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May 10, 2010

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Even if we take it as true that Iran is seeking to actually produce nuclear weapons, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons can be used to support an offensive strategy. Even if Iran had a record of such offensive activities, which ... it doesn't. But you know, if my grandmother had balls she'd be my grandfather, and a nuclear-armed grandfather is a threat to national security we can't possibly abide. Or something.

The thing is, you can't threaten people with nukes except in retaliation. You can't actually use them without inviting your own destruction. They are not useful weapons in border wars and you'd have to be out of your mind to think that you could get away with supplying them to terrorist organizations that might use them to attack Israel or the US. Unlike North Korea, Iran's leaders have shown no sign of being out of their mind - assholes, sure, but not crazy.

I don't think Iran's program is purely peaceful, I think that it's aimed at "virtual deterrent" capability, which is even more useless than actual weapons for supporting offensive actions. But they'd hardly be unique in having a dual-purpose nuclear program, since that's what the US, USSR, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and (almost certainly) Israel did. Nuclear power technology naturally leads to potential nuclear weapons capabilities, as is clear from the histories of various nuclear weapons establishments with their close ties to civilian nuclear power facilities.

The comparison to Pakistan is often made, but remember that Pakistan had a nuclear-armed opponent with which it had conducted several wars right next door, so it had good reason to build & test weapons since India had already done so. I think the more likely path for Iran is that they continue with their current program despite international pressure, they protect themselves adequately against an Israeli strike, and they correctly judge that they can stay just below the threshold where the US will attack, believing that in the long run, their status as a virtual nuclear power will become uncontroversial, and their common interests with much of the world will end most of the sanctions and other pressures, sooner or later.

This is of course boring, does not involve anyone landing on a banner-bedecked aircraft carrier wearing a codpiece, and has the US not getting what it wants. Perhaps that might remind us that not getting what we want is not the end of the world.

Unlike North Korea, Iran's leaders have shown no sign of being out of their mind - assholes, sure, but not crazy.

And even then, NoKo hasn't done anything loco with the nukes. Yet.

Jacob, I disagree about the utility of nukes, particularly in a countries such as N Korea or Iran. Nukes are not just retaliatory unless that word is used in a very, very broad since. Rather, the role of nukes in the hands of a N Korea or Iran is to make the risk of a successful conventional war, i.e. a counter-invasion, against either country almost impossibly high--the greater our success in a conventional campaign, the lower the nuclear threshold becomes for the losing side (which is the 'survival' thing thing that I think the DOD study is talking about--a non-nuclear Iran faces no existential threat, and so requires no nukes to assure its survival). With the risk of a conventional conflict so high, only the direst, most compelling circumstances would justify a direct confrontation with either country. We've make ourselves ready to take that risk if N Korea invades S Korea or if it launches a missile against Japan. But, to illustrate why nukes still make a huge difference, if N Korea did invade S Korea, we would be limited to a defensive and inconclusive battle only, since threatening the survival of the regime with a counter-invasion would lower the nuke threshold and make a first strike by the North worth the risk (to the North, not to us).

Being hemmed in geographically, N Korea has no where to go. The Iranian situation is much worse because of its common borders and ability to project force in its immediate vicinity. A nuclear-armed Iran could invade Saudi Arabia, Iraq or any number of other countries and, as in the case with N Korea, the survival of the Iranian regime could never be threatened (by the West or by a neighbor poised to successfully invade) in reprisal because they have the nuke option available. Thus, the most the West or a neighbor could ever do in response to an Iranian military incursion would be to push the Iranian army back to its borders but leave the regime intact.

A minimally nuclear-armed belligerent can be forced to surrender unconditionally only if its opponent is willing to strike first and eliminate the belligerent's nuclear capacity. Since that is impossible from a practical standpoint, Iran indeed guarantees its survival, no matter how badly it behaves up to but not including first use of a nuke.

A nuclear-armed Iran could invade Saudi Arabia, Iraq or any number of other countries and, as in the case with N Korea, the survival of the Iranian regime could never be threatened (by the West or by a neighbor poised to successfully invade) in reprisal because they have the nuke option available.

Why would Iran want to do any of that? Iran hasn't invaded a single country since the revolution in 1979. The DOD doesn't see that as likely, FWIW.

Thus, the most the West or a neighbor could ever do in response to an Iranian military incursion would be to push the Iranian army back to its borders but leave the regime intact.

The most? Those are pretty serious repercussions. Saddam suffered the same fate post-Kuwait invasion. It would be hard to spin that outcome as cost free. He sure wasn't going to invade another country with the US poised to repeat the process.

Generally speaking, though, our problem is indeed that we couldn't invade and topple Iran's regime. Iran knows this, and that is why it might just end up pursuing near capacity or even a weapon.

Well, I think that boils down to: you cannot force unconditional surrender on a nuclear power.

Even if that is true, unconditional surrender is not the only way to end a war, or the only risk that a country considers before taking aggressive actions. You say "the most the West or a neighbor could ever do in response to an Iranian military incursion would be to push the Iranian army back to its borders", and yet, how bad is that? A conventional defeat of that scale does not leave the country in a position to take further aggressive action, as we saw with Iraq after the Gulf War. And as long as the regime was clear that it would continue to hold power, conventional operations inside the country itself could destroy its ability to continue fighting or repeat the aggressive acts.

