On Iran: “Rewarding the Hysterical at the Expense of the Calm”


Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report runs one of the single best daily US-Asia policy and national security issues analysis letters in Washington. Normal beings can’t subscribe, and it’s not available on the web.
Whenever I get asked how to get on his list by TWN readers, my response is that ‘hiring’ Chris Nelson via his consultancy at Samuels International is probably the only sure way. A second approach could be a subscription fee equal to about a dozen high end sushi dinners (with sake. . .from Niigata, heated) for two people over a year. The other is to have information that one can ‘trade’ with Chris to earn one’s way into his network. His stuff is great; typos and all. (He and I have bonded over typo tantrums from our readers).
On occasion, I will repost the entire Nelson Report with Chris Nelson’s permission because they are just too useful and important not to get very broad play.
Today’s entry is about Iran and North Korea — but really, mostly about Iran.

THE NELSON REPORT — Friday, 20 January 2006
SUMMARY: This week, we’ve featured long quotes from patient Loyal Readers who have the advantage of long experience in thinking and dealing with non-proliferation issues, with a focus on Iraq. As an Asianist, we don’t pretend to enjoy waxing (word inserted by TWN) on the Middle East, the olympian self assurance on Korea which no doubt many find irritating. So we will continue to offer informed commentary from the proven competent.
In that regard, Carnegie’s Joe Cirincione, and Arms Control Wonk Jeffrey Lewis, have been instructing us all on Iran et al, and the gist of their thinking, below, has been posted on Carnegie’s website. To start tonight’s discussion, here is Joe’s version for the Loyal Readership, followed by Jeff’s reaction, and finally, a brief critique from a Loyal Reader we’ve been relying on for similar commentary, if sometimes differing conclusions.
Please note especially Cirincione’s point that this is not a nuclear bomb crisis, but a nuclear regime crisis, and that press accounts of an Iranian bomb being “imminent” are dangerous nonsense from the same folks who brought us the political sales job (our phrase, not his) on Iraq WMD:
“Chris, are we seeing a coordinated [scare] campaign on Iran? The same neoconservative pundits who championed the invasion of Iraq are now beating the drums on Iran. They all got the same talking points this week. On Monday, urging us to keep military options open, William Kristol claims Iran’s ‘nuclear program could well be getting close to the point of no return.’ Wednesday, Charles Krauthammer said, ‘Instead of being years away from the point of no return for an Iranian bomb. . .Iran is probably just months away.
“This is complete nonsense. There is no need for military strikes against Iran. The country is five to ten years away from the ability to enrich uranium for fuel or bombs. Even that estimate, shared by the Defense Intelligence Agency and experts at IISS, ISIS, and Carnegie assumes Iran goes full-speed ahead and does not encounter any of the technical problems that typically plague such programs. In the next few months, they will be lucky to get a test centrifuge cascade up and running. Hardly a “point of no return.”
“This is not a nuclear bomb crisis, it is a nuclear regime crisis. US Ambassador John Bolton has correctly pointed out that this is a key test for the Security Council. If Iran is not stopped the entire nonproliferation regime will be weakened, and with it the UN system.
“But it will have to be diplomats, not F-15s that stop the mullahs. An air strike against a soft target, such as the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government and jeopardize further the US position in Iraq. Finally, the strike would not, as is often said, delay the Iranian program. It would almost certainly speed it up. That is what happened when the Israelis struck at the Iraq program in 1981. Israel knocked the Osirik reactor, but Saddam went underground, expanding from 500 to 7000 workers on a more ambitious program that escaped detection until 1991. By then he was closer to producing a bomb than he ever would have been with Osirik. It went from a side project to an obsession.
“Your other Loyal Reader is correct that we could not destroy it in 1991 war. Even 43 days of coalition bombing failed to destroy the program, which ended only when U.N. disarmament teams methodically destroyed the equipment on the ground. This is the lesson to keep in mind as simplistic ‘solutions’ to the Iran program come churning out of the neocon machine.”
