Sunday, 7 April 2013

Iranian-Western Relations Part 3

Iran Part 3- what to do

I clearly miscalculated when I said that there would be a 2-part series on Iran; it is now a 4-part series.
Given that Iran may well be attempting to move towards nuclear capability or weaponisation, it is sensible to review the options available to Western governments and the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. Apologies for length and the occasional slightly technical passages, but this is a complicated and important issue which needs a thorough examination. This post will review letting Iran have a bomb, attacking their nuclear facilities, and waging low level warfare (the current policy). The next post will look at diplomatic options.

Let them get a bomb

There are some in academic circles who believe that nuclear proliferation is a force for stability in the world- notably Kenneth Waltz, the giant amongst international relations scholars, who wrote an article in Foreign Affairs recently entitled ‘Why Iran Should Get the Bomb’ ( They argue that the destructive power of nuclear weapons is so vast that no regime would ever be the first to use them, as they require ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD). Simplifying somewhat, their argument rests more or less upon historically precedent; we have had 70 years of the nuclear age and, so far, no two nuclear powers have ever gone directly to war with each other. They claim that this shows that nuclear weapons prevent leaders from going to war with other nuclear powers, lest they start a nuclear war and are both obliterated.
There are many reasons to be sceptical of this argument in any situation; it ignores the millions killed in proxy wars during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, and ignores how, in the words of the then-US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, ‘it was luck that prevented nuclear war’ ( between the US and USSR in the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis. Try to apply the argument to the modern day Middle East and things get shakier.

It’s not that Iran or any other state would be reckless enough to launch a nuclear missile at an enemy, unprovoked (as Richard Betts wrote in Foreign Affairs recently, ‘there is no evidence… that the Iranian leadership has any interest in national suicide, the likely consequence of an Iranian first nuclear strike’-; rather, wars often start from miscalculation and accident. As political scientist Scott Sagan has pointed out, accidents are a statistically inevitable part of any system (

Whilst Iran has ‘never launched a regular war against its enemies’ (Betts), the power and arrogance that can flow from having the world’s most powerful deterrent could embolden it to engage in more destabilising behaviour in the region. Waltz himself even admits that new nuclear states will ‘feel freer to make minor incursions, deploy terrorism, and engage in generally annoying behavior’ ( , and given Iran’s apparent support for the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas, this is hardly something to welcome. The respected Geoffrey Robertson QC has documented the Iranian regime’s regional and domestic human rights abuses in Mullahs Without Mercy: Human Rights and Nuclear Weapons, and points out that a nuclear Iran would be disastrous for the region. Miscalculation between Iran and the US and Israel could cause a nuclear war.

Military Strike

Interestingly, some polls of Arab opinion have shown a majority in favour of Iran having a nuclear bomb in order to deter Israel and the US, who are considered to be the greatest threats to peace in the region by far (The Wilson Center and USIP- However it seems no one seriously interested in peace and stability could be in favour of a further extension of weapons capable of destroying humanity, regardless of the fact that Iran is generally considered to be what international relations scholars call a ‘rational actor’ in the world system (that is, a regime that won’t willingly undertake activity which it knows will lead to its self-destruction).

The other extreme is a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in order to forcibly halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and (until recently) Defence Minister Ehud Barak are said to favour such an action, and there are certain sectors of the US government who are also in line with such thinking. Articles such as ‘Time to Attack Iran’ have appeared in major journals like Foreign Affairs. An article recommending a regime-toppling attack was even considered mainstream enough to be published (  Such an attack would have to take out Iran’s considerable air defences, and heavily bomb dozens of facilities all over the country, perhaps even using M.O.B’s ( or M.O.P’s ( on underground facilities like Natanz and Fordow. Consequences are hard to predict, but civilian casualties from the bombing campaign would run at least into the hundreds; the best case scenario is that the nuclear programme is set back several years and Iran fails to retaliate to the attack on its sovereignty.

