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January 15, 2006

Preemptive War in Iran
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

The latest disturbing news out of Iran is that the government now plans a conference on the Holocaust.   Having already judged the Nazi genocide a myth and called for Israel's destruction, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems bent on making a name for himself as this century's leading violent anti-Semitic megalomaniac, this time with nukes.

The Jerusalem Post has over the last few days published a succession of articles examining the potential for a preemptive Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, akin to the country's successful 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor, credited with setting back Baghdad's nuclear ambitions by years if not decades.   The Post reports that Israeli pilots have trained for such an attack, but pulling it off this time will be far tougher than 25 years ago because the Iranians have dispersed and defended their facilities.   Israel appears to be proceeding on the basis that for reasons including chiefly Iraq, it may not be able to count on the US to deal with Tehran on its behalf.

Putting aside whether Israel could successfully destroy Iran's nukes, this confrontation could shape up into the first major test of where the doctrine of preemption stands post-Iraq.   While the Israelis have never been able to afford the luxury of adhering rigidly to consensus international legal interpretations, after the Iraq War it would sure make things easier if Tel Aviv was on firm ground should the need to preempt arise.   

There were two primary criticisms of the Bush Administration's invocation of preemption in Iraq - failure to exhaust peaceful alternatives and failure to establish the imminence of the threat. 

It's easy to envisage the exhaustion requirement being met vis-a-vis Iran.  If, likely due to Russian or Chinese intransigence, the UN Security Council declines to take up the Iranian threat, the major forum for peaceful resolution of global disputes will be de facto foreclosed.  Likewise if the Security Council opens debate but cannot agree on action, it could be fair to judge the UN channel exhausted.   

Another realistic scenario is that the Security Council musters the political will to move, but confines itself to measures short of sanctions targeting the Iranian oil supplies on which the Chinese and indeed our own economy depend.   If that happens, and the lesser sanctions don't deter Tehran, the international community may have exhausted its willingness to pressure Iran through peaceful means.   

Exhaustion of peaceful means as a result of limited international political will should not be discounted as grounds for justifying preemptive action, particularly where powerful global economic interests are being weighed against a threat targeting one country in particular.   This principle is in essence, I think, what makes us judge the Kosovo intervention as legitimate in retrospect despite the absence of UNSC imprimatur.   The fact that one or a handful of countries block measures out of self-interest cannot be grounds for delegitimizing otherwise justified action by others.

Judging from past experience, however, under any of these scenarios, countries may not fully foreclose further peaceful measures against Iraq, making it difficult to judge exactly when the exhaustion requirement is met.  If countries claim that they might be willing to reexamine the possibility of banning Iranian oil sales in future, will Israel be forced to sit and wait?

This is where the exhaustion and imminence tests tie together.  Israel may face a challenge in establishing that the threat it faces is imminent.  With Ahmadinejad openly advocating Israel's destruction and cutting the UN seals on its nuclear installations, there would seem adequate grounds today for preventive action to stop Iran from acquiring the means to carry out its destructive aims against Israel.   But the principle of preventive war is even more controversial than preemptive war, since its not predicated on a threat that's close at hand.

Some analysts have said that the imminence test is met if preemptive action is carried out at the last moment when it is still possible to defend against the anticipated attack.  Under this theory, hitting Iranian nuclear facilities that are almost but not quite capable of attacking Israel would be justified.   In the event that Iran does not cooperate with the UN and IAEA inspectors, its unlikely that Israel or anyone else will know precisely how close Tehran is to creating deployable nukes.  That uncertainty, particularly if created by Iran's own obfuscations, could justify action at any time on the basis that it may be impossible to know when its too late to frustrate Ahmadinejad's apparent goal of having weapons capable of attacking Israel.

That leads back to the exhaustion point.   If imminence of a threat can be established, then it seems fair to say that the exhaustion requirement is met if peaceful means have been exhausted for the present time, regardless of what more might be done in future.  So if, in a debate in Spring of 2006 let's say, the UNSC opts against quarantining Iranian oil, if Tehran's nuclear program is proceeding apace, peaceful means should be considered exhausted even if the SC members claim willingness to revisit the question of broader sanctions at a later time.

