What do you take of this hoopla over the Iranian nuclear program? More specifically, what do you make of the opinions that Iran is secretly, or intending to, enrich weapons-grade uranium has any merit, or is a response to some US insecurity? (Notwithstanding the Bush administration’s attempt to garner a free pass to make a “pre-emptive” strike against Iran with nuclear weapons.)

—Nikolai

After Iraq, any such speculation needs a huge damn disclaimer: EXPERT OPINION MAY BE TALKING OUT OF ITS ASS.  Hussein was just as cagey as the Iranians about international inspections, well past the point where he was obviously undermining his own survival— all to protect, in fact, nothing.  It seems irrational, but not so much if we consider that a) he couldn’t be seen as weak domestically, as would happen if he showed that his nuclear threat was nonexistent; and b) dictators and enemies of the US hate the idea of UN inspectors running all over their territory.

So, if the experts don’t know for sure, I sure don’t, sitting here in my living room.

Of course, where there’s smoke, there is sometimes fire— North Korea, Pakistan, and India, despite years of denial, really were developing nukes.  In some ways the question is why the Iranians haven’t got them yet— are they having trouble with the differential equations or something?

What do we do about it?  There’s an old philosophical maxim that no argument can turn an is into a should.  We might add, no amount of punditry can turn a should into a will.  Take this article by Lee Smith at Slate, for instance, which warns that nothing less than American hegemony over Arabian oil is at stake.  Fine, Lee, what should we do?  He warns against leaving it to Israel on the grounds that “there are some things that need to be done by the alpha dog”, but he neglects to say what those things are.

Few things are more pathetic that bellicosity without follow-through.  The Right always wants us to be a badass, but the days are over when this could be done by landing a couple thousand Marines.  Maybe negotiation will work; it’s worth a try.  Let’s be honest: the alternative is going to war with Iran.  Is the country ready to do that?  (Quick factoid: Iran is double the population and four times the size of Iraq.  Do we have the few hundred thousand troops on hand that would be needed?  Since we’re still far from having stable allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, what makes us think we’d have one in Iran?)

If we’re not going to go to war, there’s precious little deterrence gained by threatening to do it.  It’s not like the Iranians can’t figure this out.

What about letting Israel do it?  It’s mounted such attacks before, on Iraq and Syria, with astonishing impunity.  The Iranians know this too, and it probably has more deterrence effect than the disapproval of the West.  But it’s a huge gamble as it could easily set off a larger war.  Iran’s obvious counter-move would be to attack not Israel but us, in Iraq.

Could we deal with Iran having the bomb?  Probably.  Nukes are better defensive than offensive weapons— actually using them means that someone will use them back at you, and the Iranians don’t want to lose Tehran, or Qom, or their oil fields.  Especially after the Iraq war, nukes add security to rogue states.   No one is more convinced by Kim Jong-il’s rhetoric than before he had them, but he’s that much more safe from invasion.

The irony here is that inside Iran, much more than inside Iraq, there’s an ally waiting to be born.  The Iranians have had a generation to get thoroughly tired of Islamic fundamentalism, and many have bravely taken to the streets to defy it.  It’s hard to say how we could encourage this domestic opposition; but I think it’s clear that trying to be a badass is the best way to strengthen the regime.  We might have learned that from our own experience after 9/11, or from our asinine Cuba policy: nothing helps authoritarians more against their internal enemies than an external threat.

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