A realistic assessment of possible outcomes leaves us with dire scenarios. As Robert Jervis in Foreign Affairs points out, ‘Washington knows that the likely results include at least a small war in the region, deepening hostility to the United States around the world, increased domestic support for the Iranian regime, legitimation of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and the need to strike again if Iran reconstitutes [the programme]’ ( Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (Reuters-, through which around 20% of the world’s oil supplies travel. A closure would rack the global markets and possibly send the world back into recession. Furthermore Iran is likely to respond, as any nation with substantial military capability would when attacked; Colin Kahl writes that such a retaliation would probably take the form of ‘proxy attacks against U.S. civilian personnel in Lebanon or Iraq, the transfer of lethal rocket and portable air defense systems to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, or missile strikes against U.S. facilities in the Gulf [which] could cause significant U.S. casualties, creating irresistible political pressure in Washington to respond’ ( If Israel were involved in the strike, the Iranian-backed Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas could fire masses of rockets into Israel, leading to a swift response from the government there, and potentially a new conflict in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc.) are extremely hostile to Iran, and any retaliatory attack upon them from Iran (many of them host US bases which could be a launching point for an air attack) could draw them into a huge region-wide conflict, unseen in decades. It is little surprise then, that former head of Mossad (Israel’s intelligence services) Meir Dagan has called an attack on Iran the ‘stupidest idea [he’s] ever heard’ (

Low level warfare

We are now 10 years on from the Iraq War and it would take incredible amnesia to repeat the disaster which has unfolded there; whilst the above passage was committed to the practical consequences of an attack on Iran, there is also a very strong moral and legal case to be made against a strike (this perspective on the debate is nearly invariably left out of mainstream journals and media); the afore mentioned Geoffrey Robertson QC is against an attack ‘because it’s wrong’ ( Recently a legal memo was leaked from the British government declining US requests to use British bases as a launching pad for an attack upon Iran; the memo stated that such an attack would be in violation of international law, since Iran does not yet pose a ‘clear and present threat’ (Guardian-  

A step down from a full blown strike would be low level warfare: sabotage attempts, sanctions, cyber warfare, funding opposition within Iran etc. This resembles the United States’ and Israel’s current policy. Vast sanctions have been placed upon Iran, causing the value of its currency to plummet by up to 80% in value (, and allegedly causing a pharmaceutical crisis for the population, as the sanction are so broad that civilian goods get caught up in them (Guardian-  Scientists working on Iran’s nuclear programme have been assassinated (BBC-, and the famous ‘Stuxnet’ cyber virus was thought to have originated from the US (described by some legal experts as an ‘illegal act of force’-
The murky underground war against Iran goes further; an Iranian opposition group called the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) has the public support of a number of US citizens high up in the US establishment, including James Woolsey, the former CIA director, and the former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who has campaigned to have the group removed from the US list of terrorist organisations ( The group has been previously involved in Marxist terrorist activity (testament to the fact that many sectors of the US government will work with anyone if it furthers their strategic and economic interests- Al Jazeera Senior US officials allegedly told NBC news that the MEK has been involved in assassinations of Iranian scientists, carried out with the support of Israel (  

Israel has a seemingly strange relationship with another terrorist organisation: the Sunni Jundallah. Foreign Policy reported last year on how Mossad agents posed as CIA operatives and attempted to recruit members of Jundallah to help fight the covert war against Iran ( The idea of Israel working with Pakistani-based Sunni terrorists against a Shia government would be amusing if it weren’t so troubling. There is a long history of our government and our allies working with extremist groups and Islamists to further their own interests, most famously in the 80's when they funded Bin Laden and the groups which would later become the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their fight against the USSR in Afghanistan. The consequences of that policy are well known to all.

