04 Mar 2015

Evaluating the Iranian Nuclear Threat

Foreign Policy 28 Comments

I am a professional economist, not a military strategist or historian. Nonetheless, I think I can offer some perspective on typical arguments for U.S. government military action. Consider the following excerpt from a NYT article by Chris Hedges, titled, “Iran May Be Able to Build an Atomic Bomb in 5 Years, U.S. and Israeli Officials Fear” (HT2 Julie Borowski):

Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought, and could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb, several senior American and Israeli officials say.

“The date by which Iran will have nuclear weapons is no longer 10 years from now,” a senior official said recently, referring to previous estimates. “If the Iranians maintain this intensive effort to get everything they need, they could have all their components in two years. Then it will be just a matter of technology and research. If Iran is not interrupted in this program by some foreign power, it will have the device in more or less five years.”

The reassessment of Iran’s nuclear potential is now described by Israeli officials as the most serious threat facing their country.

“When we look at the future and ask ourselves what is the biggest problem we will face in the next decade,” a senior Israeli military official said, “Iran’s nuclear bomb is at the top of the list.”

And if Iranian oratory is to be believed, the Islamic Government would support a showdown with the Jewish state, whose very existence, it says, is an affront to the Muslim countries in the Middle East.

So let me offer some quick points of pushback:

==> Look at the lack of accountability in the quotations from anonymous American and Israeli officials. After all, considering recent history it’s not as if our default position should be to trust their warnings when it comes to weapons programs in Middle Eastern countries.

==> It’s interesting that the same neo-conservative pundits who think Washington, DC is full of evil, incompetent liars when it comes to domestic welfare programs, all of a sudden forget how unintended consequences work when it comes to nation-building at missile-tip. As I sarcastically pointed out on Twitter: “If we make nuclear weapons illegal, only rogue nations will have them!” In case you don’t get it, that’s the way self-described conservatives react to progressive proposals for domestic gun control. Granted, the two situations are not exactly the same thing, but there are millions of Americans who (a) loved the type of argument put forth in John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime and yet (b) have never once in their adult lives seriously considered the possibility that more nuclear powers would result in fewer military conflicts.

==> The only government to ever use an atomic bomb against civilians is the United States.

==> The above NYT article was written in 1995.

28 Responses to “Evaluating the Iranian Nuclear Threat”

  1. Silas Barta says:

    Love the twist at the end! (“By the way, this 5-year prediction is from 20 years ago.”)

    • Z says:

      Well Silas, if we are to believe the health magazines and 30 is the new 20, then perhaps 20 is the new 5.

  2. E. Harding says:

    Who allowed Pakistan and Israel to get nuclear weapons, anyway?

    • Z says:

      That was me. My bad. I was high on Oreos and Cran-apple juice at the time and wasn’t paying attention.

  3. Josiah says:

    Is Chris Hedges a neocon?

    • E. Harding says:

      Nay. He has rabidly thrown insults at Sam Harris for even smelling of neoconnery. Also, he’s been caught plagiarizing.

  4. E. Harding says:

    Far more important to Israel than Iran getting a nuclear weapon is the U.S. selectively neglecting its UN Security Council Veto.

  5. E. Harding says:

    Oh, yay, I’m allowed to comment w/o moderation w/ my old email again.

  6. E. Harding says:

    A video of the same genre:
    Yes, the NATO-protected Baltic States, whose inhabitants have always considered themselves culturally distinct from the Russians and who have no affinity to Russia, resent Soviet rule, were the first to want out of the U.S.S.R., and are all at similar income levels as Russia, while being far less corrupt than Ukraine and having no history of close friendship with Russia. Best. Targets. Evah. Next stop: Finland. The stop after that: Alaska, obviously! I guess U.S. media really is of just the same or lower quality as Russian state media and I was mistaken in my previous assessment of the comparative media situation while in Russia two weeks ago.
    Also, MSNBC butchers Boris Nemtsov’s name as “Mentsov”. Figures for an organization of such high-caliber reporting.

  7. E. Harding says:

    Bob, why don’t you allow infinite links?

    • Z says:

      A lack of infinite space is a quality of the universe, not something Bob can control.

      • Grane Peer says:

        Space is infinitely elastic, as long as you have enough stuff there will always be room. Unless of course it rips but its hard to see how space could rip.

  8. Josiah says:

    Is anyone curious as to why Iran doesn’t have a bomb when 20 years ago it was claimed they could get one in 5 years?

