Sunday, April 25, 2010

What to do about Iran

Our news seems filled with Iran even when there is no real news. The recent release of the “secret” memo by our Secretary of Defense which revealed his concerns about Iran is but one example, whatever it is he meant (take your pick – he says one thing, the media says another).

I want to go over the Iran nuclear issue and at least look at the other side. You can call it playing devil’s advocate, but I won’t write anything I don’t believe is true.

I am not a dove. Even back of the days when I was a proud lib (ending sometime in the late 80s) I made an exception with my hawkishness in that I thought we never spent enough on defense – that we should have the most and biggest and baddest weapons around to an overwhelming degree. Also, that we had to show a willingness to fight if necessary and not run when the going got tough. I still feel that way (yes, I guess that make me a chickenhawk).

Naturally, I have no problem with our taking action to defend ourselves in any circumstance, even pre-emptively if there is a “clear and present danger”. Moreover, I get the America to the rescue ideal, although that must be handled with the great care and reserve.  However, all that is not a license just to attack whoever we want, even countries where we despise the leadership, be it North Korea, Venezuela or Iran. Nor am I one who adopts the position that if there is any degree of potential attack on the United States we are justified in attacking another country. When Bush and Cheney were in power, they supposedly adopted the 1% rule – if there was even a one percent chance of a nuclear weapon going off in the United States, they were justified in doing whatever they thought needed to be done. I don’t know how many people agree with that, but I'd ask them if they'd apply the same standard to their neighbor if he or she felt threatened by them when they walked down the street. Life is filled with risk and we all have to deal with it. We survive and thrive as a civilization because we don't act on our fears all the time.

If there is strong evidence that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, perhaps most Americans would support our doing what whatever needs to be done to stop it – even if it is military in nature. It probably depends on the state of our economy. But, if there isn’t strong evidence – if it just a matter of governments which don’t like each other rattling sabers, we certainly shouldn’t be lobbing anything at Iran. I don’t think that anyone for a second believes that our military can’t demolish Iran’s. And, I don’t think we’d again make the mistake of the Pottery Barn policy – you break it, you buy it – one of the dumbest policies we’ve ever had. So, we probably would not be invading; we would be bombing. The first target is their sole gasoline refinery, the second their parliament and capital.

In the real world, you often don’t get smoking guns. Whatever evidence in hindsight there was about Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and whatever we should have known, they caught us by surprise. Naturally, we don’t want that to happen again. Unfortunately, the combination of U.N. inspections and our own (and perhaps Israeli) intelligence, only takes us so far. We just don't know what they are doing.

Iran is run by tyrannical religious zealots. This is shown to be doubly so when they feel their power is threatened. I do not know that they are bad neighbors, the whole Arab/Persian and Shi’ah/Sunni thing coloring that issue immensely. Unlike Saddam’s Iraq, the regime has not directly attacked anyone other than in its war with Saddam, and long ago we stopped being deluded as to Saddam’s innocence in that matter. There is supposedly evidence that their intelligence services work with Shi’ite militants in Iraq, that they are arming and helping Hamas and Hizbollah, that they are a leading supporter of terrorism in the world. And, if you haven’t forgotten (it would be easy), there are three young Americans who are apparently strayed across the Kurdistan border, were captured, and have been held in Iran since last July without even seeing a lawyer. We invaded Panama with a lot less of an excuse.

It’s not that any of that surprises me. But, leaving aside the hikers, we mortals don’t get to see that evidence. We are told it exists. I have always been puzzled why, if there is proof that Iran is responsible for IUDs in Iraq, we haven’t attacked them? However, I do realize that intelligence can’t just be made public for a number of good reasons and it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Yet, there are limits to my credulity.

As I begin to write this I am listening to speaker after speaker in our House of Representatives call for an end to diplomacy and persuasion in dealing with Iran. I don’t think they are calling for war. What then – so called crippling sanctions, which if they do cripple, rarely humble or destroy. There are exceptions, of course, but not recently. The blockading of Japan did undoubtedly lead to their attacking us at Pearl Harbor. Perhaps that is wanted here? Some suggestions are that we blockade their selling their oil through the one avenue they have. No doubt our powerful navy with the help of the Israeli Navy is quite capable of it. I have no doubt that it would lead to some kind of military action by Iran and that we would be triumphant in a war if we don’t try and occupy them. There would be consequences, of course. Possibly – and it is only a possibility – it would rend politically fragile and volatile Iraq apart. And we might take some blows from Iran, but I do not they would be anything worse than we dealt with during our initial invasion of Iraq.  