Arms Control Wonk Jeff Lewis comments on his frequent-collaborator: “Joe is dead-on correct. I have one comment — I don’t like saying this is a crisis. As Joe noted, we have lots of time. More important, we are so focused on the question of when Iran could have a bomb, we underestimate the real depth of our interests here. The current situation, where Iran does not have a bomb — but gives everyone the impression it is moving in that direction — is almost as bad as an Iranian deterrent — the day in, day out haggling creates a slow, steady erosion of confidence in the Nonproliferation Regime.
“Moreover, talking about this as a crisis leads to hasty conclusions about what happens if Tehran “gets” the bomb — the world will not end, though we will be less secure. Assuming that Iran masters enrichment, we have a variety of interests to protect even if Iran stockpiles a few nuclear weapons. I would rather Iran have one, than ten. I would rather Iran have fuel, but not assemble the bomb. I would rather Iran not test it nuclear weapons or master the process of miniaturization that would allow delivery by ballistic missile. Most important, I want Iran to understand that it’s deterrent is only good for retaliation, not coercion; that transfer of any of its nuclear materials to terrorists would result in the elimination of the Islamic Republic and its elites; and the use of nuclear weapon would be a prelude to the historical conclusion of Persian civilization.
“My advice, not fashionable these days, is to take a page from LBJ after the Chinese nuclear test. We need to act confident that the acquisition of Iranian nuclear weapons does nothing to enhance their security and everything to further isolate and weaken them.
“But our political system tends to reward the hysterical at the expense of the calm.”
To close on this subject for tonight, commentary on Cirincione and Lewis from an informed Loyal Reader we often quote: ” ‘The point of no return’ is a great phrase. The Israelis are quite fond of it, and it doesn’t surprise me to see pundits cribbing it. I have no idea what if anything it is supposed to mean in technical terms, but the Israelis routinely put it forward before IAEA Board of Governors votes. It won’t surprise you that Joe C.’s reasoning by analogy doesn’t work for me. I haven’t arrived at strongly determined views on the question of bombing, so he’s not appealing to my prejudices. A strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would cut both ways: it would presumably end all restraint on the regime’s part, accelerating their efforts. It would also reverse a lot of their labors to date.”
Think about it, this critique continues, “It is not at all obvious to me which effect would overwhelm the other, but I do note that Jeff and others have written a fair bit about the difficulties Iran has experienced in trying to master conversion and enrichment. It’s difficult to work out the kinks in large-scale operations when you no longer have facilities to operate! So there is a potential rationale here that should not be dismissed. The less restraint the Iranians show in operating their facilities, moreover, the better such a move for short-term advantage looks, since there is less to lose by it. There are also some uncertainties in the 5-10 year estimates for Iran’s going nuclear that we could discuss at greater length later. These questions cut both ways when it comes to arguments for military action — it’s not cut-and-dried…”
Obviously, until we know if the Iranians will re-seal Natanz, and what, if anything, the IAEA will do in two weeks, this critical debate can but continue. Many thanks to the many informed Loyal Readers who have taken the time to help us Asianists navigate these highly relevant, but dangerously obscure waters.

Joe Cirincione and Jeffrey Lewis have offered blazingly logical, unsentimental assessments of America’s current Iran problem.
In my own view, Iran’s nuclear pretensions are a direct result of America removing Iran’s chief antagonist in the region, Iraq under secular (and yes, fascist) rule — as well as from the sad fact that America’s mystique of power and capability has been greatly damaged by bogging down in the Iraq quagmire. When the perception of American power declines, allies are prompted not to count on the US as much and enemies have an incentive to move their agendas.
Other factors that Charles Krauthammer, Frank Gaffney, James Woolsey, Clifford May, Michael Ledeen and other neoconservatives fail to mention in their commentary is that Iran’s current president had his preferred Oil Minister rejected four times by Iran’s National Assembly. What was that about? What system of checks-and-balances exists in Iran (that seems to be less evident in America of late) that we are not discussing? Does that tension inside Iran’s political system between the assembly and president offer any opportunities? Is Ahmadinejad attempting to outmaneuver his legislative shackles with his “wipe Israel off the map” jingoism, and is this having a positive or negative effect on his executive authority?
Iran’s president is not a monarch — and as nasty a character as I feel he is, he is not a Saddam Hussein. He’s teasing deeply held theocratic convictions to try to legitimate himself and thus is doing what any rational power-maximizer would try and do when constrained. We need to apply our intelligence and thinking to this puzzle and familiarize ourselves with the factors that are driving his behavior.
We need to become more knowledgeable about Iran’s internal government processes that enhance and constrain his abilities to move.
All that said, I do believe that Iran’s nuclear pretensions run deeply and are morphing into a benchmark of ascendant nationalism. Even “healthy” nationalists in Iran would have robust nuclear power — and perhaps even nuclear weapons — on their list of what a “great nation” must have in its tool kit.
I believe that there are a great many options between war with Iran and doing nothing regarding its nuclear activities, but I am also convinced that Iran — in the long run — will probably have nukes. Iran has 70 million people and is a rich nation with a great past. As China reclaims some of its historical prestige, others who aspire to past glory also will — and there is little that America or the world can do to permanently preempt such pretensions.
Economic sanctions, political and econoic carrots — even harsher sticks — can slow Iran’s nuclear program, but the blowback from a harsh, military intervention will produce the single worst outcome in such an encounter: a significantly isolated, angry, democratically empowered hypernationalist nuclear power that will be focused more on the emotional need for revenge than on the pragmatic objective of regional balance with Israel, and general order and security.
Recently, both Senator Hillary Clinton and newly inaugurated Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine spoke about Iran — and argued for a “tough policy.” What does this mean? Their prescriptions are not only shallow on the facade — but dangerously weak conceptually because Iran is a far more complicated and dangerous threat than Iraq was to the US.
America’s objectives are to hopefully preempt Iran’s move to nuclear weapons, but if this proves impossible over the next five to ten years — which is the amount of time the intelligence community believes exists between today and when Iran could conceivably process the fuel and overcome technical handicaps in assembling a warhead — then the better option is to find some way, either directly or through proxies, to slow Iran’s progress towards a robust system that it will eventually develop.
One objective might be to keep Iran’s program covert and undeclared, much like Israel’s. And in the interim to begin cultivating a rhetoric and language of regional balance of power, and of nuclear deterrence in the region.
These are radical ideas — but if Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly is going to end, as America’s nuclear monopoly once did, it is vital to educate all parties about (as Jeffrey Lewis states above) nuclear weapons in their “deterrent role”, not as an instrument of coercion.
The only presidential candidate who has been talking semi-sensibly about the “realities” in the Middle East as they are and not in some fictionalized sketch is Wesley Clark.
While Clark believes that we need a great deal more diplomatic effort to redirect Iran from its current nuclear course, he also knows that one can’t deal with either Iran or Iraq in a bubble unto themselves. General Clark has stated publicly that America needs to do a deal with Iran. He believes we cannot manage Iraq and potential explosive realities in the region without buy-in from Iran. In that, there may be opportunities to appeal to Iran’s desire to be less isolated on the international stage and dealt with in a more dignified way given its size and importance in the region.
This is no proposal to appease Iran — and no call for America and Europe to “bless” Iran’s nuclear activities. The truth is that American military power, allied with our allies’ military capacity — properly and lethally constructed — should be in our “last resort tool kit” if Iran shows no interest in negotiating on any front — and is demonstrably bent on using its eventual nukes actively rather than holding them for security. But the James Woolsey types of this era want such military options much higher on the list, without much regard for consequences to America’s overall security or the viability of its military and foreign policy objectives.
A strong, visionary U.S. president would go to Iran and do a deal akin to what Kissinger and Nixon accomplished with China. Maybe such a deal involves a covert nuclear program and maybe not — but what is extremely important for US policy makers to know is that a replay of the mistakes that America made running up to our Iraq mess may finally be the punctuation point that ends America’s role as a globally powerful, mostly benign hegemon.
America loses if it forfeits its ability to marshall like-minded powers on objectives the US feels are important to its own and global security.
Woolsey and his colleagues from Scoop Jackson circles are doing serious harm to America’s national security portfolio — and they will not stop, not ever — until the Congress, rational parts of the Bush administration and Pentagon, civil society and the American public shut down these dangerous pundits.
— Steve Clemons