend on reasoned diplomacy to buy them time while they fashion a larger stick. When it comes to dealing with Fascists, as a friend of mine once said in a different context, "Hope is the enemy."

The United Nations recently went through numerous iterations of hoping, and threw away many years and many more lives with their "reasons to believe" that Saddam Hussein would comply with their various demands backed by huffery and puffery. It went on believing right up to the point that their mission to Iraq was blown to bits in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq. The UN is currently following the same secular religious notion in the Sudan and elsewhere with similar tragic and criminal results.

Allowing Iran to build nuclear weapons carries with it the very real potential for untold horrors in the Middle East and beyond, but Mr. Posen is not impressed.

A Middle Eastern arms race is a frightening thought, but it is improbable.
When it comes to a Middle East arms race on the nuclear level, I'd submit that to simply say, "Oh, that's improbable," doesn't really answer to the level of risk involved. I'm quite sure that people such as Mr. Posen would find any level of risk of a nuclear leak from a nuclear power-plant within a hundred miles of MIT and Harvard utterly probable and hence unacceptable. Yet he seems to greet the prospect of a Mid East arms race as distant even when the whole history of the region has been to arm and to train and to terrorize and to kill at the retail and wholesale level whenever and wherever possible.

Posen cites the possible runners against Iran in his "improbable" race as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Then he tells you why they don't count. (Strangely, he omits Iraq with whom Iran has warred before and against whom it currently is in the midst of a classic proxy war. )

He correctly states that Israel is already a nuclear power, but fails to take that to its obvious conclusion. It seems to me that if you add Iran to the list of Mid East nuclear powers, you've got two runners and a de facto arms race the moment Iran has one functioning nuclear weapon.

Posen also notes that, "Iranian weapons might coax the Israelis to go public with their arsenal and to draw up plans for the use of such weapons in the event of an Iranian military threat." In this, Posen confirms the dependable contention: "If you want ordinary opaqueness you should talk to somebody in the State Department, but if you wish some of the finest, densest, dumbest thoughts on the state of the world, nothing less than a Political Science professor will do."

Is there anyone in the world who thinks that the Israeli nuclear arsenal does not exist? If not, then exactly what do the Israelis have to go public about? It is a matter of Israeli policy that they do not discuss their nuclear capability, just as it is a matter of American policy that we don't hand out the locations of our on-station ballistic missile submarines. A "formal announcement" by Israel is a state of reality only a diplomat or sodden academic thinks is important. And then, not very.

As for some future moment when Israel stops and says, "Iran. We can't believe we haven't gotten around to making a plan for dealing with Iran. We'd better get busy," does Posen actually believe that this hasn't been done? I'd be willing to bet Mr. Posen all my net worth to all his net worth that the Jericho missiles already have the targeting data for Iran uploaded, and that the Israeli fighter/bombers tasked to deal with Iran and incoming threats already sit on the hot pads around the clock.

As for Egypt as a player in an nuke race, Posen posits that "Cairo depends on foreign assistance, which would make Egypt vulnerable to the enormous international pressure it would most likely face to refrain from joining an arms race." If the question were moved this afternoon that might be the case, but the idea that Egypt cannot become controlled by Islamic forces in the future is, again, one that can gain a lot of traction in a very short time given the swelling numbers of the Egyptian population under the control of the mullahs.

Posen also takes Saudi Arabia out of the nuclear arms race by asserting that although they've got the money to buy them, nobody would sell them to the Saudis. Nope, never, ever, ever even if Iran put the House of Saud on the "To Be Barbecued Next" menu. Not even then would the Saudis offer their not inconsiderable purchasing power up to the world. I'm sure it never crosses their minds.

As for Saudi Arabia making their own nukes at home: "To develop the domestic scientific, engineering and industrial base necessary to build a self-sustaining nuclear program would take Saudi Arabia years." That seems true enough. In the same vein, it would take me years to pull together the resources to build my own Toyota in my garage, but if I have money I simply buy one. I may have to spend a lot for a special edition with a 40 megaton warhead, but hey, that's why I have money in the first place.

Turkey's the last on Posen's list of arms race entrants, but Turkey's out because Turkey .... wait for it... "as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it relied on American nuclear guarantees against the mighty Soviet Union throughout the cold war. There's no obvious reason to presume that American guarantees would seem insufficient relative to Iran."

Really? Here's one obvious reason that Posen seems to have missed. If, after repeated assurances from the United States that Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons at all, the US then allows that to happen, the word of the US -- which is what Posen's "guarantees" are based on -- might not be seen by our allies in the Middle East as worth, well, squat. If the police in my town keep telling me that my insane neighbor will not be allowed to have a gun under any circumstances, and I look my window one morning to see him aiming a machine gun at my house under banner that says, "Go ahead. Make my day," I'm hopping a jet to the arms bazaar in Peshawar that afternoon.

