Reza Marachi and Trita Parsi published a piece on The Huffington Post Friday called “Six Questions Reporters Should Ask of Anyone Advocating Military Action Against Iran.” They take the usual liberal approach that the “silly” warmongering Neanderthals just don’t get it, and are about to make the same mistakes all over again.
They further argue that:
“A familiar, toxic mix of sloppy politicians and politicized foreign policy experts is telling the American public that an irrational Iranian regime hell-bent on acquiring and using nuclear weapons poses an imminent threat to its safety — despite the highest levels of America’s national security establishment speaking on the record to the contrary.”
They then self-righteously contend that the “ghosts of America’s neoconservative past have successfully shaped the policy around its selling points despite next-to-zero discussion about the consequences of war.” To top it off, they smugly declare that Iran’s bomb is “neither in existence nor imminent.”
Good luck proving either contention.
Nonetheless, both gentlemen presume to educate the press on which questions to ask officials, so that the media can somehow expose how ill-thought out this whole policy supposedly is and how the potential strike on Iran will fail. It turns out, much to the authors’ likely chagrin, that these queries are rather easy to answer. So if you are a reporter who suddenly felt enlightened by these questions, go no further. The answers are here.
“Q. America has not had a diplomatic presence in Iran for three decades. As such, much of our knowledge relies on intelligence. Given the controversy over our intelligence on Iraq, how are we factoring in and addressing the uncertainty of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program?”
Intelligence is always a matter of probabilities rather than certainty. Moreover, the authors fail to explain how having a diplomatic presence in Iran is at all relevant to gauging whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons. It is not as if the Iranians would be more likely to invite a Tehran-based American diplomat to their secret nuclear facilities.
The United States is factoring in and addressing the uncertainty of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program in the same way it always has – by gathering more intelligence. Based on recent news events, the United States seems to be acquiring more intelligence every day, be it through aerial surveillance or from widely available sources like the United Nations. The United Nations, in particular, has found evidence that “some work has been conducted on warhead designs, trigger devices and similar technologies that strongly suggest that the country is contemplating using its fuel for weapons.”
The United States will never have perfect intelligence. President Franklin Roosevelt had intelligence that the Japanese planned an attack at Pearl Harbor, but did not act on it as he could not be 100 percent sure. Yet, the intelligence was still accurate.
“Q. What are the views of the Iranian people in regards to a potential war and the current sanctions regime? Is this current path helping us win or lose hearts and minds in Iran?”
Most of the Iranian people likely have negative views against a possible war. In fact, their view would likely be very similar to how Americans might view a potential bombing campaign against their country. They would rally around the flag. Furthermore, the Iranian people probably do not support the United States imposing a sanctions regime that squeezes their economy. Moreover, they likely support their country’s acquisition of nuclear power, which Iran has been pursuing since the days of the Shah. Therefore the current administration’s policy is likely unpopular and, therefore, losing hearts and minds in Iran.
However, this question misses the point entirely. Who cares if it wins or loses hearts and minds in Iran? Our policy in Iran is not a popularity contest. It is about America’s vital national security interests. Unlike in Bush’s policy in Iraq, the goal of the Obama administration’s policy in Iran is not regime change. It is to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. It is in America’s interest to halt development of these weapons, because Iran’s possession of them could lead to a dangerous proliferation spiral in the Middle East that could leave five or six nations with possession of nuclear weapons in the most important geopolitical energy region in the world. Preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is indirectly linked to America’s economic survival, Iranian hearts and minds be damned.
“Q. What are the forces behind Iran’s nuclear program? Could one factor be a desire for a nuclear deterrence due to a sense of insecurity and threat? If so, how can we affect Iran’s sense of need for a nuclear deterrence? Does the increasingly bellicose and confrontational approach of the West actually increase Tehran’s desire for nuclear deterrence”
The Iranian regime is obviously concerned about its own survival. One factor is most certainly “a desire for a nuclear deterrence due to a sense of insecurity and threat.” However, the authors of this question presume that the United States can “affect Iran’s sense of need for a nuclear deterrence” by accommodating rather than coercing the regime. Yet they ignore a series of negotiations with the European powers that stretch back to at least 2003 that have decisively failed.
