Iran and nuclear weapons

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 The U.S. has just withdrawn the last troops from one Middle Eastern country where it fought a highly costly war of choice with a rationale involving weapons of mass destruction.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.


  1. says

    One of the biggest problems in premptively attacking Iran to stop them from even building a bomb, is that the kind of war we’d be waging would be one in which we exercise absolutely no meaningful choices in how to fight. Once we choose to wage that war, that would be the last choice we make.

    If Iran tries to rebuild what we bombed the first time, we would have no choice but to bomb them again. And again and again…

    If they build conventional forces, such as fighter-jet or missile capabilities, to stop the next attack, we will have no choice but to bomb those targets too.

    If they improve their technology and build stronger structures for their nuclear-related facilities, we will have no choice but to use more powerful weapons against them. And if such facilities are located in, say, the middle of Tehran, we will have no choice but to use such powerful weapons against heavily civilian-popualted areas. Good luck getting Russia and China (or any of Iran’s neighbors) to back us up on that crusade.

    And if they import parts of a nuclear-weapons program from some other country, we will have no choice but to bomb that country too.

    If they attack us, or Israel, in retaliation for our last bombing raid, we will have no choice but to retaliate against them for that too.

    And if Obama’s successor decides to stop the madness, we will have no choice but to look like a complete bunch of dangerous incompetent clowns, who started a war and then gave up without accomplishing jack shit.

    And will Israeli intelligence ever be able to say, with high confidence, that Iran does not have a nuclear capability? Of course not — they’ll err on the side of “caution,” because right-wing politicians will not let them do anything else.

    This will be just like Vietnam, with higher stakes: we can “win” every battle, but still lose the war, because no matter how powerful we are, we’ll be letting the enemy’s choices dictate and constrain ours every step of the way.

    And if Iran gets a few bombs, SO WHAT?! Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel all have nuclear bombs, and does it make one scrap of difference to anyone? If we didn’t have to preemptively bomb the USSR (under STALIN no less!) to keep them from getting a bomb, there’s no reason for anyone to do the same to Iran.

  2. Upright Ape says

    What an absolutely clueless article.
    Ahmadinejad is not a Kim Il Sung or a Khrushchev. He is a cultist. His goal is not just to get his hands on the bomb. He is trying to usher in the end times. In this “eschatology” he shiite hidden imam’s second coming is facilitated by the destruction of isreal. It is not for no reason that he has openly called for Israel getting “wiped off the map”. That is not something you would hear from North Korea.
    Such is the power of delusions. If the regime of Iran is not stopped the cost to humanity will be much, much higher.

  3. Dave, the Kwisatz Haderach says

    What an absolutely clueless comment.
    Rick Santorum is not a Kim Il Sung or a Khrushchev. He is a cultist. His goal is not just to get his hands on the bomb. He is trying to usher in the end times.

    If the regime of xtain domionists is not stopped the cost to humanity will be much, much higher.


    Seriously, I am far more scared of a Xtian dominionist like Santorum being in charge America’s military and nuclear arsenal, than I am of Iran getting the bomb.

  4. F says

    If the regime of Iran is not stopped the cost to humanity will be much, much higher.

    With one or two potential bombs and maybe a delivery system? The only way Iran can usher in the “end times” is by other governments being “provoked” into “taking action”. And all this does is make more enemies for the U.S. and aligned countries.

    But we’ll never learn, apparently.

  5. mnb0 says

    There is one thing wrong in this analysis. Maybe now Irani ayatollah’s owning a nuclear bomb is not that frightening, but how is that after 50 years? 20 years? 5 years? The idea of a bunch of religious zealots floating a finger above a red button is scary. As far as I am concerned this is a good reason for a preemptive strike.
    But this works the other way around as well. If those ayatollah’s are religious zealots indeed we have to take their religiosity seriously. And then we get back to Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons several years ago.
    In the second place it is remarkable that Israel is not willing, unlike about 25 years ago. That can mean only one thing: Israel doesn’t regard it in its own interest to begin hostilities.
    Finally it is remarkable that those neocons always complain about leftish big spenders. I cannot think of a bigger spending than military action against Iran. I’ll never understand why people buy this: cut down on health care, education and social security so that we can begin a nice new expensive war …..

  6. Upright Ape says

    No we don’t. Just as Hitler had laid out his plans in Mein Kampf and we look the other way.

  7. Upright Ape says

    Yeah, wait for a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel and it will be all fun and game.

  8. Desert Son, OM says

    Ahmadinejad is not a Kim Il Sung or a Khrushchev. He is a cultist.

    I think a pretty good case could be made for Kim Il Sung being a cultist. I think it was Hitchens that described him as being dead, yet nevertheless still head of the political party in North Korea. That seems awfully cultish to me, whether it was ever officially declared as specifically associated with some brand of religion or not.

    Surely the reasons for alarm at the idea of Iran developing nuclear weapons can also find purchase in alarm at the idea that Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, or that China (and the state-party-as-ultimate-ideal aspect of China’s government seems cultish to me, as well) already has nuclear weapons.