Of course, Posen doesn't want you to think that he doesn't understand reality. He does. It is simply his own private reality.

Iranian nuclear weapons could be put to three dangerous purposes: Iran could give them to terrorists; it could use them to blackmail other states; or it could engage in other kinds of aggressive behavior on the assumption that no one, not even the United States, would accept the risk of trying to invade a nuclear state or to destroy it from the air. The first two threats are improbable and the third is manageable.
Actually, there are 4 (four) uses to which Iranian nuclear weapons could be put. The one Posen forgets to mention is actually using them from Iranian soil to attack any country within range of Iran's current and future delivery vehicles, of which Israel is currently on the public Iranian list. North Korea is currently known to have rockets capable of reaching the United States, and many things in that country are readily for sale. The same rocket in Iranian hands would put all of Europe under the shadow of an Iranian nuclear threat. And that is simply the most obvious, unstealthy method of delivering the goods. Death from above, Islamic style.

Posen, probably aware that the direct use of nukes was conveniently left out of the previous statement, includes it as an afterthought in the next.

Would Iran give nuclear weapons to terrorists? We know that Tehran has given other kinds of weapons to terrorists and aligned itself with terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. But to threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target.
We note here that the second sentence does not answer the question posed in the first. We assume this answer is elided because a potential answer is, "Yes, based on previous evidence, Iran would."

But Posen isn't worried in any case because, at the deepest level, Posen believes, as do so many other baffled American "intellectuals" that the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) which seemed to work during the Cold War will still hold true in the First Terrorist War:

Anyone who attacks the United States with nuclear weapons will be attacked with many, many more nuclear weapons. Israel almost certainly has the same policy. If a terrorist group used one of Iran's nuclear weapons, Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon's origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran. No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity.
This sort of thinking is simply MAD Redux; the foundation of which is that all parties capable of initiating a nuclear exchange are, at the end of the day, sane and reasonable men who care more for the survival of themselves and their state than they do for the triumph of their ideology. But if one of the parties that can initiate a nuclear exchange is a host of true believers whose vision of ultimate victory is one of their ideology's ultimate triumph over the entire world at some future point in time; and if that party sees tens of millions of dead humans as a small price to pay for the ultimate ascension of Islam, then we are hostages in a lethal landscape where the premises of MAD no longer apply. We are trapped in the realm of the religiously and criminally insane.

Posen apparently believes that the rulers of Iran are sane, reasonable men with whom one can negotiate. Like Putin in Russia, Posen evidently believes that the Iranian fascists are people with whom the West can do business. Not knowing any of them personally, I can't say this is not so with any assurance, but it seems the way to bet. Perhaps Mr. Posen has the advantage of me here and has spent some extended time with the Iranian fascists. For myself, I have only their statements and policies and actions to go by, and the items of sanity expressed by Iran over the past few decades is not, shall we say, a long list.

Of course, Iranian Fascists may be sane after all and stop at just threatening to use their weapons once they have them. Not to worry, Posen is blithe on this matter as well.

Because many of Iran's neighbors lack nuclear weapons, it's possible that Iran could use a nuclear capacity to blackmail such states into meeting demands — for example, to raise oil prices, cut oil production or withhold cooperation with the United States. But many of Iran's neighbors are allies of the United States, which holds a strategic stake in their autonomy and is unlikely to sit by idly as Iran blackmails, say, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
By my count, none of Iran's neighbors have nuclear weapons with the possible exception of, by extension into the coalition forces, Iraq. Again, if after swearing that Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, the United States permits them, through inaction, to have nuclear weapons, the neighbors of Iran can no longer be sure of the word of the US at all. At that point, Iranian blackmail would be the plat de jour every day. Say hello to $10 gasoline, goodbye to Posen's happy little world of the unworried West. MIT might actually have to cut back on sabbaticals.

Posen then plods on to "The Final Concern" which, of course, does not trouble his sleep at all.

The final concern is that a nuclear Iran would simply feel less constrained from other kinds of adventurism, including subversion or outright conventional aggression.
Oh, pish and posh thinks Posen.
.... the Gulf states can counter Iranian subversion, regardless of Iran's nuclear status, with domestic reforms and by improving their police and intelligence operations — measures these states are, or should be, undertaking in any case.
Yes indeed. All those Gulf states which have, to date, been so overwhelmingly successful in stemming the growth of Islamic fascism within their own borders, are going to either get better at it, or get started doing it... real soon now. Perhaps Mr. Posen believes the glass is half full in this regard, but I tend to think it is half-empty and fitted with a nuclear powered Iranian siphon.