I continually ask myself – where is the proof Iran is building a bomb? I would like there to be proof. Nothing would make me happier than for Iran's present regime to bring about its own destruction, although it would be preferable to have it without our involvement or bloodshed. When Iran took British sailors hostage a couple of years ago, I was outraged at Britain’s kowtowing (what the hell happened to the British Lion?) and was also angry that their younger and much stronger brother – us – did not tell Iran you have 24 hours to hand over those prisoners unharmed or we will blow your one gasoline refinery to pieces and deal with the consequences. I am glad that the British hostages were let go and were mostly unharmed (although terrified). But, I believe that this empowered Iran and is part of the reason they believe they can simply bluff their way to anything they want to do in the region.

I hear all the time that you can’t use the legal standard of proof in world affairs. I don’t disagree with that. But there still must be some proof. Otherwise, you take actions you can't justify.  Probably the prediction of which I’m most proud was that we would never find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That seems pretty easy right now, but at the time I didn’t know any body who believed the same even among those who did not want us to invade Iraq. Now, arguments about the weapons all going to Syria aside, there apparently weren’t any (go ahead – argue that the handful of decades old buried and useless weapons that were finally uncovered in Iraq were the weapons of mass destruction that were meant – even the Bush administration very quickly said they weren’t).

I still recall watching Secretary of State Powell make his famed speech to the U.N. concerning the weapons and being literally stunned not only at the paucity of any proof in his speech that WMDs existed there, but at the agreeability of so many that his speech proved anything. It truly was a case of the emperor having no clothes. I also remember when the so-called evidence of aluminum tubes came out and wondered how long before it was quietly announced that – oh, maybe they aren’t suitable for nuclear purposes. Oops, that too.

Ironically, I did support our attacking Saddam. Iraq was in violation of many U.N. resolutions which we supported and he was a true bad guy. The evidence was fairly overwhelming (although his trial was a judicial scam – I would have preferred they didn’t tarnish the court system – but, that’s for another day). But, I did not support the war because I thought Iraq had WMDs. I was told then (long before blogging days) that if I didn’t think he had them, I was a fool, to use one of the nicer words. Naturally, I had no proof of the negative, but I thought I recognized the administration behaving in a way administrations do when they have no proof. Unfortunately, the fallout of the lack of WMD overwhelmed any good reason for attacking and left our country in an unjustifiable position, even to the degree that the administration began to pretend that it wasn't the main reason we invaded. It was as much a reason for Bush's incredibly low polling numbers in this country as anywhere else.

And, I wonder, is this the same thing happening with Iran?

I have carefully scrolled the websites of anti-Iranian groups and can find virtually nothing in the way of proof that Iran is making a nuclear weapon. Many insinuations, concerns and conclusions, but no strong evidence.

What isn’t evidence

There are so many things that people seem to think is evidence that Iran is building a weapon. I would rule out the following familiar arguments:

1) Iran openly acknowledges it is enriching uranium. This is true of many countries who are not our enemies too. Uranium needs a lot of processing just to be useful for peaceful energy purposes. But, in order to build a nuke, Uranium needs to be enriched to 97 % purity (if you don’t know what that means, there are lots of tutorials online, but essentially you need a large process by which many centrifuges spin or other methods are used to separate the rare U[ranium]235 necessary for a chain reaction from the plentiful U238. Plutonium is also produced through this process).  Iran has only succeeded, as far as I can see, in purifying Uranium to a fraction of what would be needed to build a bomb and they must also deal with many design and manufacturing problems. On the other hand, it is diligently working on increasing its ability to purify uranium to higher levels, which it quite reasonably claims it needs for medical applications.

Iran is a signatory to the U.N. nuclear proliferation treaty (NPT). It must follow certain rules according to the treaty and Iran claims it has done so. In 2003 and occasionally thereafter, the inspection regime complained Iran was being secretive. I expect they were. Countries that have nuclear programs sometimes are. In the United States, nuclear energy is a federal monopoly and the development of nukes a state secret, even if largely revealed at this point. Israel will not say anything about its bomb program despite that it is well known they exist.

