This article, co-written with Jodie Evans, co-founder of CodePink and author of Stop the Next War Now, and Mimi Kennedy, then-Chair of the Board of Progressive Democrats of America, appeared the first week of March 2006 on AlterNet, Common Dreams, and AntiWar.com.
A Nuclear Iran Would Be Bad –
A Forcibly Defanged Iran Would Be Worse
Three years ago this month, in more than 600 cities around the world, as many as 14 million people marched in their streets to prevent the United States from launching a unilateral, preemptive, illegal, unprovoked, and unwise invasion of Iraq. The Guinness Book of World Records has identified February 15, 2003 as the largest global antiwar mobilization in history. Now this same peace and progressive community (which the New York Times has called “the other superpower”) is slowly beginning to turn its attention from the last war to the next war — a looming military showdown between the West and Iran. The only problem?
We haven’t quite figured out what we want to say.
At least two military options are probably being “war gamed” today somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. One is a full scale invasion of Iran, directed at changing its regime. The other is “surgical strikes” — air operations, cruise missiles, lethal commandos on the ground — aimed not at overthrowing the Iranian government but at “taking out” its nuclear program. It all sounds very precise, very swashbuckling, very dramatic.
And very much like what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor.
WHY WE OPPOSE MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAN
We, of course, reflexively oppose both options. The costs of war always exceed the benefits. The use of force always causes more problems than it solves. And thousands of innocent souls who have nothing to do with the dispute in question always end up paying the steepest price.
But to forestall a unilateral, preemptive, illegal, unprovoked, and unwise assault on Iran, the forces of peace need to say more than “war is unhealthy for children and kittens and other living things.”
We need to say that any kind of military attack on Iran will do enormous harm to America.
Although Iran would put up an almost infinitely better fight than Saddam’s Iraq, the invincible US military could probably dislodge Iran’s theocratic regime if ordered to do so. But what then? Another interminable and bungled occupation? In a country with three times the population, four times the area, and a three thousand year heritage of fierce national pride? After the economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz concluded that the Iraq fiasco will eventually cost the US between $1 trillion and $2 trillion?
It would be a long time before America would see any light at the end of that tunnel.
But the “surgical strike” option would be a disaster for American national security as well. If we attack Iran — as we did Iraq — without UN Security Council authorization, we would again flout the UN Charter and further enfeeble the international legal system. If there’s anything the peace community stands for, it’s that long-tem structures of enduring world peace can only be built through the world rule of law. If one country repeatedly disregards the law of nations, all countries will end up with only the law of the jungle.
In immediate retaliation for any kind of attack, Tehran might well launch missile strikes on both Israel and the many American military bases throughout the region. With its extensive ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq, Iran could cause U.S. casualties there to skyrocket. Tehran might also enhance its sponsorship of suicide bombers in Israel (or Palestinian terrorists might react on their own).
Although a great deal of discord exists within Iran about the balance between theocracy and liberty, virtually all Iranians come together in their defiance of American bullying. Most ordinary Iranians would react to any military strike like the one who told a CodePink delegation in 2005, “We may want freedom and democracy, but we can only achieve those by working within our own country. No one from the outside can impose these on us, especially not the U.S. through unwelcome military aggression. If the U.S. was to bomb us it would unite us against them immediately.”
Among the Iranian elite, the hardliners would be vindicated by a military strike — and their positions in the Iranian power struggle would be immeasurably enhanced. The Iranian government soon thereafter might discard the pretense that it’s “only seeking nuclear electricity,” formally withdraw from the NPT (as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad already has hinted, North Korea already has done, and all parties have a right to do under Article X), and proceed directly toward constructing a sizeable atomic arsenal. Unless we plan to bomb them again every couple of years or so, the end result could be a nuclear Iran even sooner.
Not to mention gasoline at $4 a gallon long before any of that occurs.
During the Vietnam war, it was often said that every time we killed a Viet Cong guerilla, we created two more. Similarly, if we militarily eliminate the danger of a nuclear Iran (for the moment), we will create many more. At this moment thousands of Muslim young men — inside and outside Iran — are on the fence. They’ve spent most of their childhoods in madrasa Islamic schools. They are unemployed and idle. And they are looking for some purpose in life, some meaning, perhaps even — like so many of the intense young have always sought — some cause worth dying for.