Lie and Defy Is the Dominant Strategy for Nuclear Proliferators
The authors of these questions appear to approach this topic from a decidedly pro-diplomatic perspective. They completely miss Iran’s military perspective. If they had put their military “hats” on, they would know that Iran has no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. Those without nuclear weapons who defy the US perish, as Saddam Hussein discovered. Those without them who cooperate with the US also perish, as Muammar Qaddafi recently discovered. The only success story is that of North Korea, which lied to, and then defied, the United States. Now that regime is untouchable. Therefore, Iran’s dominant strategy in game-theoretic terms, is to develop nuclear weapons.
Therefore, it simply does not matter if “the increasingly bellicose and confrontational approach of the West actually increase(s) Tehran’s desire for nuclear deterrence.” Tehran is already developing nuclear weapons. Nothing the United States does or says will change that reality. The only option the United States has is to eliminate Iran’s capability to produce these weapons through sabotage, sanctions, and/or precision bombing.
“Q. The U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons. Israel has hundreds. Iran currently has a mighty arsenal of zero nuclear weapons. The U.S. has successfully deterred Iran for more than three decades. Why are we assuming that suddenly, deterrence will not work with Iran anymore?”
The fundamental problem with this question is that it begins with a shockingly false premise – that the United States has been able to deter Iran successfully for the last thirty years. Last year, the Iranians plotted to detonate a bomb in a Washington restaurant frequented by U.S. senators, diplomats, and other high-ranking American officials. The Iranians are behind supplying the Iraqis with most of the advanced IEDs that produced devastating casualties on American forces in Iraq. They supported bombing attacks in Beirut that killed nearly three hundred Marines in the early 1980s, and attempted to sink crude oil carriers in the Persian Gulf during the late 1980s. The Iranians also sponsored the kidnapping and ransoming of American civilians in Beirut during the same period. They also recently threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which is the world’s geopolitical jugular. If the American nuclear arsenal did not deter the Iranians from such brazen actions, how might the Iranians act once they can deter the United States?
“Q. The U.S. military leadership does not believe Israel has an effective military option when it comes to unilaterally destroying Iran’s nuclear sites. A tense exchange is currently playing out in public between the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military, with Israeli officials accusing Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey of having “served Iran’s interests.” What lies behind the starkly diverging views of the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military on Iran?”
This question is a relatively simple one to answer. The United States military does not want the Israelis to strike Iran, because they likely could not finish the job on their own. They would ultimately drag the United States kicking and screaming into the conflict. Furthermore, the political ramifications of such a strike would be disastrous. In private, most Arab regimes are terrified of a nuclear-armed Iran. Not only would an American strike have a higher probability of success, but also it would have fewer political complications. Moreover, much of this public rhetoric may actually be choreographed between Israel and the United States primarily to put pressure on the Iranians to come to the table quicker. In my opinion, it is doubtful the threat of an imminent Israeli strike will convince the Iranians to make a deal, but it is certainly worth a try before the United States launches a precision bombing campaign against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure.
“Q. According to the Congressional Research Service, total war-related funding for Iraq has exceeded $800 billion — an average of approximately $100 billion per year. With these numbers in mind — and at a time of over 8 percent unemployment and unprecedented government bailouts — how will we pay for a war with Iran”
The authors have no imagination here. The answer to this question involves a greater question: How much will it cost if we have to live with a nuclear-armed Iran that engages in sabre-rattling any time it wishes to increase the price of oil? As a general rule of thumb, every sustained $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil reduces GDP growth by half a percentages point within two years.
Quarantining the Competition for Profit
Today, oil is at ~$110 per barrel. Imagine if the Iranians decide that oil is too cheap and threaten to quarantine other Gulf countries’ shipments if they do not toe the line on higher oil prices. What if Iran successfully intimidates these countries into raising oil prices to $200 per barrel. If the Iranians are able to pull this stunt off for about two years, American GDP would decline by 4.5 percentage points each year. Such a decline would most definitely throw the American economy (and the global economy with it) into a deep recession or even depression.
To be fair, oil prices would not rise just because the Iranians demand it. They could also fire SCUD missiles with near impunity at Saudi refineries or mine the Strait of Hormuz. After all, Washington would have to choose the lesser evil (sustained higher oil prices) over a radioactive and resource-dead cradle of civilization.
So, if you are a reporter suddenly inspired by Mr. Reza and Parsi’s superficial questions, you might want to come here first before you embarrass yourself in front of a senior policy official.