Iran is rich in oil, but has one plant to process oil into petroleum. It purchases most of its gasoline from other countries. Like the U.S., it needs and wants to develop its nuclear capacity. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, nor, of course, is it a fair argument to suggest that they do not have this right (although anyone who says so is verbally attacked). Certainly, other governments don’t make this argument. They claim Iran is trying to make a bomb and that is the problem. Just because the difference is a matter of degree, doesn't mean that it isn't a difference.

None of the above is evidence that Iran is working towards a bomb, anymore than my having an oil tank in my basement is proof that I am opening up an oil export business.

2) Anything that begins with “Everyone knows . . .” or its derivatives. Also, anything that ends with “your crazy,” “you’re a fool,” etc. Examples: “Everyone knows that Iran is about two years from a bomb.” “If you don’t think Iran has a bomb you’re a fool.” These are actually some the most frequent arguments you hear. They are not arguments; they are ad hominem attacks. I admit even a cogent argument will lose some of its force with me when I hear them.

3) That they hid the nuclear plant at Qom from the world. And, while we are at it, that they haven’t exactly been open about a lot of other stuff. Actually, not revealing the existence of Qom turns out not to be a violation of the NPT, under which they still had time to reveal its existence under the NPT. If you kept reading in the international press that Israel was going to take out your nuclear sites out, wouldn’t you hide your plants or wait as long as you could to reveal them to the world? Remember, twice now Israel has acted, pretty much without any real consequences to itself in bombing two of its neighbors.

Additionally, Iranian diplomats have said in the past when caught in lies that they do so because of the sanctions the U.S. has put on them since the 70s when they took hostages. Even if you assumed good faith from Iran, which is difficult to do at this point, I can not logically fault them for that attitude. All countries act in their own self interest. Besides, even if Iran resolved all its nuclear issues, we would still be implacable foes.

4) Ahmadinejad had threatened to wipe Israel from the face of the earth.  The evidence seems to be the on the other side. I admit I worried he said it. At the same time, I kind of wish he had said it because it would confirm my impression of him as a bad guy and make me feel better about our attitude towards him. But this most frequently offered evidence against Iran appears to be untrue.  

And, in fact, since I am no authority on this issue, let me refer you to a pro-Israel, anti-Ahmadinejad site, and what they say. First, let me inform you that they repeatedly state that they are not trying to defend Ahmadinejad, who they consider an anti-semite (as do I):

“Finally, and most importantly, I want to address the world-famous ‘wipe Israel off the map’ quotation. It never happened. This is fact. The text of the speech in question, in the original Persian, is:

این رژیم اشغالگار قدس باید از صفحه روزگار محو شود

Transliteration: Ein razhim-e ishghalgar-e Qods bayed az safhahye rozgar mahw shawad

Literal translation: This regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”

Or, go to which is the source for the previous quote. Unfortunately, that site's link to the actual speech no longer works and I have failed to find another. But, do a little search and you will find this is fairly well known, even by Iran's foes who wish to argue the facts, not the hyperbole.

I am not the last word on this and don’t want to spread anything that is not true – I’d love to see a Persian and English translation of the speech by a reputable Persian interpreter without a dog in the fight (maybe a Canadien?). But, I think when you have opponents of Iran saying it's not what he said, you have to at least take a second look and consider the possibility it's not true (ironically, for once, conservative talk show hosts and the liberal mainstream media are in agreement - how could it be true?). Feel free to believe it anyway if you want. I know people who were certain President Bush was planning to take over the government if Obama won the election. The delusion of these people (including my friends and relatives) is similar to the delusion of those who believe that President Obama wants to destroy America (however much I find our economic policies dangerous to us). Need I repeat myself – partisanship makes everyone a little crazy. Not the kind of  crazy that gets you institutionalized, but a little crazy still.

5) Anything that draws our attention to historical incidents where we failed to act. What kind of argument is that anyway? Every situation is different and just because the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, Hitler ate up Czechoslovakia and then Poland, Al Qaeda destroyed the towers and the Pentagon, and a few other things, doesn’t mean anything in terms of this situation other than we need to be vigilant. If we went by historical precedent, we would have bombed the Soviet Union and China and Cuba and lots of other countries, just to make sure they didn’t attack us. We’d be attacking North Korea right now. No one can even begin to guess at the consequences of our having done so.