For the immediate term, Israel awaits the fate of a leader and the results of an upcoming election, both of which need resolution before military action in Iran will be seriously considered.  In the meantime, the international community will put diplomacy and other forms of peaceful response to the Iranian threat to the test.   If those efforts fail, Israel may have to put the question of preemptive war back on center stage.


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I read your article and stopped to think. What is the difference between iran's potential nukes versus israel's existing nukes? And the only difference I saw was that iran at one point signed a treaty that said they wouldn't build nukes, and israel didn't. That's the only difference.

So maybe the UN could treat the cases in parallel. Maybe they could be linked! Set up sanctions against both countries, and apply sanctions against both unless both give up their nukes and agree to inspections. We could take up syria's proposal to make the whole middle east a nuclear-free zone. Since it's syria's idea they'd sign on, and iraq would. Lebanon? Saudi arabia? Etc?

But pakistan is a problem. They might be a threat to israel so they shouldn't have nukes. But they think they need nukes because india has them. Maybe we could get india to give up nukes too? No, they need nukes because china has them. And china needs nukes because we have them....

Here's a plan. It requires a level of boldness that I strongly doubt Bush could pull off, but it's still a better plan than attacking iran.

In this plan, the President announces that he's commissioned a study of the old classified material, and he found that nukes are simply not worth what they cost. Their only military use is to keep other nuclear powers from nuking you. And nobody nukes nonnuclear powers.

America was never strong because we had nukes. We had nukes because we were so strong we could afford them. Back in the days when 10% of the nation's electrical power went to making nukes, we could afford that power. And we decided to hype the nukes because we hoped the USSR would follow our example. The resources that we could afford to build nukes, they could not afford. If we could sucker them into that folly.... And it partly worked. A lot of their nukes were fakes, the CIA found out the USSR never had nearly as many nukes as they said they did, but still the effort they did put into it was completely wasted. We published a lot of studies that implied nukes were somehow worth having. Some of the people who wrote those studies were in on the secret and were making disinformation for us. Some others just got carried away and actually believed it.

Nukes are a kind of white elephant. Weak nations would bankrupt themselves trying to make them. Strong nations get weak doing it. Only the super-strong can do it and stay strong. This secret worked for us for a long time, but now we end the pretense.

So the President asks Congress for permission to reduce our total number of nukes to 500. Classified studies show we could easily get by with 200 in the worst case, but he wants 300 spares to be real conservative and safe. (We could get by without any, but that's too big a step to take so fast.) The money we save can be used to build up the regular forces. We don't need a treaty with the russians. They can make as many nukes as they think they can afford, it doesn't matter. But we will not nuke them or anybody else unless they nuke somebody first.

And he tells the iranians, "Go ahead and make nukes if you want to. But suppose you don't make them, then the USA will solemnly vow that if anybody nukes iran -- anybody at all, even israel -- and we find out who did it, we will nuke them back for you. And of course we know you don't really intend to nuke anybody else so no need to discuss what we'd do then."

This is the best thing we could do toward nonproliferation. Make the claim and validate it by getting rid of a lot of nukes. Tell the world that we've been tricking our competitors into building nukes. And then whenever some crazy national leader starts making nukes, his people get to think about it. Do they want him to spend a whole lot of money building nukes and using them, and getting his country nuked in return? On the other hand do they want him to spend a whole lot of money building nukes that will never be used, so that some *other* crazy leader won't nuke them? When they could get the same effect if the USA or russia (or maybe china or india) did the deterrent for them, maybe for free?

This is a whole lot better than starting a war we don't know how to stop.

the difference between israeli nukes (and us nukes, british nukes, french nukes, even chinese nukes) and iranian nukes, is that the former provide for a deterrent effect, while there's reason to believe that iran would use them offensively. its the nature of the regime that matters and israel, even if you disagree with their military actions in the wb/gaza, no one in their right mind expect an israeli first strike on anyone.

that said, there may be a strategic benefit to beginning a dialoge w/ israel about the future of their nuclear program. but as long as they face the threats they do, i'm glad that they have that power to intimidate others from attacking.