    Russia is no longer the Great Communist Monolith of Doom, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as geo-politically “stable,” and they’ve got nuclear weapons.

    If so, then why single out Iran? Is it because Iran is more likely to lose a conventional war against the U.S. (even if the geo-political sentiment war isn’t necessarily one they lose)? Will China and North Korea suddenly feel like, “Well, the U.S. made good on threats, and went after Iran, so we better dial it back”? Is it too late to “make an example” of China or North Korea? Does pre-emptively striking Iran actually put the U.S. on firmer geo-political footing when we don’t go after Pakistan? If we’re not concerned with reputation, and it truly really is about sovereignty and safety, shouldn’t we be mobilizing against China, Russia, Israel, France, Great Britain, India, and Pakistan right now?

    Lastly, given that the U.S. is thus far the only nation in the history of nuclear weapons to actually use said weapons in belligerence against another nation, and given that the current political climate in the U.S. is no stranger to cults and their behaviors, shouldn’t we also put the U.S. on the nuclear weapons watch list?

    Or is it that our cults are better than their cults?

    Still learning,


  9. sailor1031 says

    “…we will have no choice but to look like a complete bunch of dangerous incompetent clowns, who started a war and then gave up without accomplishing jack shit”

    Oh well, it wouldn’t be a first.

  10. says


    There are at least three countries in the world where religious zealouts already control nuclear weapons – the United States, Israel and Pakistan. What makes a nuclear armed Iran any scarier?

    And how about everyone considers this for a moment. What do you think will happen after you do bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? Do you think that’s game over, and that Iran will just sit back and do nothing? Or do you think – like every rational military person would be thinking right now (and I am one of them) – that Iran will probably strike back, and do so in a very destructive way?

    You don’t need to have a deliverable nuclear weapon to render a city uninhabitable. Iran has plenty of nuclear material, and could easily manufacture a dirty bomb and deliver that covertly anywhere in the world. And there are thousands of other ways for Iran to make life hell for the Unites States, Israel or anyone else for that matter.

    Perhaps someone should ask all the idiots who are urging an attack on Iran what they think would happen after the attack. Because I can guarantee that won’t be the end of the matter.

  11. Francisco Bacopa says

    I’m not really worried about a nuclear armed Iran. They are a sensible nation. But why aren’t we freaking out about nuclear armed Pakistan? Now there’s an unstable country.

  12. dcortesi says

    What about good old M.A.D.? Though frequently vilified — and not particularly comfortable to live with, which I say as a member of the generation who actually did, in second grade, practice a “civil defense” drill involving climbing under our school desks when the alarm sounded — it worked for 50 years or so. Just say, do what you like, build what you like, but if a bomb falls on a city anywhere in the world, one of our bombs will fall on the capital of the guilty country 24 hours later.

  13. mnb0 says

    Well, Robert, I’d like to put the USA on that watchlist, but who will be in control?

  14. mnb0 says

    I am. But what do you prefer – one country of religious zealots (btw, Iran is far worse than Pakistan – the latter doesn’t have a Guardian Council of the Constitution consisting of religous authorities) armed with nuclear weapons or two?

  15. mnb0 says

    What about Russian roulette?
    Look up Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov.
    Also look up the false alarm NORAD gave on November 9, 1979.

  16. says

    If that’s all you can think of to say, then your disagreement means nothing.

    That’s the most disgraceful thing about these warmongers: counter their dire fearmongering with practical objections, and they have absolutely nothing to say. They’ve never cared enough even to think about such things; all they have is fear and hate.

  17. says

    He is trying to usher in the end times…

    Are you sure you’re not letting your view of his religion be colored by your view of Christianity?

  18. Desert Son, OM says

    mnb0 at

    Well, Robert, I’d like to put the USA on that watchlist, but who will be in control?

    Maybe Upright Ape has a suggestion?

    I think your counter-question was one of the points I was trying to make, but I don’t think I expressed it very well. I posed many of the questions I did as a kind of exercise to examine the idea that military action as a means of stopping nuclear weapons development doesn’t strike me as plausibly successful both logistically and geo-politically (for reasons that Raging Bee, F, and mikeswinbourne have already touched on in the thread).

    Your own counter-question also illustrates two core problems of any oversight body: global buy-in by those watched and (insomuch as it’s possible) objective distance by the watchers. In the event that such an unlikely system actually occurs, the ultimate confounding factor is, of course, Juvenal’s Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    It’s largely moot anyway because there does not seem to be any global consensus on watchdog bodies, the U.S. included (that is, the U.S. doesn’t demonstrate any more likelihood of acceding to, or abiding in accord with, oversight than any other nation does. Just ask Hans Blix).