Plus, we know our intelligence is so frequently wrong. Not because they are any more incompetent than any other group. It’s just the nature of the business. They are trying to find out secrets that other people really want to hold onto. It’s particularly true in the nuclear field. Naturally, Iraq comes to mind. Our belief that they were working on a bomb proved to be completely wrong, at least after some point in the mid-90s. They had stopped long before we invaded. We were also completely surprised by India and Pakistan when they went nuclear. North Korea we figured as they had dropped out of the treaty, but we were not able to find out what they were doing.

An affirmative reason casting doubt on the belief that Iran is looking to build a nuclear weapon

Last year, we had an Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, actually defect to us (which means Iran was absolutely right; we lied about it, I suspect to protect him or others). He went to Mecca and disappeared. Probably make a good story some day. And good for him. He’ll have a much better life and all that. But, if he did know anything that might be deemed a smoking gun – wouldn’t he have told us? You’d think so. And you'd think we know.

But, because we don’t want to be one sided, let me add that the Iranian nuclear program is highly compartmentalized. It was so with our Manhattan project too. There are good reasons for it, and Amiri's defection (as well as others) merely highlights the need for it. But Amiri may have not given us a smoking gun because he doesn’t have one and that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist either.

Any reasons to believe Iran may have an active bomb program? Sure. For one thing, Iran is ramping up the number of centrifuges it needs to purify more uranium. They say that. That doesn't necessarily lead us to conclude it is done to make a bomb, but it may be an indication. But it might also be because they are protecting themselves from attack. Another reason is that they at least for a while turned down what seemed like a pretty nice deal to send their uranium to the West (or Russia) in turn for nuclear rods that would be perfect for peaceful use but unusable to make a bomb. Iran claims they believe their nuclear materials would not be returned and initially wanted the uranium held by a third party until the rods arrive. This isn’t as simple an issue as we’d like, as most of the disagreement between Iran and its opponents seem to be technicalities. But Ahmadinejad has recently said that there’s no problem in concluding this deal and that if their uranium is stolen, they'll make more. Right now, the U.S. and Iran are negotiating over the deal.

My personal opinion (as if you care)? I agree with the CIA. I think Iran has kept the door open to make a bomb some day by furthering its scientific research. Frankly, I would be surprised if any country aware of the political power that having a bomb brings with it and which is a foe of the most powerful nation on earth that has the most bombs, was not doing so. But, unlike most commentators, I recognize my bias against Iran and want to know that there is proof. No, not certainty, but something more than the belief that Iraq had WMDs.

Despite claims that Iran could convert its low enriched uranium - 3.5% - to the 90% required for a bomb within a year and a half, I suspect this is quite probably hyperbole or hysteria meant for political propaganda. If I had all the facts I would not have the scientific know how to judge it any way. Although there may be those who do, we know from long experience that our government is not necessarily guided by facts, even when there are individuals in the government asserting them.

If a deal can be with Iran it should be struck, but not at such a cost to us that we will be sorry economically either.Will Iran cheat anyway and secretly purify more uranim? Maybe. And maybe they are delaying by negotiating as some claim. I have had too many unfair accusations hurled against me in my own life and seen to many incidents of propaganda to view those made against others without a healthy dose of sceptisim. Moreover, certainly any deal President Obama makes will be rejected by conservatives who wish to take back power, as dangerous, and supported by liberals, whether it is a good idea or not. I expect no better from anyone running for office on either side. Sadly, I put no faith in the claims of most politicians or those invested in political faiths.

Sometimes the greatest fears of a country fade away in time. When I grew up, we practiced sitting under our desks with out hands over our head to protect us for when the Chinese bombed us? That was never likely, yet we feared it. In the 80s many believed that we would lose the cold war and that the idea of freedom couldn’t stand a change against collectivism. Way back in the beginning of our country we feared England and France (with some good reasons) and we stayed very wary of our now good buddy England until almost the 20th century.

I will say what might be anathema to others, but the world might not change much if Iran and other undesirable countries get the bomb. That doesn't mean I want them to have them, but I didn't want anyone other than us to have them to begin with. No doubt one hostile detonation anywhere changes that. I have argued before here that the last generation of weapons systems always ends up in the hands of the less sophisticated enemy in time. It has been true of nuclear weapons too and the technology will continue to spread.  My fears for our country are much more directed at our own political and economic foolishness than threats from Iran, including the possibility they will someday possess an atomic weapon.

