Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

We Should Follow Fareed Zakaria’s Advice

Posted in Iran by Dan on March 22, 2010

For anyone who is truly scared about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, I invite you to take a look at a piece that Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek a little over a week ago.  In it, Zakaria goes on a scholarly tirade about how overblown the Iranian debate has become, up to the point where some are afraid that an Iranian nuclear weapon would somehow hold the world hostage.  Israel has been advocating this stance for years, a state that views Iran as an existential threat.  Neoconservatives across the United States- the same people who lobbied the government to launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003- have taken up a similar belief.

Thankfully, we have some rational reporters (like Mr. Zakaria) that refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.  From his judgment, Iran is not an existential threat.  In fact, Iran is not even on par with the Soviet Union or Communist China when it comes to what Americans should be worrying about.  Contrary to popular belief, Iran is a state that can be deterred if it indeed crosses the nuclear threshold.  If the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Israel can be deterred, so can the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Believe it or not, I actually wrote about this very issue a few months ago, when Iran became the primary topic on the Sunday talk shows.  And thankfully, I am happy to say that my recommendation is exactly what Mr. Zakaria is advocating (not to pat myself on the back, because heck…If I was an expert, than perhaps my long manuscript would have been accepted by a major journal).

As Zakaria accurately notes, the main objective of Iran’s rulers is self-preservation. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are willing to do anything to stay in power. We saw this in a pretty brutal fashion this past summer, with Basij militiamen beating protesters over the head with clubs. We continue to see this today, with members of the opposition being summarily executed in show-trials, hoping that the threat of death will deter future anti-regime protests.

There appears to be nothing that the mullahs (and the IRGC generals) would do to hold onto their positions. Building a nuclear program and eventually getting nuclear warheads fits right into this calculus. With a nuclear deterrent, there is no way the United States would be foolish enough to promote regime-change through the use of force.  Among the many reasons for an Iranian bomb, regime stability is one of the biggest.

But just as it’s foolish for the U.S. to attack an Iran with a nuclear capability, it would be downright suicidal for Iran to use nuclear weapons in the first place.

What could Tehran possibly achieve with a nuclear weapon? Spreading their influence across the Persian Gulf? Well, this has already been done. Iran has proxy influence in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and in the Palestinian Territories.  While it may be true that nuclear-armed Iran would be more aggressive in the broader Middle East, this same behavior would quickly tame down if the United States adopted a serious deterrence strategy.

What about the stupid neoconservative argument that Iran would secretly give nuclear material to a terrorist organization? This too is unlikely. It has taken Iranian scientists close to a decade to develop the infrastructure and technology needed for uranium enrichment. The idea that the Iranians would simply hand-over their most prized possession to terrorists is laughable.  Any nuclear attack by a terrorist group would be solely blamed on Iran, even if there was a lack of 100 percent certainty.  And the result would be nothing short of catastrophic for the Iranian Government.

And don’t even talk about “wiping Israel of the map.” This argument is the most ignorant on the list. Destroying Israel would only invite an even bigger wrath by the United States, with Iranian cities annihilated and millions of Iranian citizens killed. Nobody wins.

This is why deterrence is such a foolproof concept, and this is why Iran (despite its fundamentalism jargon and vehement anti-Americanism) is just as susceptible to deterrence as everyone else.  Any offensive nuclear attack would be met with an even stronger reaction.

So let’s take Zakaria’s advice and stop worrying about things that are not going to happen. No one wants Iran to become a nuclear power, but the world won’t end if they do make that list.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Fareed Zakaria, James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh**


15 Responses

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  1. benkrapf said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Considering we failed to keep Israel from developing nukes, we have an obligation to find a diplomatic solution to this issue. Use of force in this case is wrong on many levels.

  2. braveheart1983 said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:27 am

    It’s clear enough that the Iranian regime is strongly determined to possess nuclear weapons to counterbalance Israel’s hegemony over the region. so, in my point of view no one can or have the ability to hinder them in their projects, merely because as Zakaria has said in his well structured article they are strongly backed by China as well as Russia. The former is interested in Iranian’s oil, and the latter by its geo-strategical position as one of the main actors in the region as well as its strong desire to costumize its military arsenal in the Russian way . Iranians perfectly know that the way they are taking is hard to take it alone, hence they seek other nation’s help and support as if we are going back to the system of alliances that we have seen at the very beginning in both First and Second World Wars.

  3. quelgar said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Military action has huge risks. However, the assumption that the Iranian regime is rational and primarily interested in self-preservation is also very risky. They seem to be pursuing an imperial project for Persian domination of the region, and are almost eager to confront the U.S. What if they really do believe God is on their side? How sure can we be that it’s all hyperbole?

  4. salinecanine said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:29 am

    Iran’s intentions can be seen clearly in their investment in Hezbollah and Hamas. They’ve spent billions arming Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and are the primary source of smuggled arms and rockets to Hamas. They continuously pick fights with the Saudis and have supplied the insurgents in Iran with shaped IED charges to attack U.S. forces. Since Khomeini they’ve used vast amounts of money and weapons promoting their goal of a caliphate state in the mid-East. They’ve stated over and over Israel has no right to exist and their goal is to remove Jews from Palestine. Iran has repeatedly shown they will use the means at their disposal to attack Israel. If Iranian rockets had rained down in U.S. cities there’d already have been a response. I’d say Israel has shown great restraint so far with Iran. Hopefully Europe and the U.S. will find a way through sanctions to stop their nuclear weapons program before Netanyahu determines he has to act. This issue will come to a boil soon.

