One of the ways that political discourse is controlled is by limiting the range of options that are considered ‘reasonable’. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, it is taken for granted that for that country to obtain a nuclear weapon means the end of the world, that the country’s leadership is committed to doing so, and so the only options are whether we should bomb them immediately or first try draconian sanctions before bombing them in the near future. It is also taken as a given that the US has the right to decide who can have nuclear weapons.
In this fevered atmosphere, Paul Pillar tries to provide a much-needed broadening of the debate. In an article in Washington Monthly titled We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran he argues that “Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.”
Those in the United States who genuinely yearn for war are still a neoconservative minority. But the danger that war might break out—and that the hawks will get their way—has nonetheless become substantial. The U.S. has just withdrawn the last troops from one Middle Eastern country where it fought a highly costly war of choice with a rationale involving weapons of mass destruction. Now we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the “sensible” idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Given the momentousness of such an endeavor and how much prominence the Iranian nuclear issue has been given, one might think that talk about exercising the military option would be backed up by extensive analysis of the threat in question and the different ways of responding to it. But it isn’t. Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.
Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous.
Pillar “teaches in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005” (i.e., during the Bush administration) and brings with him some serious credentials to the discussion, unlike much of the hyperventilators.
It is an excellent article, well worth reading in full.