Further Thoughts on the Soft Kill in Iran

I had this post about the SOTU passage about Iran, last night. I have thought about it a little more, and that means you, dear readers, get some typing from me. Why think about something if you aren’t going to blog it, after all?

One thing that gives me hope on this is something Robert Kaplan wrote. Unlike most of us, he is willing to travel in Iran, and did so a few years ago. He wrote that if you want to find people who really believe in their religion, go to the American Midwest. Kaplan then said, if you want to meet a country full of people who are completely cynical, go to Iran. 27 years of rule by a supposedly religious elite has bled the life out of the Islamic fervor that exploded into the streets in 1979. The Iranian people have actually lived under the kind of Islamist regime (Shia variant) that Osama, et al., want to impose on the world. Been there, done that, want no further part of it. There is sound reason to believe that a 1989 “Berlin-Wall-falling” scenario can happen in Iran.

In the meantime, the Iranian nuclear program is scaring the crap out of everybody. A major divide amongst people looking at this problem is whether you think Iran is deterrable. Jonathan and I have gone back and forth on this on this blog. I think the Iranians will not turn their entire country and 3,000 years of Persian civilization into one giant truck-bomb. For one thing, leaders do not subject their families and themselves to suicidal risks. Terrorist leaders get dupes to deliver suicide bombs. They don’t do it themselves. So much more will the Iranian leadership not subject their entire society to a rain of nuclear destruction in exchange for lobbing one or two bombs at Israel. If the Iranians get a bomb it is likely to be relatively crude and relatively un-deliverable. The USA and Israel have actual, operational weapons in significant numbers. We just need to send a clear signal. For Israel it is MAD — we go, you go. For us it is, UAD — unilateral assured destruction. You detonate one of these against anyone, we destroy you forever. We held off the Soviet Union, which was a much, much greater threat than Iran will ever be, for decades, with a MAD scenario. The Iranian nuclear program only makes sense as political theatre and as a deterrant against invasion. If they use it they die. And they know that.

The most important lesson of the end of the Cold War is that containment was a victory strategy, and that was because the publics in the Eastern Bloc wanted no part of Communism, the Cold War, or any of it. They wanted a “normal” life, and hence were the implicit allies of the West. By the same token, the masses of Iranians would like a better life and will seize it if they get the chance. The idea that we will kill thousands or millions of them to attack the regime’s nuclear program, and force the public and the regime onto the same side, strikes me as unnecessary and wrong. The Soft Kill does have a hard component, the deterrence component, both nuclear and conventional. But you show you are strong by NOT killing people and wrecking things, even when you can.

Incidentally, I do not believe there is any possibility that the Iranians will be prevented from getting at least a nuclear “device”. Whether they will then be able to develop a usable weapon is another question. But diplomacy won’t stop them, and no one is going to invade them, and the Russians and the Chinese and others are willing to help them get one. So they are going to get something that goes BOOM. I am taking that as a given in my analysis.

We do the Mullahs more damage by cultivating a free society right next door in Iraq than we would by launching air attacks against what we suspect are their nuclear facilities. Remember the intelligence failures prior to our Iraq invasion? Iran is a big country. Lots of mountains. Lots of caves. Care to bet whether we really know one damn thing about what the Iranians have or where it is located?

We need to play the long game with these guys. Cold Wars are not won in an afternoon.

The thing that scares them is not US air attacks, which will give their regime a new lease on life. What they are afraid of is Shiites right next door electing their own government.

UPDATE: Arnold Kling suggests a very different approach.

UPDATE II: I had this post with further thoughts on “Unilateral Assured Destruction”.

11 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on the Soft Kill in Iran”

  1. You are certainly right to counsel the long game here – too bad you (and I) didn’t sell that view in 2003.

    There is a school of thought that the mullahs intend to provoke air strikes with their current posturing, thus disrupting western economies with an oil spike and cementing their regime in a spasm of jingoistic “patriotism”. The USA and Israel are probably the only states considering accommodating them.

    As for Iraq, we move ever closer to discounting this $300 Billion/+Untold Blood adventure to “market value” (sorta like a United Airlines bond)and redirecting our effort to conserving political capital. What a colossal and tragic waste.