  5. Lee S. said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:29 am

    If Iran can smuggle large caches of weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, they can smuggle in one or two nuclear weapons. If these weapons are smuggled in and detonated, tiny Israel is gone. There will be no counter strike by Israel as most of the country will be in utter ruin. Iran being a large country with lots of territory to hide missiles and bombs will then insure that the US does not attack it by holding Europe hostage. They’ll threaten to launch missiles at Europe if the US tries to retaliate on the former Israel’s behalf. This is how history will play out. You heard it here first.

  6. Indian DP said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:30 am

    @ DePetris @ 02/20/2010 9:20:23

    BHUTAN: Ever heard of Bhutan? No. Its not a Bali dance (pun intended). A very tiny but magnificent Buddhist nation sandwitched between two giants which are its only two border sharing neighbors, India and china. Going by your logic it is the first nation that deserves A-Bomb today, it can not use it on its only two neighbors for obvious reasons, but still Bhutan deserves its own self preservation pill. Nehru, former Indian Prime Minister kept going to UN until his death, demanding tabling a resolution to denuclearize the planet, he was ignored by all.

    • Indian DP said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:31 am

      Having lived in Iran not long ago during this mulla regime, I can say, the Iranian govt is hand in glove with those terrorists who are in their (Irans) favor. The Iranian mullah regime will gladly deliver any weapon to the terrorists to create a huge political space for Iran on the global stage. Of course, they are building the bomb and yes they will use it if needed. Their regional aspirations will grow bolder and will stand directly opposing the Saudis, demending a place at the negotiating table on all issues middleast and beyond

  7. NeoBlackdog said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Nothing says deterrent like a cruise missile up Ahmadinejad’s backside. Of course the Iranians would use a nuke on Israel! They have openly called for its destruction time and again. You have a bunch of religious zealots running the show over there and part of that ‘religion’ deals with the end of the world signaled by ‘a light in the sky’ and the sun rising in the west. Viewed from Tehran, a nuke over Tel Aviv might be seen as a sunrise to the west. Certainly as a light in the sky! these zealots need to be stopped.

  8. Mr. JD said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I don’t think anyone’s saying that Iran would nuke anyone openly. They’re concerned that Iran is more likely to allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists than the tight-fisted, self-secluding North Koreans or the power-hoarding Soviets. The Middle East is full of governments believed to support terrorist groups under the table (I’m not talking Saddam and al Queda – give it a rest. Think Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban). It would be easy for the Iranian leadership to think it could pass a nuke to terrorists in a way that they could deny responsibility for when it’s used.

  9. Lance C. said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:34 am

    A well reasoned outline, but seemingly missing one key point: While getting the bomb itself does not need to be a redline that immediately calls for a preemptive strike on Iran, the combination of the bomb and a credible delivery system might indeed demand it.

    Iran should be put on notice that it can have the bomb, but that an ICBM system coupled with the bomb would be viewed as a provocation demanding preemption. Or, they can have the space technology, but no bomb. Considering their rhetoric, they can’t have both, and they should be informed as to the immediate consequences should they acquire both.

    Initially, Iran will have no deterrent capability compared to America’s overwhelming force. But over time, Iran would be expected to expand its nuclear force to the point that it could deter America. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the redline to end all redlines.

    Missiles or bombs, Iran? But as soon as you have both, you have bought yourself a world of trouble.

  10. Freddy T. said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:35 am

    One bombing raid may well not end their nuclear weapons program. But if we have to hit them again in 3 years, we can. Over and over until they understand that nuclear weapons are simply not permitted to them. There is no need for a large number of casualties.

    The bombing of Syria’s nuclear facility, of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, and the recent US targeting inside Yemen have all gone reasonably well and there has been no global cataclysm.

    If one bunker buster doesn’t do the job on an underground facility, use six. If more are needed, use more.

    For anything Iran can do in response, the US has a good counter. As long as the US doesn’t try to invade the cities and manage the people, it’s all doable.

    A nuclear Iran would blow open the doors on non-proliferation, and lead to either an Iranian monopoly on mideast oil or an arms race with the Arab states. Both outcomes are unstable and could lead to massive violence, even nuclear war. These scenarios must be prevented. Even at the cost of a few truck bombs and increased rocketing of Israel.

  11. Jonathan K. said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:35 am

    An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would only set them back a few years, and they would rebuild deep underground. Iran has a different vulnerability: refined petroleum products. These are either imported or domestically refined. Ports and refineries are vulnerable, and cannot be hidden deep underground. Blockading the ports would be a major disruption to their society; the military might keep its supplies, but the civilian sector would be seriously disrupted. If, in addition, the refineries were destroyed, the entire society would come to a screeching halt.

    In such circumstances, the population would be likely to rebel against the present government and insist on peace. That is how democracy came to Argentina and Greece after adventurism in the Falklands and Cyprus failed.

  12. anan said, on March 22, 2010 at 2:57 am

    There is something to Fareed’s critique. More important in my view, is how can the civilized world work with Iran to defeat our shared enemies, the Takfiri extremists?

    But how do you say it without being accused of being anti Jewish? Merely mentioning this idea has many people attacking me as a Jew hater on this comment section:


    • Dan said, on March 22, 2010 at 3:22 am

      I get the same label placed on me when I argue against the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The funny thing is that this is a laughable and misguided statement…halting construction in Palestinian land would substantially decrease the hate felt by many Muslims against the state of Israel. You would think that looking after Israel’s security would be applauded by pro-Israel supporters.

      Thanks for the comment and check in again. Spread the word!!

  13. Musa said, on March 24, 2010 at 10:58 am

    A very realistic analysis. I hardly see such analysis in popular western media. The west is overwhelmed with the concept of preemptive strikes. How long can you keep other countries from having nuclear technologies if you hold on to your arsenal and build upon it. There is only one country in the world which ever used nuclear weapons against civilian population…. guess who!

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