This isn't exactly the first time in history that a regime could make the cost of unconditional surrender so high that no opponent would think of paying it. In fact, that has often been the operating assumption, and may in itself be a damping influence on warfare rather than an inflaming one.

(Eric posted a couple of the same sentiments while I was composing, forgive the repetition.)

Why would Iran want to do any of that? Iran hasn't invaded a single country since the revolution in 1979. The DOD doesn't see that as likely, FWIW.

If Iran were rational from my point of view, it would not want to invade its neighbors or acquire nukes. It would get over its fixation with Israel and it would allow free elections. Acquiring nukes is irrational unless one expects them to serve a function at some point in the future. The question is: what function do the Mullahs have in mind?

Generally speaking, though, our problem is indeed that we couldn't invade and topple Iran's regime.

Actually, we could invade and topple--at least for a time--the present regime. The effort and blow back would be orders of magnitude greater than any immediate gain. And that is from a purely strategic perspective. The human cost of an invasion at this point makes it unthinkable.

Acquiring nukes is irrational unless one expects them to serve a function at some point in the future. The question is: what function do the Mullahs have in mind?

To prevent the United States and/or Israel from attacking it?

and yet, how bad is that?

A conventional defeat of that scale does not leave the country in a position to take further aggressive action, as we saw with Iraq after the Gulf War

There are two pieces here. First, how bad is leaving a belligerent intact? Well, how about Nazi Germany? Would you have wanted to deal with Hitler having nukes? I wouldn't. So, the answer can be, "pretty f***king bad."

The second piece is also demonstrably wrong. By the end of the Korean war, N Korea was unable to launch another attack unsupported by the PRC. That is no longer true. Another example, at the end of WWI, Germany was powerless--twenty years later it invaded Poland.

Your premises don't hold up historically or logically.

If Iran were rational from my point of view, it would not want to invade its neighbors or acquire nukes.

Are you now claiming that all countries that seek nukes or breakout capabilities are irrational? And where is the evidence demonstrating Iranian intentions to invade neighboring countries?

It would get over its fixation with Israel

Um...what fixation would that be? Is Iran more fixated with Israel than the US? Is Iran more fixated on Israel than Israel is on Iran?

and it would allow free elections.

Like China and Egypt? Or are those countries irrational too?

I think the fundamental disconnect here is that we're using different definitions for the word rational. Eric uses that word to mean 'responds to incentives in an easily understood manner' whereas you seem to use it to mean 'does things that McKinneyTexas wants them to do'.

Acquiring nukes is irrational unless one expects them to serve a function at some point in the future. The question is: what function do the Mullahs have in mind?

Um...maybe deterrence? The global hegemon did just invade countries on either side of Iran. One of those invasions was completely irrational: it made no sense at all. Therefore, it is rational for Iranian leaders to be concerned that the US will invade their country for little or no reason. And since the only reasonable deterrent against such behavior is a nuclear one, it is not at all irrational to consider seeking one.

If you remove a regime, you have a duty under international law to perform government functions until the state is able to do so on its own.

Our options are to either punish a state, but leave the government intact, or destroy the government and occupy.

Or diplomacy. And given Iran is NOT a threat to the US, and is much more of a threat to other regional actors, actors who could apply pressure if we got out of the way, seems like a good choice.

"Um...maybe deterrence? The global hegemon did just invade countries on either side of Iran. One of those invasions was completely irrational: it made no sense at all. Therefore, it is rational for Iranian leaders to be concerned that the US will invade their country for little or no reason. And since the only reasonable deterrent against such behavior is a nuclear one, it is not at all irrational to consider seeking one."

This is absolutely right. It is, unfortunately, a key factor now in the decision of how to deal with the real possibility that we have pushed Iran to the point that they believe they need to develop nuclear weapons.

All the more reason to disentangle from both of those places as soon as possible and hope that, before they have one, we can convince them they don't need one

Marty! Well spoken.

All the more reason to disentangle from both of those places as soon as possible and hope that, before they have one, we can convince them they don't need one.

If Iran really thought we were a threat, they would be far more circumspect in touting their intent to produce nukes. Iran has a very capable military and a very capable geopolitical analysis apparatus. They know, as every country in the world that performs competent geopolitical/military/strategic analysis knows, that the US is spread so thin, it couldn't credibly project force anywhere in the world for any period of time, certainly not without wholesale mobilization, which we can't afford and have no need to afford.

Secondly, any reasonably competent analyst would conclude that we do not have the stomach for any more land wars in the mid-East or anywhere else unless absolutely no other alternative exists--nor should we.

Marty, the problem with hoping is that it doesn't leave much in the way of options. It is just a likely that our departure from Iraq and Afghanistan would encourage Iran, the Great Satan being a half a world away, not next door. It is a militant, aggressive regime. True, it has not formally invaded any other country, but it has, through surrogates and otherwise, projected force in Iraq and in Israel. It is not going to change its stripes in the face of US withdrawal.