There is of course a similar argument to be made against such a policy in Iran- not only will these actions likely backfire, as it allows the government in Iran to muster up domestic support by using the threat of hostile powers as an excuse to expand its power and control- but these activities are most probably mostly illegal and certainly immoral. We can imagine what the US response would be if Iran were assassinating its scientists and launching huge cyber-attacks on its nuclear infrastructure (indeed we know what the Israeli response would be- when the Iranian-backed Hamas or Hezbollah launch any kind of attack against Israel, Israeli officials claim that they have a ‘right to defend their country’ and respond with huge force). The murder of civilian scientists for political aims and in order to scare away graduates from pursuing such a career is the very definition of state (or state-backed) terrorism. 


  1. Good piece. Broadly, I think, agree too which may surprise you! I've really only got two points, one just giving my opinion on Waltz's opinion and the other a simple question:

    1. I've long been aware of Waltz's opinion that Iran should be allowed to get a bomb and strongly disagree on the simple argument that Iran with a bomb is a lot more dangerous than Iran without a bomb. In short, even if we accept Iran does not, at the moment, have any intention of using a nuclear bomb should they get one there is the potential that they could all the while nothing else changes. (By nothing else changing, I mean things you make reference to like Hamas and Hezbollah still existing and being backed by Iran, for example)

    2. Making the assumptions, which I do but you may deny, that Israeli civilians are less safe in a world with an Iranian nuclear weapon (even if there is no intention to use it now there are multiple situations where Iran could be tempted - future incursions in Gaza, for example?) and that Israel could never sanction the use of a nuclear bomb in retaliation to an Iranian strike (Dershowitz makes this point eloquently in a speech at a recent Stand With Us dinner), what can Israel do to prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon? Israel, in my opinion, cannot (and I think most would agree that they would not) accept a nuclear Iran which leaves a dangerous situation which, I think, will end up either of the two latter options you discuss. I hope for the sake of Iranian, Israeli and US civilians that it is most certainly not option 2, but I fear that something close to it will happen.

    There is a great video made by an Israeli which you may have seen but if not, It makes you wonder what this is all for.

  2. Thank you.

    On the first part of your comment, I do agree with you that a nuclear Iran is far more scary than a non-nuclear Iran, and I hope that came through in the post- for instance where I said 'however it seems no one seriously interested in peace and stability could be in favour of a further extension of weapons capable of destroying humanity', including to Iran. The threat, real or imagined, to Israel from a nuclear Iran would almost certainly increase tension in the region, and miscalculation could lead to a devastating war. That is why we should be seriously looking at the options available to stop this eventuality. That said, I feel that an attack on Iran would be quite possibly worse than Iran getting a bomb, especially at the moment when diplomatic doors are still open.

    To the second part, I do think it highly unlikely that the Iranian leadership would be tempted to launch a first strike on Israel unprovoked; I think the danger arises from escalating tensions on both sides and miscalculation, as on the Korean Peninsula. As Waltz admits, Iran would feel more free to make 'minor incursions, deploy terrorism' etc. which (as you point out) would endanger Israeli civilians further. My own feeling is that it is highly plausible that Israel or the US would retaliate against a nuclear attack- if not like-for-like, then the US would almost certainly launch an invasion or regime-ending bombardment of Iran, something the Iranian government almost certainly wouldn't willingly walk into.

    As for what I think Israel, the US and the international community can do: that will be the topic of my (hopefully final) piece on Iran, which I will publish in a couple of days, and I feel it has to be diplomatic options. I can already sense your scepticism but I feel there are some options that may work. I look forward to hearing what you think of their possibility for success.

    As for the campaign, I was aware of it but hadn't seen that video- it is a hopeless situation where national elites get themselves into war-like scenarios which the majority of their populations probably don't want. I wish it were another way.

    1. I am not sure I like agreeing with you Connor, but I struggle to disagree with anything there although you are right to point out my scepticism at diplomatic solutions but then I am a naturally cynical anyway!

      I look forward to your final piece and the potential for some disagreement!

    2. I enjoy it when I reach agreement with someone seemingly on the opposing side of the political spectrum. Much more satisfying than agreeing with someone who already considers themselves on the same ground. But then again... arguments are fun.