What will Iran do with nuclear weapons? Probably nothing
Gregg Easterbrook is a Reuters columnist. Any views expressed are his own.
World leaders meeting in Washington last week engaged in a competition to see which could make the strongest remark about Iran not getting an atomic bomb. President Barack Obama has asked Russia, China and other nations to form a united front against the Iranian atomic program. Vice-president Joe Biden recently said, “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.”
The comments seem eerily similar to those made by presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, plus other world leaders, about preventing North Korea from acquiring the bomb. This happened anyway. Current anti-Tehran blustering and posing will be about as effective. Soon Iran will become an atomic power. The world community must prepare for this moment.
The simple reality is that other nations cannot prevent Iran from fashioning an atomic device. Cannot, except perhaps by an all-out nuclear first strike that obliterates much of the country, or invasion and permanent occupation of a nation substantially larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Conventional aerial attack might slow but cannot stop an atomic program using underground facilities – or conventional aerial attack would have been used against North Korea. (See details below on the reasons conventional airstrikes aren’t the answer regarding the Iranian program.)
Iran will acquire an atomic bomb — and it may happen soon. Here, U.S. military officials estimate that Iran should have sufficient fissile materials for a bomb by 2011.
Various forms of American and Western fist-shaking against Iran have had little apparent impact beyond convincing Tehran to accelerate its bomb program. Last year, Obama set a “deadline” Iran had to meet, then another “deadline,” then a third “deadline” – all of which were ignored and promptly forgotten. In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there would be “real consequences” if Iran did not immediately end its atomic program. Iran did not, and there were no consequences.
Western nations cannot so much as agree on a new sanctions policy against Tehran. And this is just as well. The recent history of sanctions show that they do not change government behavior, but do cause the innocent to suffer. Strong sanctions against Cuba, North Korea and Iraq when under Saddam Hussein resulted in no government-behavior changes. Sanctions are a factor in starvation in North Korea and poverty in Cuba, and caused a dramatic increase in child mortality in Iraq in the 1990s — the dead being children of average families, not of government elites. If stronger sanctions were imposed against Iran today, this would only make the Tehran government all the more determined to acquire the bomb, while causing average Iranians to suffer. Iran has a significant pro-democracy movement, one gaining in size and influence. What justice could be found in causing Iran’s pro-democracy citizens to suffer?
The lack of practical ways to stop the Iranian atomic bomb effort is seen in the fact that since the world leaders’ anti-proliferation summit in Washington, the focus of Western action has shifted to producing yet another United Nations resolution tut-tutting about Iran’s bomb project. Three Security Council resolutions on this topic since 2006 have accomplished little. Maybe the next one will contain different adjectives — that’ll show ‘em!
Of course is it alarming to think of an atomic bomb in the hands of a nation at least nominally ruled by the dull-witted anti-Semite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But experience suggests that an Iranian atomic bomb would be employed in the same way as all other atomic munitions since 1945 – to deter attack. That is to say, Iran will use an atomic bomb by not using it: the observed pattern followed by other nuclear-armed states.
Since Nagasaki, no nation possessing atomic or nuclear weapons has employed this power, because the logic of nuclear deterrence is overwhelming, If Iran acquires an atomic bomb and fires one against Israel, Tehran will be leveled 30 minutes later. The current rulers of Iran may be repugnant, but they are not madmen.
Wouldn’t possession of an atomic bomb enable Iran to bully other nations? Nuclear missiles did not do much for the old Soviet Union, even enable it to bully its weak neighbor Afghanistan. Nuclear bombs haven’t helped China bully anyone – Beijing still has little credibility in Tibet, despite its fantastic edge in power. As Peter Scoblic noted in his important 2009 book “Us Versus Them”, thousands of nuclear missiles failed to restrain America’s adversaries in the Korea and Vietnam wars, failed to intimidate Saddam, and have not helped the U.S. position in Iraq or Afghanistan. Atomic power hasn’t allowed Pakistan or India to bully neighbors, and surely has not allowed Israel to get its way.
