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Iran and the Bomb: What If Diplomacy Fails?

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Having observed foreign policy decision-making over four decades, it's evident to me that wherever important interests are at stake, the choice among options is at best an intuitive leap rather than the outcome of some rigorous and wide-ranging cost-benefit analysis.

Sometimes decisions stem from some primitive conviction such as "All these people understand is force." Sometimes they are profoundly influenced by a decision-maker's concern with domestic politics, as in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam war.

Another common source of choice among options results from political leaders rummaging around mentally in the attic of history in a feverish search for some precedent to guide decision, which is much like a blind squirrel searching anxiously for a nut. It's a dubious exercise because history is not a set of cases; it is a raging stream of countless facts out of which we snatch a few in order to create cases which we unconsciously shape to fit our needs. And then what? How do we rationally decide whether the appropriate analogy is, for example, Munich or conversely Vietnam, whether to compromise or escalate?

I don't want to overstate the problematic character of foreign policy decisions. A person with a mind relatively free of the cruder forms of chauvinism, a person sensitive to fact, made modest by an appreciation of history's opacity, and possessing a sensibility which enables one to imagine how your adversaries may see the issues that divide you is more likely to exercise better judgment. But the fact remains, as former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, to be sure not my favorite Americans, once remarked when things did not go as planned in Iraq: When you go to war there are the known unknowns and then "there are the unknown unknowns."

The only thing I can contribute this evening is a sketch of the mental process I've gone through in trying to decide whether, if push comes to shove, the U.S. should bomb Iran to prevent it, however temporarily, from arriving at the threshold of the capacity to produce one.

When it comes to the use of force, I find myself in agreement with an observation by Winston Churchill, hardly a pacifist, who wrote in an autobiographical work: "The statesman who yields to war fever is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." In short I begin with a presumption against the use of force, so the burden of persuasion lies with the advocates of force precisely because its results have so frequently been unforeseeable and so frequently been more costly than anticipated (see, for example, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq).

In this as in other cases where force is an option, I move on from that presumption and ask myself whether the proposed use is arguably consistent with widely accepted and long-standing legal restraints on the use of force. I turn to international law not in the manner of a pagan priest genuflecting to an idol, but rather for prudential reasons. The international legal order being based on consent, each of its rules represents a consensus of states about what restraints serve their respective national interests, a calculation of national interest made after careful internal deliberation. It follows that a dramatic violation of a clear and widely-accepted rule makes the violator appear to be a rogue state, a dangerous state. To be so perceived is not in the national interest.

In addition, however, and paradoxically, a dramatic violation of accepted rules by a leading state loosens the collective perception of living within an authentic legal order; and so it contributes to the deterioration of the restraints on violence, restraints of which the U.S. was a principal architect at the end of World War II. Imagine a debate ten years from now within the Chinese leadership about whether to use force to seize the Senkakus island chain or Taiwan. If we attack Iran without horrendous consequences, our action would undoubtedly be cited by Chinese advocates of force. My premise is that a more orderly world serves U.S. interests in essence because we are a commercial Republic as opposed to a predatory imperial state like Germany at the end of the 19th Century. The legal case for attacking Iraq was weak. The legal case to justify attacking Iran is weaker still.

To be sure, there are rare occasions when assaulting another country without the justification of self-defense may be seen as morally legitimate even though illegal. If force were the only way to prevent another government from slaughtering a part of its own population, as in the case of Rwanda, its use would probably satisfy the criteria for Just War. Iran does not constitute such a case.