The last thing I am doing is advocating a military confrontation with Iran. But, well short of that, the US and the West need to have some idea about how to bring Iran into the general ebb and flow of peaceful interaction, and, should that fail, a strategy for an Iran that, in the out years, becomes a military aggressor.

The last thing I am doing is advocating a military confrontation with Iran. But, well short of that, the US and the West need to have some idea about how to bring Iran into the general ebb and flow of peaceful interaction, and, should that fail, a strategy for an Iran that, in the out years, becomes a military aggressor.

Um...why? Even if Iran were building nuclear weapons, that's not against the law. It would violate the Nonproliferation Treaty, but there are no punishments specified there. So why exactly should we western countries spend lots of time and effort to coerce Iran?

If Iran really thought we were a threat, they would be far more circumspect in touting their intent to produce nukes.

But McTex, they've been denying it non-stop, with the Supreme Leader issuing fatwa after fatwa declaring that not only do they not intend to build a nuke, but that doing so is prohibited by Islam.

They are not "touting" anything.

For the past 30 years we've been threatening Iran, talking up regime change, working covertly to destabilize their regime. In that time, they haven't produced any nukes. Or touted any intent to do so.

They know, as every country in the world that performs competent geopolitical/military/strategic analysis knows, that the US is spread so thin, it couldn't credibly project force anywhere in the world for any period of time, certainly not without wholesale mobilization, which we can't afford and have no need to afford.

They also know we won't stay that way. If they really want a nuke, this would seem to be the best window. BTW: this kind of contradicts your first point anyway. If they don't fear us at the moment, then they would feel less need to be cautious.

It is just a likely that our departure from Iraq and Afghanistan would encourage Iran, the Great Satan being a half a world away, not next door.

Huh? Iran has been helping us in Afghanistan. They favor the Karzai regime and oppose the Taliban. They wouldn't stop that.

It is a militant, aggressive regime.

They got a funny way of showing it.

True, it has not formally invaded any other country, but it has, through surrogates and otherwise, projected force in Iraq and in Israel.

It hasn't projected force in Israel. It has provided some support for Hamas, a group created by Israeli intell in an effort to weaken the PLO and Palestinian unity in general. As for Iraq, they have projected force by helping the same Shiite parties that we've hosted at the White House and celebrated in terms of democratic victories.

Query: if Iran is militant and aggressive, using that criteria, what are we? Peaceful and restrained?

The last thing I am doing is advocating a military confrontation with Iran. But, well short of that, the US and the West need to have some idea about how to bring Iran into the general ebb and flow of peaceful interaction, and, should that fail, a strategy for an Iran that, in the out years, becomes a military aggressor.

Iran peacefully interacts with 99% of the world. Other than Israel and the US, Iran pretty much gets along with most nations.

So much so, that the US efforts to isolate and sanction them are continuosly flummoxed by nations such as Brazil who don't want to play our game.

If Iran was an aggressively-expansionist genocidal dictatorship with military power exceeding all of its nearby rivals I'd be singing a different tune. But see above note on grandmother/balls/grandfather. Nothing rules out that Iran could become such a place but then nothing rules out that the US could become such a place.

But McTex, they've been denying it non-stop, with the Supreme Leader issuing fatwa after fatwa declaring that not only do they not intend to build a nuke, but that doing so is prohibited by Islam.

Yes, but as was pointed out in an earlier thread, nukes are weapons of mass destruction. The definition of weapons of mass destruction currently includes chemical weapons. Iran has produced chemical weapons. Therefore, the Supreme Leader is lying about nuclear weapons being prohibited by Islam. QED. (Especially considering the Shī‘ah doctrine that fatāwā can be patent falsehoods as long as it's all in the name of deceiving infidels before mass-murdering them. Or something like that.)

Especially considering the Shī‘ah doctrine that fatāwā can be patent falsehoods as long as it's all in the name of deceiving infidels before mass-murdering them. Or something like that

There is no such doctrine. This is a gross perversion of Taqiya, which does not apply.

Yes, but as was pointed out in an earlier thread, nukes are weapons of mass destruction. The definition of weapons of mass destruction currently includes chemical weapons. Iran has produced chemical weapons. Therefore, the Supreme Leader is lying about nuclear weapons being prohibited by Islam.

No, he is not lying. Khamenei was not the Supreme Leader when chemical weapons were produced by Iran. Weapons that it no longer has by all accounts.

Further, Khamenei does differentiate between nukes and other WMD.

Oh, for goodness' sake, do I really have to layer on the emoticons? It was an (apparently vain) attempt to turn the fevered rhetoric up to eleven in order to wallow in my own sarcasm.

Further, Khamenei does differentiate between nukes and other WMD.

That was my first point. Hence the false logical construction.

There is no such doctrine. This is a gross perversion of Taqiya, which does not apply.

That was my second point.

Anyway, it's my own fault. It's pretty much impossible to do satire when anything one comes up with gets trumped by drive-by commenters.

The sad thing is, MDS, I had to read your comment twice before I was sure you were being Onion-ishly sarcastic. It read awfully like Tacitus-style serious bizniz.

I am humorless.

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