Saturday, March 24, 2012

MAD and Constriction

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Bruce Riedel , a senior fellow at Brookings, have come up with a new new policy to handle Iran  -   constriction.

To contain Iran, or to preempt? That is, at present, the question. President Obama’s recent dismissal of containment as an option would seem to stack the deck. Unless Iran pauses its uranium enrichment activities, an Israeli or U.S. strike against its nuclear facilities looks likely by next year.

Containment always looks better in theory, or in retrospect, than it works in practice. Our four-decade containment of the Soviet Union included several near misses, including the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis. And given the Iranian regime’s willingness to resort to terror tactics — even on U.S. soil — and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s purported remarks about wiping Israel off the map, there are clear downsides to relying on Iranian rationality that the regime can be deterred.

On the other hand, preemption doesn’t look great either. The Iranian regime, while dangerous, does not have suicidal tendencies. And the consequences of any airstrike against Iran’s enrichment facilities at Qom and Natanz would probably not be limited to direct counterattacks by Iranian agents and proxies against U.S. or Israeli forces in the region: International economic sanctions and arms bans against Iran are likely to be weakened and International Atomic Energy Agency monitors ejected from the Islamic republic. And for what? A one- to three-year delay, not destruction, of the Iranian bomb program — as well as greater consensus within Iran to pursue the nuclear option.

The good news is that there is a third approach: constriction. Essentially, we would continue to delay and minimize the scale of Iran’s nuclear program as we have been doing through sanctions and other means. We would keep doing this indefinitely, even if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.

Force would not be categorically ruled out under such a policy. But it would have to pass a cost-benefit test. Near-term strikes against the uranium-enrichment centrifuge installations fail that test. But in the future, factors might be different. Large reactors that are able to produce bomb-grade plutonium could be reasonable targets down the line. They are easy to see and virtually impossible to place underground.

Under a constriction policy, we would continue to do our utmost to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. But we would recognize that even if Iran had a handful of bombs, the balance of power in the Middle East in both nuclear and conventional terms would still tilt overwhelmingly toward Israel.

If Iran continues to inch toward the bomb, our policy should take a page from how the international community has handled North Korea the past two decades. The first Bush administration believed that Pyongyang probably had one or two bombs, yet neither President George H.W. Bush nor President Bill Clinton threatened war over that capability. In 1994, however, when North Korea threatened to reprocess plutonium for more bombs and build large reactors that could create the material for several dozen a year, Defense Secretary William Perry was emphatic that a North Korean nuclear arsenal could not be tolerated. His warning was heard loud and clear in Pyongyang, and the agreed framework resulted. After the George W. Bush administration mishandled the North Korean nuclear problem in 2002 and 2003, Pyongyang reprocessed enough plutonium for six to eight weapons. Yet two decades into its own nuclear age, North Korea remains a minimal nuclear power with, at best, a small deterrent of last resort.

 I had to read the article several times to understand what the authors meant to say.  The authors do realize that containment cannot work since  “there are clear downsides to relying on Iranian rationality that the regime can be deterred “.   But they mean that Iran cannot be deterred  from attacking  Israel and  resorting to “terror tactics — even on U.S. soil”, but nothing is mentioned about deterring Iran from starting a global conflagration with the aim or bringing about the return of the Mahdi. True, for us in Israel this hardly matters, since we would be attacked in both cases, but it does matter in the context of their constriction policy scenario.

When it comes to preemption the authors state  “ The Iranian regime, while dangerous, does not have suicidal tendencies.  What I think they meant to say is that Iranians want to preserve their regime and their reaction to the preemption attack by Israel or the US would be severe. However, if we were to take Iranian intentions in the context of Shia eschatology, something that for the authors seems to be an unknown unknown ( Rumsfeld), this statement is clearly wrong since the Iranian regime in their zest to bring about the return of the Mahid  would very much  have suicidal tendencies.   
The authors proudly  present the third way - constriction,  under which  Iran would ,in the worst case scenario, be permitted to get the bomb but, the authors “recognize that even if Iran had a handful of bombs, the balance of power in the Middle East in both nuclear and conventional terms would still tilt overwhelmingly toward Israel”.

The rest of the article compares Iran to North Korea as if the North Korean priviligentia who does not believe in an afterlife is comparable to the Iranian mullahs who are willing to sacrifice 2/3 of the world population to get their Mahdi back.  

To me the whole article is mind-boggling in that these two scholars have come up with a new policy   on how to counter the Iranian threat without even mentioning the key Iranian motivations, their Shia eschatology and the Mahdi!  Once this is factored in the whole Constriction doctrine falls apart.  For someone seeking a global conflagration a handful of bombs placed in the US, Europe and Israel would  be quite enough.  

In the media of the West writing about Shia eschatology and the Mahdi in the context of Iranian regime’s motives has become a taboo.  Ibn Warraq in his new book  Why the West is Best  quotes John Stuart Mill on the freedom of expression:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.