    Which just brings me back to the question of what evidence is there that pre-emptive military action is the best, most viable course in the case of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? What would battle prevent or solve? Would the rest of the world breathe a sigh of relief that Iran’s nuclear weapons development was postponed (because the idea that it would cease completely strikes me as pure fantasy)? Would everyone feel like the U.S. had done the right thing (and also, would the U.S. be likely to meet any such fantasy accolade with anything resembling the kind of humility that might make it a bit more palatable to the rest of the globe as model for future behavior)? Would the U.S.’s own deeply overstretched economy (thanks in no small part to ongoing military conflict) suddenly experience some kind of windfall of prosperous donations of thanks relieving its current dessication?

    I ask because, as a citizen of the U.S., I actually do have to share this planet with all the other citizens of the world, however much my own nation might like to imagine everyone else is just renting, or however much other nations might like to see my own burned and blasted into desolation. In this particular circumstance, what makes pre-emptive military action the best course to pursue?

    “They’re religious fanatics!” doesn’t seem sufficiently convincing, if only because fanaticism is, by definition, independent of the weapons held. Quite a few religious fanatics have managed to turn everything from automobiles to commercial jet aircraft into weapons in their pursuit of harm and the delusion of paradise, no nukes required (though, to be sure, I would be remiss in not acknowledging that a nuclear weapon really is on a whole different scale. Nonetheless, I don’t consider 3,000 people as acceptable losses any more than I consider 3,000,000 people as acceptable losses).

    Is, as dcortesi suggests at #7, mutually assured destruction an actual and effective safeguard? I’m not sure Russian Roulette is a direct analogy to mutually assured destruction. There may be something worth exploring in terms of negotiations about high-stakes conditions within a construct like Game Theory, for example (but I don’t know Game Theory, so it’s not something I can comment on with any expertise).

    I guess ultimately I’m left stumped as to why the best response to military development is military development? Maybe it truly is, but I’m not sure it’s particularly convincing in this case. And if the best response to weapons development is use of weapons, doesn’t it make more sense to ensure that every nation gets nuclear weapons in order to create the ultimate stalemate (again, back to mutually assured destruction, and that’s problematic)? Between former Soviet Union and the U.S., we could easily distribute to every nation on the planet some form of military first-strike capability.

    I feel like the conversation keeps coming down to “There’s only two responses: capitulation or conflict!” Why? Why are there only two responses?

    At #6.1 you ask:

    But what do you prefer – one country of religious zealots … armed with nuclear weapons or two?

    and again I ask, “Why are those the only two choices?” My own idealistic answer is that I prefer an entire globe of countries with no religious zealots, the people of those nations having abandoned religious nonsense after careful, critical thinking and introspection and peacefully migrating to atheism within their own complex cultural systems that can still express diversity of art, music, language, social systems, and interpersonal dynamics. It seems to me that in order to move closer to that ideal, the answer is in things like education, mutual cooperative effort, honest non-exploitative trade, information sharing, abandonment of imperialism, and greater global economic parity.

    So where do the high explosive anti-personnel rounds come in again?

    Still learning,


  19. says

    Maybe now Irani ayatollah’s owning a nuclear bomb is not that frightening, but how is that after 50 years? 20 years? 5 years?

    The same could have been said of the USSR and China. “They might do something unimaginably horrible in the UNforseeable future!!!” can be used to justify ANY extreme preemptive action; therefore it justifies nothing. (And besides, the list of all the horrible things Iran could do in the next 50 years includes a lot of things that don’t involve nukes at all. So what do we do — exterminate the entire population?)

  20. says

    Again, “What do you prefer?” does absolutely nothing to calculate what specific policy is best for a given situation in the real world. It is, in fact, the typical hysteric’s response: “Do you WANT them to eat our babies and poison our precious bodily fluids??!!!! No? Then stop questioning me!!!”

  21. says

    Here’s another huge problem with preemptively attacking Iran’s nuclear capability: intel. We’d need LOTS of spies on the ground to identify and confirm ALL of the necessary targets. Would we be able to get enough Iranians to help a foreign power to wage an unprovoked attack on their country? That’s possible, but so unlikely that we might as well consider it impossible.

    When the Iranian government/mullocracy does something really evil, like rigging elections or hanging teenage boys for allegedly being gay, there are plenty of Iranians willing to tell the tale to the world, who would still call themselves patriots. Would those same people give out information that would allow a foreign aggressor to destroy their country’s military power, most likely at great cost in civilian lives, and possibly with nuclear weapons? You might find one or two people who would do that, but you surely would not find enough of them in the right places to give us a realiable picture of what targets we’d need to destroy.

  22. mnb0 says

    I’m not a warmonger. You’re presenting a false dichotomy; one doesn’t have to be a warmonger to deeply distrust ayatollah’s with nuclear weapons.
    If that’s all you can say of think of a discussion is senseless indeed.

  23. mnb0 says

    Yep. And guess what? USSR at least twice almost launched a nuclear war. Thanks for confirming my point. Google Vladimir Arkhipov and Stanislav Yefgravovich Petrov.
    Maybe you enjoy Russian roulette with the Earth at stake, I don’t.

  24. mnb0 says

    Iran not having nuclear bombs reduces considerably the risk of something like that happening again.

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