Let me make myself Richard Nixon clear - I am not suggesting that we take Iran off the radar or take pressure off them. I would greatly prefer they not have a bomb. But, I am suggesting that a lot of what we hear and read is bogus and that we can not trust it. It is even possible that Iran wants us to believe they are more advanced in their bomb research or production. We may indeed lose more by making a deal too much to their favor in order to prevent them from making a bomb which perhaps they never sought. That's the kind of thing you only find out about down the road.

I wouldn’t loosen any sanctions against a country that is holding American as political prisoners without rights, that so often lobs verbal firebombs at us and at our ally, Israel (because he has said other unhelpful things about them) and may in fact be aiding terrorism or attacks on Israel. And, we should encourage their dissidents to revolt as much as their own courage will permit and give them such financial aid as we can.  I support regime change in Iran being the open policy of the United States. But, none of that means we should jump at shadows either.

Of course, if we wake up some day and Iran has tested a device, those who predicted it will be in their glory that they were right. I will say good for them. It's fun to be right. That doesn't mean there was any reasonable proof. And it does not mean it is the end of the world as we know it either.


  1. What is ambiguous about Imadinnerjacket's quote? Just because he said death to Israel in a new and poetic way instead of just saying death to Israel, makes it different? I don't get that.

  2. That one's pretty obvious to me. There's a big difference between saying we will kill everyone in your country and and we think your government is evil and needs to go. I can make the same statement about Iran. Can't you?

  3. What standard of proof are you arguing should be used? Criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, or civil standard of the preponderance of the evidence? I would submit that the preponderance of evidence indicates that Iran is building a weapons program. There is no doubt as to the existence of their nuclear program and its continued expansion. There is also no doubt as to their continuing missile program. They have tested a large number of short,medium and long range missiles. We know that Iranian government officials have been on hand for North Korean Nuclear tests and that those two rogue regimes have various pacts of cooperation.Additionally there is the history of Iran refusing all of the generous offers that have been extended to them to ease this stand off. They have steadfastly refused to send the nuclear enrichment out of Iran even to Russia. If their program was so innocent they could have easily negotiated a settlement.
    As to their involvement in their neighbors' affairs, it is well known that Iran has had various involvements in Afganistan as well as Iraq and Syria.It is also well known that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorist groups in lebanon and palestine. As such it is hard to argue that Iran is a peaceful neighbor.
    As to Iran's belicose threats, I tend to take such threats at face value because the risk of failing to do so is far to great.
    Then there is the advanced anti-aircraft defense that Russia is selling to Iran which when implimented will make it much more difficult to attack their nuclear program.Likewise the facts that Iran's nuclear program is widely dispersed and mostly hidden in underground bunkers do not augur well for the program being benign.
    When dealing with dangerous threats such as this I prefer to treat them as serious until proven otherwise. The consequences of failing to do so are just too perilous.
    While historic references may not always be perfect, it is nevertheless fool hardy to ignore them completely. It is particularly important to be cognizant of the general principals to be extracted from history. Principals like weakness invites attack and ignoring belicose threats from mentally unstable despots is unreasonably dangerous, should be heeded at all times.
    Moreover should we wait to attack Iran after they have developed nuclear weapons. If we do so any attack will be all the more dangerous for all involved.
    It is for these reasons that using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear sites sooner rather than later, should be seriously considered.

  4. We actually agree on more than you think (my posts are so god awful long I'm convinced everyone forgets what I've written halfway through). I have nothing nice to say about Iran's regime. I acknowledge they certainly could be building a nuke but the evidence is at best paltry. I think our sanctions against them are fine and wouldn't care if we had more because they are bad guys, but sanctions don't really work well. I also argue that any aggressive action by them should be met with overwhelming force and we should help their people to overthrow the tyranny. We probably disagree on the consequences of them having a nuke, you believing they are worse than I do. But, of course, I don't want them to have it. I'm sure we felt the same way about Russia, China, N. Korea, etc. getting it and so far, the world hasn't ended. And a few of your arguments I say fall into the "everybody knows" category. If we know, why aren't we doing something real about it? Maybe because we really don't know. As to your question, I don't pretend to have the answer as to the standard of proof I would want, but I have not recommended any legal standard - beyond a reasonable doubt is too high and a preponderance - well, that depends on a variable. A reasonable suspicion is grounds merely to be vigilant and check as best we can.

    Anyway, welcome to Lee. He's posted on Iran lately himself at his own blog you can find at which everyone can visit.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .