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A US attack on Iran?

I’ve speculated over the past year about the prospects of the US going to war with Iran. The Economist this week thinks there are good reasons for supposing it might happen despite the US defence secretary’s claim February 2 that ‘We are not planning for a war with Iran’. They advance four reasons.

  • Iran’s apparent determination to build nuclear weapons, and a fear that it is nearing the point where its nuclear programme will be impossible to stop (see here).
  • The advent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist president who denies the Holocaust and calls openly for Israel’s destruction: his apocalyptic speeches have convinced many people in Israel and America that the world is facing a new Hitler with genocidal intent.
  • A recent tendency inside the Bush administration to blame Iran for many of America’s troubles not just in Iraq (see here) but throughout the Middle East.
  • The predicament of George Bush. ‘A president who is now detached from electoral considerations knows that his place in history is going to be defined by the tests he himself chose to put at the centre of his foreign policy: bringing democracy to the Middle East and preventing rogue regimes from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Given his excessive willingness to blame Iran for blocking America’s noble aims in the Middle East, he may come to see a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear programme as a fitting way to redeem his presidency’.

The Economist regards a US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as a reckless gamble that would at best delay not end Iranian nuclear ambitions:

‘It might very well rally support behind a regime that is at present not conspicuously popular at home, emboldening it to retaliate inside Iraq, against Israel and perhaps against the US itself. Besides, it is far from clear exactly how dangerous a nuclear-armed Iran would be. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, Iran has a complex power structure with elements of pluralism and many checks and balances. For all its proclaimed religiosity, it has behaved since the revolution like a rational actor. To be sure, some of its regional aims are mischievous, and in pursuing them it has adopted foul means, including terrorism. But the ayatollahs have so far been shrewd calculators of consequences. There are already small signs of a backlash against the attention-seeking Mr Ahmadinejad. Like the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could probably be deterred’.

This is not to say a nuclear Iran isn’t dangerous – it is. Iran’s nuclear efforts might, for example, provoke a pre-emptive strike by Israel, which is already a nuclear power.

‘For Israelis, whose country Mr Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe off the map, it is not all that reassuring to hear that Iran can “probably” be deterred. Even if Israel were to decide against such a strike, Iran’s going nuclear could destroy what is left of the international non-proliferation regime. It has proved hard enough for Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to live with Israel’s undeclared bomb; if their Iranian rival got one too, the race to copy might soon be on. On top of this is the danger that a nuclear Iran would feel safe to ramp up attempts to spread its revolution violently beyond its own borders’.

Every effort should be made to stop an Iranian bomb. But a better way than an armed strike is to encourage the talks between Britain, France and Germany and Iran rather than to bludgeon Iran into nuclear compliance. Iran claims its nuclear programme is for civil purposes only so last year, the Europeans called its bluff by offering trade, civil-nuclear assistance and a promise of talks with America if it stopped enriching the uranium that could produce the fuel for a bomb. When Iran refused, diplomacy led in December to economic sanctions by the Security Council.

This is a promising approach. The diplomacy at the UN proceeds at a glacial pace. But Iran is thought to be several years from a bomb. And meanwhile the Americans, Europeans, Russians and Chinese have at last all lined up on the same side of the argument. What is required now is a further tightening of the economic squeeze coupled with some sort of an incentive—most usefully an unambiguous promise from Mr Bush that if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear rules it will face no attempt by America to overthrow the regime. Even then, America and Iran may be fated to lock horns in the Middle East. But the region, and the world, will be a good deal safer without the shadow of an Iranian bomb’.

Meanwhile Paul Krugman also agrees that what would be a disastrous attack on Iran is increasingly likely – he describes this as the Scary Movie 2 possibility.

6 comments to A US attack on Iran?

  • conrad

    Actually Harry, I’m not sure how much difference it really makes if Iran has nuclear weapons (excluding scare power and nationalism points). If they just wanted to get weapons of mass destruction, I’m sure they would have the capacity to make biological weapons that are equally bad for a very small part of the price, and know one would ever know.

  • hc

    But possessing nuclear provides a huge advance in the potential to carry out an aggressive attack over biological weapons.

    I am interested that the Economist believes that Iran might be contained even with nuclear weapons but that a primary risk is the engagement of Israel in a pre-emptive attack.

    One can scarcely blame Israel given the Iranian rhetoric.

  • conrad

    Actually Harry,

    maybe you’re not aware of how nasty biological weapons are, but I think you’ll find they’re more than enough to wipe any city from the map, and far easier to create. I think people are just fixated on nuclear for historical reasons (in the same way that people think nuclear attack = missile attack, which is also false).

  • rabee


    Apparently Iran made the following proposal to the US State Department in 2003 settings out terms for negotiations between Iran and the United States.


    It proposed recognizing Israel’s international borders.

  • Simon


    Ahmedinejad wasn’t president in 2003 so whatever Iran was proposing then is irrelevant to the situation today.

  • Anonymous

    Hello, please advised that what you here in the media in not necessarily the truth. If you have a Iranian friend who speaks farsi you would do good to have him translate those speeches Iran’s president made. Very clearly he says that if the holocaust happened in Europe than why must the people of palestine pay for it. He went on to say that the solution to this problem was a democratic vote which included the people of palestine. At which point he said after such an election isreal would surely be wiped off the map (the people would vote against it). Secondly, what is the fear in Iran having nuclear energy. Has Iran threatened anyone. No (if you speak farsi you would realize this). And if so is this worse than the threats the US has put on other nations (IRAQ). There is a point when we must look at situations logically and impartially. It is easy to forget that people lose their lives in these wars. It is easy to only listen to the facts western media presents. It is easy to believe your freedom and rights surpass the rights of others. It is hard to admitt that they do not and that we should want for our neighbour as we want for ourselves.

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