We are entering a very dangerous situation where Bush's arrogance and lack of credibility are unlikely to help resolve issues with Iran. Let's also remember that in Washington we're dealing with the gang that can't shoot straight. We're talking about ideologues who have not shown much skill in reading situations very well in foreign affairs. We need cooler heads now.

I keep reading comments here and any number of other places that seem to work under the assumption that the economic and military strength of the United States is a great deal greater than it is. As just one issue to consider, if we take military action against Iran, we may find their oil turned off. Most of our supplies come from elsewhere but oil production is in a worldwide crunch at the moment. If Iran gains sympathy from other oil producers who also turn off the oil production, the impact will be massive.

If there's a peaceful solution, every possibility should be examined and pursued.

We might well use nukes on a non-nuclear country. Remember, the Army's out of play. We've already threatened Syria (Sanchez growled at them that we have 'much more powerful weapons available' a year or two ago). Indeed the Israelis threatened Syria during the 1973 war as well. I'm really suprised they don't have them yet...

We would never nuke Israel if it nuked Iran (or Syria).

This lot (and less offensively) any American government is really interested in power; nukes are really cheap; and we have huge numbers of them in invulnerable spots. So we have power. This will never be conceded. We have had the capability of denuclearizing the world for 17 years now, and nothing has been done. We now look weaker than any time since the Civil War (anxious allies, enraged neyutrals, neutered military, etc). What do you think?

The "pre-emption" doctrine relies in part on the other country actualy posing a threat. The threat from Iraq to the U.S. was rather low. By contrast, Iran has stated that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. I'd say that factors in Israel's equation somewhere.

Judah, as others have pointed out, it's silly to claim that israel has not or would not threaten to use nukes apart from deterrent. They have done so. Your argument that they are different from iran in this is wrong.

And so there might be room for a peaceful solution that involves disarming israel's nukes and making the middle east a nuclear-free zone apart from pakistan. Since other peaceful solutions look extremely unlikely at this point, this approach deserves the best run we can give it.

Dave, when the USA threatens first-use of nuclear weapons, that's .... Well, put it this way, if it got widely publicised I hope the US public would be pretty upset about it. Or have we sunk that low as a nation?

I"m pretty clear if we were to nuke syria before they did something like an unprovoked nerve gas attack on tel aviv, it owuld have pretty profound consequences. Within 10 years there would not be a UN based in NYC. There would likely be a UN based in Geneva, and we likely wouldn't be a member.

Incidentally, syria can't afford nuclear weapons. They're cheap in terms of bang for the buck, but they aren't at all cheap.

"We have had the capability of denuclearizing the world for 17 years now, and nothing has been done. We now look weaker than any time since the Civil War (anxious allies, enraged neyutrals, neutered military, etc). What do you think?"

Do you perhaps see a connection between those two sentences?

The question is whether treating each case of nuclear proliferation in an ad hoc manner will be a sustainable approach in the long run.

I'm still trying to figure out President Ahmadinejad's logic for throwing down against the world as he has. Is he playing the North Korean "crazy like a fox" gambit? Iran had the EU-3 dancing to its tunes for years--why change the song? Is the regime that close to collapse?

Does he honestly believe that any nation can stop the United States from political, economic, or military sanctions if it decides to move forward? Who does he think is going to come to his rescue?

Kim Jong Il can get way with toying with the U.S. and Asia because North Korea is already isolated. But the world, and especially the U.S., won't put up with those kind of shenanigans from Ahmadinejad. He lives in too vital a part of the world.

You are living in a fantasy world if you think that REDUCING the number of nukes in your arsenal is going to lead to peace. Ahmadinejad's blustering may just reignite an arms race. The U.S. had all but cancelled its small tactical "bunker-buster" nuclear weapon program recently--I predict it will be back now.

President Ahmadinejad needs to shut up, back off, and re-evaluate his position, and fast, because a lot of nations are dusting off their strike plans against Iran right now. He is destroying months of back-channel talks between Iran and the U.S. on Middle East co-existence.