Posen's conclusions are as calm, soothing, therapeutic, and inconclusive as his propositions.

As for aggression, the fear is that Iran could rely on a diffuse threat of nuclear escalation to deter others from attacking it, even in response to Iranian belligerence. But while it's possible that Iranian leaders would think this way, it's equally possible that they would be more cautious.
In other words: They could think this way, or they could think that way. They could stand on their heads and juggle their nukes. They could throw them over their shoulder like a Continental Soldier. All possibilities are, if you are lulled by Posen, "equally possible." Which means that there is a 50% chance they'd get serious about using them. Mr. Posen may like these odds, but I prefer a game in which the Iranians have nothing in their hand to use to begin with.

It is, after all, a bit more than a game that is being played out in that region of the world. It is a war that can, if not contained, sweep the world into its train. And the tool that would be most handy to have when it came to sweeping the whole world into war, is the tool the Islamic Fascists in Iran and throughout the world want the most, nuclear weapons. Even one would be enough to trigger their longed-for Gotterdammerung. Which is why even one is one too many for the world to tolerate.

Posted by Vanderleun at February 28, 2006 8:37 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Thanks for blowing this one apart, and so quickly. We had better strike Iran before this Posen meme takes hold among the left. This means next month (before their reprocessing advances), not next year, when this meme becomes the left's party line. If we had moved more quickly against Iraq, we would have recovered those WMDs before they had been shipped off to Syria (and, possibly Russia). I pray we won't make the same mistake twice.

Posted by: Eric Gagnon at February 28, 2006 2:22 PM

Yet another fine piece, Gerard. But I have no doubt what your adversaries would say:

"If you gave us time to change your mind,
"You'd find a way to leave all the past behind..."

Be well.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at February 28, 2006 3:24 PM

Nope, I'm taking the past with me and, in time, will write the truth about all of it.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at February 28, 2006 4:07 PM

Posen remind me of the character in the film Ridicule. After careful, logical argument to prove the existence of God, he then said, (paraphrasing), 'And if you like, I can disprove God's existence as well.'

Posted by: Kerry at February 28, 2006 4:13 PM


I am living in a nightmare. I thought perhaps this was some parallel (sic?) universe like the Bizarro World from the Superman comics - a result of reading too much. I know!! - I blew a fuse from too much study and what I am seeing is not really happening. No, it is there - it is 1938 all over again and Neville Chamberlain is waving papers with signatures that are not worth the ink they were written with. Germany arms!!It cannnot be - our intellectual elites, and others - the ones with the access to the newspapers - the ones with tenure at the socialist universities - the ones that select what is stocked in the college bookstores are saying there is no danger. Go back to sleep, America, it's not our problem. There's no danger (hey, great, American Idol is on tonight!!) We are safe behind our two oceans. Let the fascists have what they want - we can manage them besides who would be foolish enough to attack the U.S., the sleeping giant?

I think we are in serious trouble because half of America and the west in general has lost the will to survive.

Posted by: Chester at February 28, 2006 4:35 PM

The past is arguable, the present does not exist, the future just arrived and became the past immediately. Which is just as well, because there seems to be little future for the future ... if your analysis is sound - and I fear it is. The problem seems to be that 'Western Civilisation' does not permit us to take the 'uncivilised' steps that are necessary to protect it. And as if the boog-Iran isn't enough, hovering above are the winged messengers of doom crapping their pandemic lethal spores on us and our free-range fowl from a great height. I am on the direct flightpath of 100,000 pink footed geese and their daily forays to and fro their feeding grounds and nesting reserves. Moreover, I just got a notice of intended prosecution through the post extorting £60 for me for whizzing along at 36 mph in a 30 mph zone in leafy Berkshire last weekend, this completely unnecesssary and unjustified restriction recently imposed only to increase the revenue of the local constabulary. I am therefore in favour of nuking Thames Constabulary Headquarters, at Banbury Oxon, in the United Kingdom - forthwith! Iran can wait until next week.

Posted by: Frank P at February 28, 2006 4:44 PM

The West has for too long been meddling in the affairs of other countries. Because of the past or present crimes of the likes of Churchill, Reagan or Bush, ordinary people the world over suffer. In some quarters, evil men such as Churchill (an imperialist racist tyrant) are idolised as saviours of small nations. Well, ask the Irish, the Iranians or the whole African continent, and they wouldn't agree that Churchill was a saviour of the weak and downtrodden. Churchill is the other half of the same cloth that Hitler came from. It is time for those who condemn Hitler to condemn Churchill as well. Big colonial powers, not innocent people or small peaceloving nations, won both world wars and are now intent on dominating the world in the current war (maybe world war 3). This should never be forgotten.

