Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.
At around 8:30 in the morning on Wednesday, January 11, while much of Tehran was snarled in its usual rush-hour traffic, a motorcyclist drew alongside a gray Peugeot and affixed a magnetic bomb to its exterior. The ensuing blast killed the car’s thirty-two-year-old passenger, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a professor of chemistry and the deputy director of Iran’s premiere uranium enrichment facility. The assassin disappeared into traffic, and Roshan became the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to die in violent or mysterious circumstances since 2007.
The attack was, in a sense, fairly typical of the covert war being waged against Iran’s nuclear program, a campaign that has included computer sabotage as well as the serial assassination of Iranian scientists. Even the manner of the killing was routine; Roshan was the third scientist to die from a magnet bomb slapped onto his car during a commute. But the timing of the chemist’s death—amid a series of diplomatic events that came fast and furious in January and February, each further complicating relations with Iran—had the effect of dramatizing how close this covert war may be to becoming an overt one.
On New Year’s Eve, eleven days before the bombing that killed Roshan, President Barack Obama enacted a new round of sanctions that essentially blacklisted Iran’s central bank by penalizing anyone who does business with it, a move designed to cripple the Islamic Republic’s ability to sell oil overseas. Iran responded by threatening to militarily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow shipping lane out of the Persian Gulf through which 20 percent of the world’s oil trade passes. On January 8, three days before the attack on Roshan, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared on Face the Nation and reinforced America’s commitment to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Just in December, Panetta had emphasized the damaging consequences that war with Iran would bring, but now he stressed that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would cross a “red line.” When the European Union announced its own sanctions of the Iranian central bank in late January, Iran redoubled its threat to block shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. Panetta called this another “red line” that would provoke a military response from the U.S. February brought more posturing from Iran, along with two assassination attempts against Israelis living in New Delhi and Tbilisi that were widely attributed to Tehran.
All of this has played out against the unhelpful backdrop of American election-year politics. The Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of the antiwar libertarian Ron Paul, have seized on Iran as a possible winning issue and have tried to outdo each other in sounding bellicose about it. Mitt Romney has repeatedly discussed the use of military force as one way of fulfilling his promise that, if he is elected, Iran “will not have a nuclear weapon.” In short, both Democrats and Republicans have so ratcheted up their alarm about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon that they are willing to commit to the extreme step of launching an offensive war—an act of aggression—to try to stop it.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government, which has led the way in talking up the danger of an Iranian bomb, represents a significant hazard outside Washington’s control. It was most likely the Israelis, for instance, who orchestrated the provocatively timed attack on Roshan. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently dialed down the heat somewhat by saying that an Israeli decision to strike Iran was “far off.” But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mindful of the U.S. electoral calendar and the possibility that Barack Obama might pull off a victory in November, may see a temporary opportunity to precipitate a conflict in which a preelection U.S. president would feel obliged to join in on Israel’s side.
Yet even without an Israeli decision to start a war, recent U.S., Iranian, and Israeli actions already constitute an escalation toward one. Rising tensions have increased the chance that even a minor incident, such as a seaborne encounter in the Persian Gulf, could spiral out of control. And Iran’s own covert actions—perhaps including the recent spate of car bombs targeting Israeli officials in India and Georgia and last year’s bizarre alleged plot to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and kill the Saudi ambassador—feed even more hostility from the U.S. and Israel, escalating further the risk of open conflict.
Thus we find ourselves at a strange pass. 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.
What difference would it make to Iran’s behavior and influence if the country had a bomb? Even among those who believe that war with the Islamic Republic would be a bad idea, this question has been subjected to precious little careful analysis. The notion that a nuclear weapon would turn Iran into a significantly more dangerous actor that would imperil U.S. interests has become conventional wisdom, and it gets repeated so often by so many diverse commentators that it seldom, if ever, is questioned. Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous. What passes for an answer to that question takes two forms: one simple, and another that sounds more sophisticated.
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