  2. I’m really not following Arnold’s reasoning here. Why do efforts toward energy independence represent some kind of “moral equivalence?” Did the work done in the US on synthetic rubber production during WWII represent an acceptance of the Japanese Imperial regime?

  3. You seem to only consider the possibility that they would have a very small number of nuclear devices. They appear to be close to mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. Once their nuclear power plants and refining facilities are up and running they will have a constant source of bomb material. They will not stop after one or two weapons. What about an Iran with 100 weapons? Yes that would take many years but you yourself are emphazising the long haul. Secondly, you cannot so easily discount their stated plans to launch an attack. Former President Rafsanjani has publicly stated that the muslim world could completely destroy Israel with a relatively small number of weapons and the retaliation, while severe, would not wipe out the muslim world. You also cannot discount the “suicide” route either. On an individual basis, all suicide bombers are not dupes; many are quite cognizant of what they are doing and are proud of it. On a national level, Hitler for example, believedthat the Germans should die if they could not be victorious. How is this situation any different?
    Lastly, this “division” between the ruling elite and the Iranian people is more complex. Most Iranians may be anti-mullah and they may even be somewhat pro-western; liking blue jeans and rap music doesn’t mean you cherish freedom of speech and a pluralistic society. That doesn’t make them pro-American. In fact, most of them support Iran getting the bomb, mullahs in power or not.

    The only answer that I see is to completely destroy their oil infrastructure. This believe that they can do whatever they like since we are afraid our economy would be hurt by high oil prices. We need to change the paradigm. No oil money, no bomb.

  4. If I were an Iranian, I would absolutely insist that my country have nuclear weapons, whether I loved or hated the Mullahs, whether I loved or hated the USA. Any Iranian with a speck of concern for his country knows that they have very valuable oil and they are relatively weak and that the USA has made it clear that it is willing and able to invade and conquer countries on its “hit list” and it has very clearly said that Iran is on its hit list. So, the fact that pretty much everybody in Iran who does not want to see their country attacked or conquered wants it to have nuclear weapons doesn’t bother me. I call that common sense.

    As to whether they can get a production line going and make “100 weapons”, I suppose that is possible. They are not all that sophisticated, after all, though. Nothing like the old Soviet Union was, and it took them a long time to get a decent nuclear force built and they had good engineers, good scientists, good metallurgists, a large and sophisticated industrial base. These guys have oil wells they didn’t dig, goats and hand-made rugs. They are not in the same league. And the logic of deterrance is the same even if they start to make more bombs, even if the merit the name “weapons”. So I don’t discount their statements that they will attack any more than I discounted the published Soviet doctrine during the Cold War that said they would use nuclear weapons any time a war broke out. That is what they said. Maybe they meant it. But they didn’t do it. The way to deal with that is to have a retaliatory capability and make sure they understand that.

    Maybe you are right, they leadership there really is suicidal and willing to lead their entire country, their families and themselves to being incinerated by the Israeli and/or American retaliatory strike. Maybe so. But they don’t look that crazy to me. Even Hitler couldn’t get his leadership team to buy into national suicide. Albert Speer refused to follow his orders to destroy everything, etc. Would Ahmenijibad or whatever his name is even be able to order an attack on Israel which would lead to the literal extinction of the Iranian state and most of its people without being assassinated by his own people? Perhaps a relevant question.

    The lesson from Iraq is that conquering and occupying places is really, really hard to do and very, very expensive. How about pecking at the periphery in Iran, bombing here and there? They can retaliate where we are exposed, in Iraq, in the Straits. Do we really want to get into that with them? Do we really want to rally the Iranian people to these idiots?

    We should have a Farsi Radio Free Persia going 24/7 with several channels. We should be prepared to support any uprising against the current regime. We should be aiming at bringing down the Mullahs the way we brought down the USSR.

    If the French or the Israelis feel unsafe, they can act on their own. But we shouldn’t do it. One optional war at a time is plenty.

  5. Lex, certainly “at least one optional” nation-building/peace-keeping mission at a time is enough.

    Going in there, causing calculated havoc, and withdrawing would not be as taxing. Paraphrasing Colin Powell, the US would be breaking it but not buying it. I reckon that it’d be good if Iranian leaders believed this a probablilty…..Given recent history, I don’t see why they wouldn’t, except of course they may be beyond reason.