The West still thinks it is the world saviour, only now it is more America's role (Britain is in the backseat). Iran is not perfect by any means (no country is) but its young and educated population will sort out something by themselves to place secularism and religiousity into their proper places while safeguarding human rights. Iran's current system is more sophisticated than many other states in the area and - only for Axis of Evil speach - was well on its way to being a secular democracy. However, Axis of Evil speach made things messy with more Iranians actually voting for extremer people and more politicians (even the educated and almost definitely secular PhD graduate (with that education, you believe in more than Adam and Eve and heaven and hell), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) playing the game of being the anti-Western person to avenge calling the nation Axis of Evil. Ahmadinejad, like Bani Sadr, uses extremist religious movements to do his dirty work for him. However, Bani Sadr found out that they became powerful and didn't need him anymore .. Ahmadinejad needs to be careful by courting favours off of people like Mesbah Yazdi who could challenge the ruling conservative but pragmatic Ayatollah and abandon the Presidency altogether! Guys like Yazdi do not have the true support of Iran's disaffected youth but are:

1. The only ones who seem to listen to genuine poverty issues.
2. They are untested by a population tired of the current economic mess and see the West as someone who is adding to their problems.

If Yazdi becomes the next Supreme Leader, bans the Presidency and sets up a neo-Taliban regime, then the Axis of Evil speach is to blame. The West had Iran onboard almost in December 2001 and they should not forget that. Yazdi was a remote force then, but now he is so popular and powerful that even the President and current Supreme Leader have to listen to him and not anger him.

Posted by: jppowerus at February 28, 2006 5:40 PM

Frank P gets the Monty Python Award for the Month. May there always be an England even under Islamic control!

As for JP Powerus, why yes, the Axis of Evil speech is clearly the one moment in the last thousand years that is to blame.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at February 28, 2006 7:01 PM

JP Powerus posts a comment calling Churchill, Reagan and Bush EVIL and you respond to him - a stinging putdown, true, but a response still - instead of instructing the stormtroopers to invade his home, kill his hampsters and convert him to rationality? You suffer fools with admirable restraint, Gerard.

Posted by: AskMom at February 28, 2006 8:32 PM

Gerard I really enjoy your writing and count you as an inspiration for my own blogging.

Interesting and (to me at least) unexpected take from Thomas P.M. Barnett though:

Yes, yes, we must also worry about Iran’s slow-motion reach for the bomb, but as Barry Posen so reasonably argues, even that much-dreaded long-term scenario changes very little in the region, except perhaps to, yet again, freak the Saudis out more, something I think most reasonable people welcome.

In the end, Iran gets the bomb because Iran is logically a great power--the great indigenous power in the Gulf. And we’ll figure out how to accept that “unacceptable” outcome just like we have with India, and Israel, and Pakistan.

And our efforts, along with those of other interested great powers, to achieve regional security will be accelerated--not derailed--by Iran’s inevitable achievement. And in that pathway Israel’s security will finally be achieved.

Again, all more risky than sitting with the status quo. But if you want the Long War to get done as quickly as possible, you accept that risk, and that tumult, and the lost lives, and you commit yourself more and more to the real task at hand: spreading the connectivity of the global economy and shrinking the Gap.

On the other hand, maybe he's nuts too.

Posted by: Count Grecula at March 1, 2006 1:13 AM

Way off the point but I'm reminded of an idea from a WaPo op ed on nuclear proliferation a year or so ago. If it is possible for a University phyics department in, say, Riyadh to manufacture a couple of nukes (and set them off in Tel Aviv or Manhattan), the physicists at a university in Tel Aviv or Bombay or Copenhagen have the same ability.

Gerard, thanks for your blog.

Posted by: Jim in Virginia at March 1, 2006 10:05 AM

That politics is thought to be a science is absurd. Thus, it is with disgust that I read that people receive degrees in Political Science. It should stay in the Philosophy department!

We are failing to seize the advantage with Iran and this comes at great peril to our Republic. There remians no mystery behind the intent of Persia.

Posted by: Washington at March 1, 2006 10:55 AM

I happened to read the Posen article shortly before going to my favorites and was wondering if I would find a critic. Well done. Hope is the enemy indeed. cousin mike

Posted by: michael mcnair at March 2, 2006 11:53 AM