Sixty years of actual experience suggests that atomic weapons are practical only for one purpose: to prevent your nation from being attacked. You don’t have to be political scientist Kenneth Waltz (see his 2003 book “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons”, which argues that nuclear proliferation is mainly good because it prevents war) to want to live in a world where nations don’t attack each other. Deterrence has, since 1945, ended great-power war. Deterrence has reduced and might end regional war. There is a gamble involved, obviously. But the likely outcome of Iranian possession of an atomic bomb is that no nation will attack Iran. Why shouldn’t Iran desire this? The United States, Russia, United Kingdom and other nations desired deterrence against attack and would have been entirely outraged if lectured otherwise by the Security Council.
Assuming Iranian acquisition of atomic weapons is near-inevitable, the international response should not be more fist-shaking for the cameras and empty verbiage, but outreach to return Iran to the family of nations. A core lesson of the Cold War is that bluster fails, constructive engagement succeeds. Engagement with Iran would lower regional tensions and lend support to the Iranian democracy movement. The first step regarding Iran “should be a much more aggressive approach to diplomacy than we’ve displayed thus far,” Obama said while a senator. The best defense against Iranian nuclear arms is better diplomatic relations with Iran.
WHY WOULDN’T A MILITARY STRIKE SOLVE THE PROBLEM?
The reasons are four: that Iran is too far from Israel for that country’s air force to handle this task; that Iran’s atomic installations are too numerous and too deeply buried for the United States to handle the task without weeks of bombardment; that any attack on Iranian atomic facilities would kill Russians, with awful international consequences; and the morality of trying to solve a political problem by dropping bombs that, no matter how accurate, will kill civilians.
In 2008, Israeli fighter-bombers staged a training exercise in which they flew 900 miles across the Mediterranean, carrying ordinance and refueling in the air: 900 miles is the distance from Israel to Bushehr, location of Iran’s large nuclear reactor. The exercise was a reminder to Tehran that in 1981, Israeli warplanes badly damaged a reactor in Iraq, while in 2007, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed an atomic facility in Syria.
But the 1981 and 2007 raids were against single installations, neither underground. Multiple raids on many Iranian installations would be far more daunting. And while Syria is adjacent to Israel, and Iraq can be reached by flying across Israel’s enemy Syria, there is no route-of-flight from Israel to Iran that does not involve airspace violation of neutral or friendly nations.
To use the best route of flight to Bushehr, Israeli warplanes would need permission to cross Saudi Arabia, permission the Saudis are unlikely to grant: Israeli breach of Saudi airspace could spark war. Israeli planes could fly across Iraq to Iran. But an attack on its territory staged through Iraq would give Iran a casus belli against Baghdad, and create a legal pretext for Iran to target U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Flying much of the way through Syrian airspace is possible – Israel used U.S.-built electronic countermeasures to blind Syrian radars during the 2007 raid. But in this case, Israeli warplanes still would need to cross part of Iraq, or violate the airspace of Turkey, the region’s sole Islamic democracy. Israeli violation of Turkish airspace might radicalize Turkey against Israel, only adding to its enemies.
In theory, Israeli warplanes could fly hundreds of miles out of their way, first south along the Red Sea, then turning north across the Arabian Sea, and enter Iran without use of a neighbor’s airspace. This would require so many airborne refuelings both going and coming back that the logistics are hard to imagine. All Israel strike aircraft are short-range fighters: the country does not possess heavy bombers that can travel long distances without refueling, or aircraft carriers that could launch a strike from international waters. And even if an all-overwater flight worked, Israel would need to stage many such raids to more than damage Iran’s multiple nuclear installations.
The United States, which has long-range bombers and aircraft carriers, could conduct a sustained air campaign against Iranian weapons sites. In 2006 and 2007, Pentagon planning for an attack on Iranian atomic facilities assumed not some quick event but two weeks of air and cruise-missile strikes involving hundreds to thousands of tons of munitions. U.S. pilots would be flying against Russian-built air defenses, some of them late-model. Russian technicians would die in the strikes. Moscow-Washington relations might be sent back to the Cold War: imagine how the United States would feel if Russian bombers spent weeks attacking an American client state, killing many Americans in the process. Even if bombing of Iranian atomic facilities worked in the technical sense, it would be likely to make the international situation worse rather than better.
As for morality, let’s hope things have not gone so far that the United States has stopped considering this.