    It occurs to me that Bush elder did this in Gulf War I. It may be that, at the time, nation-building (in the early 90s) would have been more difficult (to what extent?) than it is in 2006. The reason being that a decade of further western-cultural dispersion in the mid-east has occurred.

  6. “Going in there, causing calculated havoc, and withdrawing” No, it would just destroy the lives of thousands of people who probably hate the mullahs now but would certainly hate us forever for just going in and wrecking the place. The TV images of crying children amidst the ruins would be global recruiting images for the ongoing jihadist movement. Punitive raids worked in the 19th century. We can no longer just coldly set out to destroy civilians unless me really mean to destroy the place for good, something I hope never happens. Iran has been around for centuries. This regime is 27 years old and not looking all that stable. You don’t just go in some place and destroy the lives and livelihoods of masses of people because their corrupt leadership is unable to keep its stupid mouth shut. We shouldn’t burn any bridge forever. Think about the actual consequences of what you are suggesting. We should target the regime not the civil population of Iran, again, unless nuclear deterrance fails.

  7. Certainly wouldn’t target civilians but civilian casualties are a sad consequence of war, no?

    Motivation is not to keep “leaders mouth shut”. Surely we’re talking about destroying nuclear capability (in the hands of what looks like medieval madmen) and, if it were done, destroying military capabilty generally and infrastructure to some determined extent.

    If there’s another, peaceful way, that’d be great.

  8. “…civilian casualties are a sad consequence of war, no?” That begs the question of whether to start a war in the first place, which is what I thought we were talking about. “…we’re talking about destroying nuclear capability …” This presumes we know where it is. I recall our wonderful insider knowledge of Iraq before we invaded. I recall that we “destroyed hundreds” of Serbian vehicles in Kosovo that turned out to be wooden dummies. The only ways to do it would be (1) invade, conquer, occupy and search the country — which is totally beyond our powers — or (2) use nuclear weapons and wreck the place so bad there is no way they can build anything. The idea that we can “surgically” do anything is not realistic.

    I stick to my view that containment is better than open war, and that NOT killing thousands of Iranians who have no say in all this and do not like their government, is in our long-term best interest. I am relieved to see that President Bush seems to agree with that.

  9. Hi. New Zealander here. Read a lot of things on your site, you seem more thoughtful than most rightwing Americans, so I will venture an opinion that DOESN’T agree with yours, while not entirely dis-agreeing with yours also.
    By and large i agree with your comments, as far as you go. I think you don’t take into account, or maybe care, why the average Iranian thinks it is a GOOD idea they make a bomb. make, not use.

    From the IRANIAN point of view, America is a proven amoral user hiding behind a shield of ” Good Values “. Your administrations always publically PROFESS integrity, high moral value, and apple pie, but then steamroll their way to their goal.
    You frighten them. They want to be protected from another ” C. Powell goes to the UN with a trumped up case, the US invades for business concerns “.

    OK, on the flip side of things is a mouthy nutcase at the helm that probably WOULD commit mass murder if he could. As you pointed out though, he isn’t going to be allowed to launch a nuke at Israel, his own ruling cliche won’t let him.

    As to your saying “You detonate one of these against anyone, we destroy you forever.” Well, do you really think so?. A nuke goes off, and whoever is at the helm says ” OK, that was Iran, destroy them !”. What?. within minutes?. 24 hours later?. when?.

    Face it, unless you had been tracking the order, that launched the missile, how would you KNOW surely enough that it was Iran, as opposed to Pakistan/N.K./Israel ?.

    A week later the CIA offers a very likely estimate of who it had been, and your President, aware no more nukes are coming because no more were available, gives the order that destroys a million lives, innocent lives of women and children ?.

    It will never happen. Their using a nuke would be a great crime.

    The USA’s using of one, would be infintely worse.

  10. “Incidentally, I do not believe there is any possibility that the Iranians will be prevented from getting at least a nuclear “device”.”

    Bettcha we can blow up enough of their equipment tostop them.

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