Perhaps you armchair war hawks can stop hyperventilating about pre-emptive/preventive strikes long enough to read Mort Halperin's suggestions for a bit more constructive approach to the Iranian nukes problem.

I have a strong desire to make sense of things. I've found that when I'm given a lot of isolated facts I can usually make up a story that makes sense about them, whether there's anything really there or not. It isn't just me, anybody can do that. So it pays to be very cautious about what we think we know, most of it is extrapolations from patterns we saw that might not actually be there at all.

So OK, say we strike iranian nuclear sites and we destroy them all. How long does it take iran to get nukes then, assuming they want them and they have the money? About 5 years maximum. The rate-limiting step is training the scientists and technicians, it takes 5 years if we manage to kill those off. Maybe longer with strict sanctions.

Say we impose strict sanctions, how likely is the world to go along? Very unlikely. The USA is a fading superpower, iran is an important oil source. Who do they want to get on good terms with? Who looks more like a liability? Who looks more like a threat?

So we don't win our overt objective unless iran winds up with a government that doesn't want nukes. (But we might win our hidden objectives by turning iran into a failed state. If china can't get that oil, no skin off our noses. And israel would be safer than it would with a democratic iran.)

To get a government that doesn't want nukes, we pretty much need to move in and occupy them long enough to impose a democratic peaceful government. But we don't have the troops. Who could occupy iran for us? Russia? China? There's nobody who could do it that we'd trust to do it. If somehow iran got a government that was so weak, so despised by its people that it depended on US support to stay on top, then they wouldn't try for nukes because we'd tell them not to. And even if we let them they'd be no threat. Is there any way to do that? Maybe we could bribe some generals to stage a coup? That's a tried-and-true method. We wouldn't admit we had anything to do with it, and every year we could publicly pressure them to have free elections.... Kind of like, say, egypt.

But a coup ought to come before the US attack. If it comes during or after the attack it looks cowardly and unpatriotic. Everybody ought to be working together against the foreign attackers, not staging coups. If we actually attack then this approach will have failed. Though we could still try it. Like, we do airstrikes that attempt to take out the nuclear sites and the RG, leaving the regular military intact. (Hard to do when they're the ones shooting at our planes, but anyway we can minimise the damage.) We attack and go home. Then in the confusion the military declares martial law and promises elections when the emergency is over. They just happen to be working for us, but they use us as the emergency that keeps them in power indefinitely. Not real plausible but maybe just barely doable.

Now on the other side. Ahmadenijad makes no sense. Is he speaking to his base, ignoring how he sounds to the world?

Is he trying to persuade us he's crazy so we can't bully him? "You have 3 nukes. We have 50,000. You can destroy 3 cities in israel, we can destroy everything in iran." "Wooo! God tells me to oppose the infidel with my last breath! If iran is attacked our three nukes will explode at the targets God chooses at that time."

Did the CIA slip him some sort of hypnotic drugs and tell him to say the stupidest things he could think of?

He does not make sense, and most of the stories I can make up don't make sense.

Here's the best I can do: Suppose he's a patriot. He knows that the US attack is scheduled for March. So he makes himself look as bad as he possibly can. Then on February 23 there is a coup. The new leader, a steely-looking general, makes an announcement to the world. "It was necessary to make a change in our government. I want to reassure the world that the new leadership are not insane. We have a great many details to work out, and we must ask your patience. Mr. Ahmadenijad is unharmed, he is undergoing psychiatric evaluation now. The new government is looking for evidence of a nuclear program and we will provide what we find when we find it. We must ask the world for patience in our reorganisation. We believe we can continue oil shipments with no interruption." What happens to our attack? How long must we postpone it? When it isn't our coup.... And then they do a nuclear test, and make an announcement. Ahmadenijad announces, "No, the iranian leadership are not insane. Could we trust the Great Satan to keep its word in anything? They have no honor. If we lay down our arms would they keep their word at all? We welcome friendly relations with any nation who wants them, and any nation that fights us will suffer losses."

If he was a patriot, he might make himself look bad and then stage a coup against himself, to gain time.

It seems, well, batshit. But nothing else makes more sense.

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