    • E. Harding says:

      The Iranian nuclear program is focused on two things, as far as I can see:
      1. Providing a way for Iran to wean itself off oil
      2. As a distant Plan B in case adversaries really do want to attack it and Iran needs the credible threat of the ability to create a nuclear weapon to make them back off
      As for why the Iranian government has not yet made a nuclear weapon, it’s obvious. It doesn’t want to look aggressive by unilaterally rejecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, like North Korea did. That would be a guarantee no nation would ever attack it, but would also guarantee that it will never win any favors from the international community and would make Iraq a bit queasy about wanting to cooperate with it.

  9. Chuck says:

    The Iranians will have fusion power before nuclear.

  10. E. Harding says:

    The U.S. propaganda media assumes we’re so stupid because most Americans are: http://www.gallup.com/poll/181742/nuclear-talks-progress-iran-favorably.aspx
    Iran could just as easily replicate a nuclear arsenal by using heavy-duty conventional bombs. There is no military difference between a nuclear weapon and an arsenal of very powerful conventional weapons.

  11. E. Harding says:

    Also, while oil exports under the Mullahs never rose to their Shah-era heights, look at this feat:

  12. Andrew_FL says:

    “have never once in their adult lives seriously considered the possibility that more nuclear powers would result in fewer military conflicts.”

    Uh, arms race anyone? Mutually Assured Destruction? Wasn’t this exactly what they typically believed during the Cold War?

  13. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, pointing out this inconsistency might equally well persuade people who support strong nuclear non-proliferation regimes to support gun control as well.

  14. Andrew_FL says:

    As a matter of fact, the analogy is really poor. Nobody that you have in mind wants nuclear weapons to be illegal. There are some progressives who want that, or, want unilateral disarmament because of a belief that nuclear weapons should be illegal, but thinking the only reason anyone even wants nukes is because we have them.

    But most people opposed to Iran getting nuclear weapons are perfectly fine with the US having nuclear weapons, Israel having nuclear weapons, any nation considered an ally of the US having nuclear weapons. That’s very far from believing nuclear weapons should be illegal.

    The analogy is more like, not letting convicted felonies own firearms. I don’t know many opponents of gun control who want to restore the right to own firearms to convicted felons. But maybe they should?

    • Harold says:

      It is interesting that internationally, in the absence of anything realistically representing “international law”. countries have used contracts and treaties instead. So we have the non-proliferation treaty. In some ways this is very successful, as nearly every country is a signatory. There have been very few states acquiring nuclear weapons. In another way it is not successful, as any state wishing to have nuclear weapons simply does not sign the treaty. Only USA, UK, France, USSR and China are allowed such weapons under the treaty. India, Pakistan and N. Korea, none of which are members of the NPT, also openly have them. Israel, another non member, is believed to have them but does not confirm it officially. So all UN members that are not signatories have nuclear weapons except S. Sudan.

      The “second pillar” of the treaty – nuclear disarmament of the recognised nuclear states, has been less successful.

  15. S.C. says:

    As I sarcastically pointed out on Twitter: “If we make nuclear weapons illegal, only rogue nations will have them!”

    Yes, just as if you outlaw murder, then only criminals will murderers. This form of argument is simply terrible, and I say this as a supporter of the Second Amendment.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      Except that what’s meant by it isn’t that we’d all become criminals by virtue of having guns. What’s meant by it is we wouldn’t have guns by virtue of being the kind of people no willing to be criminals.

      In other words what the argument is actually saying is that a law against guns is ineffective against someone determined to commit a crime with a gun, because they already intend to break one, usually more serious law, there’s little reason to expect them say “Oh, guess I can’t commit that murder I wanted to commit, since I’ve have to purchase my murder weapon illegally.”

      Would you prefer the argument phrased this way? If we outlaw guns, only violent thugs will have guns.

      • S.C. says:

        It is still a stupid argument.

  16. Yancey Ward says:

    I think the Iranians will eventually build nuclear weapons. They are definitely intent on overcoming the main technological barrier to doing so- the enrichment of uranium to a high enough grade. To stop them would, in my opinion, require an invasion and I don’t think there is much support for that outside of Israel.

  17. Bob Roddis says:

    Question: How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?

    Israeli Defense Minister Barak: I don’t know; one has to estimate. … Some say a year, others say 18 months. It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the [UN International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection regime and stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, etc.
    Why haven’t they [the Iranians] done that? Because they realize that … when it became clear to everyone that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, this would constitute definite proof that time is actually running out. This could generate either harsher sanctions or other action against them. They do not want that.

    Question: Has the United States asked or demanded that the government inform the Americans in advance, should it decide on military action?

    Barak: I don’t want to get into that. We have not made a decision to opt for that, we have not decided on a decision-making date. The whole thing is very far off. …


  18. Chris says:

    neoconservatism is the foreign policy version of communism. Communists think that they can plan/ dictate what people will want to buy. Neoconservatives think they can plan/ dictate how people in foreign countries (and in their own country to an extent) will react to military aggression.

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