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The Schizophrenic Debate over War with Iran

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Despite huge flaws in his argument, Matthew Kroenig’s article in Foreign Affairs, “Time to Attack Iran”, probably sums up the case for war with Iran about as well as any article I’ve read--and I spent the last week trying to read them all. Like all Iran-war-pushers, Kroenigs forces his readers to perform amazing feats of mental dexterity, asking them to believe two contradictory ideas at the same time.

But don’t take my word for it, here are a bunch of Doctors of Philosophy saying so:

“When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take.”

Stephen Walt

“The same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things, according to Kroenig, turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S.-declared “redlines,” once the United States starts waging war on it.”

Paul Pillar

“Ironically, Kroenig believes that a nuclear-armed Iran would be deeply irrational and prone to miscalculation yet somehow maintains that under the same leaders, Iran would make clear-eyed decisions in the immediate aftermath of a U.S. strike.”

Colin H. Kahl

Iran’s leaders can’t have the bomb; they’re irrational. But don’t worry, if we attack Iran, they’ll respond rationally. Huh? Realistically, rationality doesn’t matter; Iran’s leaders will probably escalate if America attacks and kills scores of Iranian civilians, rational or irrational.

The anti-war-with-Iran crowd has almost universally called out this argument for being (in my words) schizophrenically contradictory. But another contradiction has, so far, avoided a rhetorical thrashing at the hands of fellow academics. I call it the intelligence problem:

1. On the one hand, we cannot definitively prove that Iran has a nuclear weapon.

2. Despite poor intelligence, we can wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities. All of them.

Let’s start with the intelligence. The bottom line: we don’t have it. If we did, Israel or America would have already launched (or made the case to launch) a military strike. Two different “National Intelligence Estimates” have failed to prove the existence or threat of Iran’s nuclear program. While the IAEA would like additional inspections and can’t rule out an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it can’t rule it in either.

The inherent difficulties in gathering accurate intelligence--and publicizing it--shouldn’t lower the bar required to start a war. One would think Iraq showed the need for excessively thorough intelligence.
   
Nevertheless, without evidence to even prove the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, supporters of war with Iran believe we have enough evidence to completely wipe that program off the face of the earth--the very program whose existence we cannot prove. More confusingly, if we launched air strikes against Iran, how will we verify we truly wiped out their nuclear program if we couldn’t prove that the program existed before we launched the war?

Just one wild card can disrupt the entire mission against Iran. The Economist wrote an article about “ultra high-performance concrete”, an Iranian invention to guard against earthquakes. It also, conveniently, guards against explosives, like bombs. From their article:

"It is therefore anyone’s guess (at least, anyone without access to classified information) how the MOP [the largest bunker busting bomb in the U.S. arsenal] might perform against one of Iran’s ultra-strong concretes."

Concrete is only one variable. Iran could have hidden centrifuges in smaller facilities. It could store uranium in locations we don’t know about. Even the facilities we do know about could have thicker walls and different layouts than planners suspect. By listening to war hawks, though, this mission seems like a walk in the park. Like Matthew Kroenig:

“We have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent [Iran obtaining a bomb]...According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.”

All this is topped off by an unwavering belief in American military might. At least two recent articles--in The New York Times and NPR--express doubts about the abilities of Israel’s military to destroy Iranian targets, but none about our own shortcomings. Sure, the American military could defeat Iran in any military conflict, but could the U.S. destroy their nuclear program in a limited strike? I have my doubts. The U.S. military only has 20 of its “mother of all bombs” to drop; do we have enough accuracy and lethality to do the job?
   
As I said before, it amazes me that anyone in the U.S. could argue for another preventative war. Another preventative war based on the same schizophrenic contradictions as the last war.

six comments

Makes me wish Bush had developed those tactical use nuclear missiles. Wait, no it doesn’t.


I laughed out loud at that. But, on a serious note, Israel may use tactical nuclear weapons to do the job if the U.S. doesn’t back it.


I like the sneaky throw-in of “several meters” in the second Koenig quote. And then the smug “you do the math.” No, I literally cannot do the math, unless you just want me to find “x”.


It seems fairly clear that Irans leadership is actually baiting its enemies into attacking it. Perhaps in the hopes that they will be given a clear opportunity to strike against the citizens of the respective countries. The problem in any conflict is not the winning or losing, it’s the perception of aggressor or defender. Iran has shown that it wants to be seen as the heroic david vs the infidels goliath in the minds of all muslim nations. What better way to do that than to posture in such a way as to ensure an attack by a paranoid israel or america? It doesn’t even matter if they do or don’t have nuclear capabilities at the moment for weaponry. If they can win this moral positioning, they’ll gain all the support they need to obtain it eventually. Forget about enriching new supply etc there’s tons of fissile material available for enough money or for the right cause, just from the collapse of the soviet union. The entire discussion is a bit ridiculous given that fact alone.


I think the flaws in attacking are close to what you are saying Samuel. As soon as Israel or the U.S. attacks, then Iranian nuclear research goes underground and widely dispersed, in even stronger underground facilities. I still think some ME countries won’t want Iran to ever get a bomb (Israel and Saudi Arabia), but others probably wouldn’t mind.

@AJK – I would also say the Economist article on concrete amazes me. Plus, there are so many design elements that could make a tactical strike ineffective. The U.S. Air Force has gained a mythic stature when it comes to its capabilities, and that needs to be questioned. (Especially since all its new planes are fighters, not bombers.)


Let’s hope both sides get off this path to war; it’s in both’s self-interest.