The existence much less the proliferation of nuclear weapons is unquestionably the greatest single threat humanity faces, a fact so brutally clear that even Henry Kissinger has belatedly become an advocate of nothing less than comprehensive nuclear disarmament. If preventing proliferation as a step toward general and comprehensive de-nuclearization had been, consistently, the top-priority of American foreign policy, then bombing Iran to the end of sustaining that policy would at least be principled in a certain sense. But it has not been a decisive priority and it is not today. One recent example of our real priorities was the decision to grant India access to advanced nuclear technology and know-how despite its acquisition of nuclear weapons. We and all other peoples have every reason to live in dread of the further spread of nuclear weapons and particularly their development or acquisition by non-governmental actors. But if we were making up a list of countries most likely to transfer weapons or nuclear materials to such groups or most likely to fail to prevent such transfer because of weak and incompetent government or corrupt officials or jihad sympathizers within the government or military institution, I should think that Pakistan would be higher on the list than Iran. Yet Pakistan has over the past decade received American billions rather than bombs and was not threatened with attack in the years it was working to join the nuclear club. While, given our other concerns, that may have been the result of a wise calculation of interests, it further evidences the selective character of U.S. concern with proliferation and the place of proliferation in general in the hierarchy of foreign policy interests.

The case for bombing Iran has essentially four arguments. One is that Iran under its present regime is an aggressive state. If its pursuit of at least the capacity to stand at the threshold of nuclear weaponization appears to be defensive in nature, then that argument falls. Whether we look at the recent or the more distant past, Iran has the character more of a victim than a predator. Iran's is a history of weakness, its political independence and territorial integrity constantly threatened by more powerful states. The British dominated the country during World War II, the Russians threatened it after the war, U.S. and British Intelligence used clandestine means to destroy its experiment with democracy in the 1950s. Iraq invaded it in 1982 and prosecuted its war of aggression with U.S. and Gulf Arab support. We have actively sought regime change for the past twenty years. The country does not have the size or the internal cohesion to be a great power. It will remain vulnerable to more powerful states. For a regime like the current one in a country with Iran's history, a weapon of mass destruction makes unfortunate sense as a guarantor of survival.

The second argument is that the leadership is fanatic and apocalyptic, ready to assume the role of a collective suicide bomber, because it believes in divine redemption and eternal life. If there is persuasive evidence to that effect, the argument for bombing would be powerful, but among scholars and even most Iranians who oppose the regime, I find no conviction that the leadership is either suicidal or nuts, assuming the two are different.

The third argument is that a nuclear Iran would trigger more extensive proliferation in the Middle East. That I think is a real risk, but one we should be able to manage by making our de facto guarantee of protection for the Saudis and Emirati people conditional on their not going nuclear. The risk to them will remain one of conventional war or subversion. And to counter those threats we have impressive means.

The fourth is that a nuclear Iran would become the regional hegemon. That argument does not pass the laugh test: The U.S. is the regional hegemon and can remain so as long as it wishes.

Just war requires confidence on the part of those initiating it that more good than harm will result. We can feel no such confidence. An attack if it comes will begin with the suppression of air defense systems which would presumably include communications systems and possibly electrical systems. Then it will be extended to the various nuclear facilities, to laboratories and enrichment sites. In other words it will be very extensive and even without escalation will kill or cripple many hundreds possibly thousands of people, including scientists, engineers, administrators, clerks and other civilians all of whom will have parents, children extended families and friends. All of them will curse our name. We will be killing people from the educated classes, the natural enemies of this regime. Nothing is certain, but the likelihood is that the attack will strengthen the regime by displacing the rage of its internal opponents and by justifying more draconian internal security measures.

And then we get to the most salient known unknowns. Will the regime escalate by attacking the Gulf oil and gas fields and refineries? If it does, or if it fires missiles at Israel, we will be in an escalation scenario that could set the region aflame. There is another known unknown. Will this third assault on a Muslim nation within a dozen years strengthen the bin Laden narrative in which asymmetrical war against the West is a defensive response to unrelenting aggression? Will it strengthen the capacity of terrorist groups to recruit and finance their activities at a time when the Maghreb, the Middle East and West Asia are experiencing social and political upheaval?

Bombing Iran will be an isolated, improvised and ultimately probably futile step toward preventing further proliferation, a step which, ironically, is likely to strengthen the conviction of governing elites in weaker states that the only guarantee of security from stronger states is to stealthily acquire and probably preposition weapons of mass destruction and then announce their existence when existentially threatened.

For all of the reasons I've sketched, I conclude that the presumption against the use of force has not yet been overcome.