Six Silly Questions Reporters Should Not Ask of Anyone Advocating Military Action Against Iran

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.

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About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Conservative clean energy crusader, national security hawk, financial analyst, engineer, and former military officer.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, Finance and Economics, International Security, Middle East, Nuclear Power, Nuclear proliferation, Peak Oil, Policy, Politics, Terrorism, War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Six Silly Questions Reporters Should Not Ask of Anyone Advocating Military Action Against Iran

  1. Scott Erb says:

    The stories I’ve seen lately seem to suggest that the Pentagon and the Obama administration are not only not likely to strike Iran but actually pressuring Israel not to — it’s hard to tell what’s really going on, but I’m wondering if you think a strike is still likely.

    Upfront, I am not convinced it matters much if Iran gets the bomb. There are regional balance of power issues, Israel has a deterrent, and there is absolutely no guarantee a military strike will take out their program, or not lead to much more serious consequences. Given the need to keep the economic recovery going — our primary national interest — a risky venture like this could do severe damage to the national interest.

    Also, the Iranian people do matter – ultimately regional stability depends on them continuing to pressure their own regime to change – that is a primary national interest. My theory is still that Iran likely does not want the bomb (they want to be seen as wanting it – though the CIA seems to think they aren’t close) but would like Israel or the US to strike so that they could use that to whip up nationalism and regional militant sentiment. Right now the US is in a better position in the Mideast than any time since 2003 thanks to the fact we’ve extricated ourselves from Iraq, and the irritant that helped al qaeda recruit and generated anger has been removed. It is in our interest to improve that. (Note that before the Iraq war moderates won in Iranian elections — that turned around in 2004, what we face in Iran now is one more consequence of going to war in Iraq).

    The idea that Iran having nukes would cause it to strike Saudi facilities or close the straits is extremely unlikely — it is far more likely that even worse things will happen if we start a war. The Iraq war of 2003 was, in my opinion, the biggest debacle of US foreign policy history in the modern era. We are still recovering from a conflict that divided the country, hurt our prestige, weakened the economy, helped al qaeda recruit more terrorists and destabilize the region, and start us on a decline we are only beginning to turn around. It would seem to me to be pure folly to start a conflict again in a volatile region. I honestly do not see how it could possibly be seen in our national interest. Maybe I’m missing something big, but it seems obvious to me that striking Iran would not be a rational policy, at least under realist thinking.

    • “I’m wondering if you think a strike is still likely.”

      The American military is behaving as if one is likely. Congress recently passed a special appropriations bill that included bunker-busting bombs. The navy is desperately trying to acquire a floating ship designed for running counter-mining operations in the Gulf. Special operations forces are publishing their deployment schedules in certain alumni magazines with full knowledge that many of these alumni are known intelligence agents (i.e., engaging in deliberate misinformation campaigns).

      That said, I don’t think a strike happens unless the Iranians are within one year of acquiring a bomb. If it extends beyond that, things will be quiet for a little longer. That said, I think it happens unless the Iranians come to an agreement to cease their nuclear weapons development activities.

      “Also, the Iranian people do matter – ultimately regional stability depends on them continuing to pressure their own regime to change – that is a primary national interest.”

      The only way they matter is if they are armed and have armed foreign supporters. Just take a look at Syria today. They are rising up and getting slaughtered. I suspect the same thing would happen to any Iranian revolution, and did in 2010.

      “The idea that Iran having nukes would cause it to strike Saudi facilities or close the straits is extremely unlikely — it is far more likely that even worse things will happen if we start a war.”

      But why? They’ve mined the Straits before without a nuclear deterrent.

      “The Iraq war of 2003 was, in my opinion, the biggest debacle of US foreign policy history in the modern era.”

      I think Vietnam beats Iraq handedly in this category.

      “I honestly do not see how it could possibly be seen in our national interest. Maybe I’m missing something big, but it seems obvious to me that striking Iran would not be a rational policy, at least under realist thinking.”

      It prevents a proliferation spiral that could lead to dangerously high oil prices ensuing our economic collapse. It’s that’s simple.

  2. Serious question: would it be better for US interests to attack Iran, or to have a “Nixon goes to China” grand bargain, where Iran gets to enrich uranium, submits to inspections, we pledge not to invade, & we start to normalize relations?

    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,

    Well, yes, that would be very bad indeed. But this kind of “imagine if” rationale is what got us into Iraq– imagine if Saddam gets a nuclear weapon, imagine if he works with Al Qaeda. Has Iran ever pressured countries into raising oil prices by 90% before? Is it something they’re likely to be able to do again? Why?

    We can’t just invade every country everywhere that we can imagine doing bad things someday. There has to be a careful, deliberate examination of costs and benefits.

    • Allowing Iran to enrich uranium gives them a pathway to a bomb. The best outcome would be a grand bargain where we supply them with fuel in exchange for spent fuel rods. The problem is that the Iranians have been offered some combination of this several times and have refused the offer. I think it is worth one more shot. I’m just not optimistic.

      I don’t know if Iran has ever directly intimidated other countries into raising oil prices, though they frequently and deliberately taken actions with the intent of raising oil prices. Their threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz are behind much of the current spike in oil prices. They also attacks crude oil carriers and mined the Strait in the late 80s. The Iranians also use their Shia proxies in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to stoke unrest when things aren’t going their way.

      Lastly, no one is seriously advocating a land invasion here. Any operation against Iran would be much more similar to American military operations over Serbia and Libya – strategic air campaigns – than the invasion of Iraq.

      • Scott Erb says:

        What happens after the first strikes will determine where such an attack would lead. Given how telegraphed a potential strike is, Iran will certainly take counter measures (decoys, moving material, etc.) In a worst case scenario one could see things spiraling out of control to the point that the US decides regime change is necessary and essentially be compelled to implement the Carter doctrine. But if it gets to that point oil will have gotten so expensive that the world economy would have slipped into depression and the public will not support a war.

        • “In a worst case scenario one could see things spiraling out of control to the point that the US decides regime change is necessary and essentially be compelled to implement the Carter doctrine.”

          I think you and I agree on the worst case scenario. I just don’t think the Iranians are irrational enough to push the United States into that corner.

      • The best outcome would be a grand bargain where we supply them with fuel in exchange for spent fuel rods.

        You’re absolutely right, that would be a better outcome from our perspective. I don’t think that allowing them to enrich is an unacceptable resolution, though– as long as there are inspections. Obviously, we dislike Iran more than we dislike Argentina, Brazil, and Japan, but those countries all enrich uranium. (Incidentally, this brings us back to a point we’ve both made before, that shoring up the non-proliferation norm is of the utmost importance). Had Turkey offered something like that deal to Iran before?

        It’s hard to compare what we’d do to Iran to what went on in Serbia & Libya. Those missions were about diminishing a government’s ability to continue its assault on its citizens in an ongoing situation of unrest. If we bomb Iran, the Iranian government will remain. It will have been set back, from what I’ve read, 3-10 years in its possible efforts to nuclearize– and will have all the more incentive to do so.

        Yes, Iran uses proxies to advance its interests. And we invaded and occupied two of the seven countries that border Iran. And we sell piles of weapons every year to their regional adversaries. Now, I like our goals & motivations quite a bit more than I like Iran’s, but they are a government with their own interests. We can’t weigh everything that we don’t like that they’ve done without considering how the world looks to them. To clarify my position: we can’t just invade or bomb every country everywhere that we can imagine doing bad things someday.

        • “Had Turkey offered something like that deal to Iran before?”

          I think they did.

          “If we bomb Iran, the Iranian government will remain. It will have been set back, from what I’ve read, 3-10 years in its possible efforts to nuclearize– and will have all the more incentive to do so.”

          That’s fair. The best response to the contention that all we are doing is delaying the program, is that we would continue to bomb their nuclear infrastructure until they shutter their program much like we did during most of the 1990s in Iraq (with admittedly mixed results).

          “Now, I like our goals & motivations quite a bit more than I like Iran’s, but they are a government with their own interests.”

          I completely agree with you here. I don’t advocate bombing Iran because it is bad. I advocate bombing Iran because of the consequences inherent in having a nuclear-armed Iran are inimical to our vital national security interests, as the probability of a Middle Eastern nuclear conflict increases, regional instability will rises, and oil prices will increases. If I were running Iran, I would do whatever it took to acquire a nuclear weapon. I would also do whatever I could to keep oil prices elevated, because it would be in my interests to do so.

  3. Scott Erb says:

    Check out *The Economist* this week – nuclear Iran is their cover story. Their analysis is similar to mine (which of course doesn’t mean I’m right – both me and The Economist could be wrong). Here’s a paragraph from their leader: “Is there a danger that Iran will get a nuclear weapon before that happens? Yes, but bombing might only increase the risk. Can you stop Iran from getting a bomb if it is determined to have one? Not indefinitely, and bombing it might make it all the more desperate. Short of occupation, the world cannot eliminate Iran’s capacity to gain the bomb. It can only change its will to possess one. Just now that is more likely to come about through sanctions and diplomacy than war.”

    What drives their argument is a strong uncertainty that Iranian capacities can be destroyed through bombing (they may have many hidden locations), uncertainty that we’d know if we had, and a likelihood that bombing will intensify their efforts.

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