If we forcibly prevent Iran from obtaining a single atomic bomb, the vast majority of Muslims around the world — though they may oppose our action — will react without violence. But some of those young men now on the fence will decide instead to dedicate their lives to obtaining one of the 30,000 other atomic bombs that already exist elsewhere. And to finding a way to smuggle it into this country. And to committing the greatest act of mass murder in human history.
Isaac Newton’s laws of action and reaction do not apply solely to billiard balls. The great paradox of the Iranian crisis is that if we, by force, eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities over there, it will probably make nuclear terror more likely back here.
Talk about a Pyrrhic victory.
WHAT WE THINK THE U.S. SHOULD DO INSTEAD ABOUT IRAN.
The great insight that Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze used to break open the Cold War was “mutual security.” If you threaten your adversaries, they’ll threaten you back. If you make your neighbors more secure, you make yourself more secure. The basis of peace is understanding the fears of others.
But George Bush has exacerbated rather than assuaged Iranian fears. He announces his intention to initiate preemptive wars against states the U.S. determines might someday pose a threat. He declares that three nations (including Iran) uniquely constitute an “axis of evil.” He issues a new nuclear doctrine that contemplates nuclear first strikes against non-nuclear states (in explicit violation of the NPT), and actually names seven states (including Iran) as possible targets. He launches a preemptive war against the country next door, decapitating its regime. After that, Iran finds itself surrounded on all four sides by American military power — Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east, U.S. bases in Central Asia to the north, and the mighty US Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south. And even his attempted reassurances only make things worse. “This notion that the U.S. is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous,” he proclaims, only to follow with, “Having said that, all options are on the table …”
Iran looks west, and sees an Iraq that opened itself to unprecedented international intrusions, did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction, and got itself invaded for its trouble. Iran looks east, and sees a North Korea that built a nuclear arsenal in secret, and now appears to be successfully deterring any hint of American aggression.
What would you do, if you were Tehran?
To step back from the precipice of war, both sides first must ratchet down their rhetoric. Ahmadinejad’s odious comments about Israel and the Holocaust intensified Western antipathy toward Iran. But few Western leaders seem to grasp that when we put “all options on the table,” that must have precisely the same effect in Tehran. If each can lay off the language of crude caricature and street ideology, they might begin to have a real conversation.
After the rhetoric subsides, the United States must offer some carrots to Tehran, rather than just waving big sticks. If history has anything to teach us, it is that all stick and no carrot never works. We must offer Iran some rewards for the better choice, some hope and opportunity, some promise of full participation in a prosperous and peaceful global civilization.
Like how about offering a mutual security agreement with formal non-aggression pledges if Iran reverses its nuclear course? How about disavowing any effort to bring down the Iranian government through non-military means (as we did in 1953) — instead of Condoleeza Rice asking Congress for $85 million to “promote democracy” in Iran? How about proposing investments in alternative energy technologies — wind, solar, tidal — to wean Iran from nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons? And how about offering to restore the full diplomatic relations we terminated during a hostage crisis that ended more than a quarter century ago?
If we both stop making Iranians feel so vulnerable and invite them to reap some of the rewards that accompany joining the community of nations, they might feel less inclined to cross the nuclear Rubicon.
WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT SAY ABOUT IRAN — AND ABOUT US.
Finally, behind all the nuclear brinksmanship lies a question that Washington cannot forever dodge. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, with his usual clarity, says that the nuclear states “refuse to initiate or respect any restraints on themselves, while … raising heresy charges against those who want to join the sect.” Similarly the 2005 Nobel Peace Laureate, Mohamed El-Baradei, says that we must “abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them.” In bazaars and barracks and boulangeries in many parts of the world, angry young men must ask, “Why can the United States possess more than ten thousand nuclear warheads, while our country cannot acquire even one?”
Some call this the nuclear double standard, others America’s nuclear hypocrisy. Ahmadinejad himself, echoing the phrase used repeatedly by Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh at the time of his own country’s nuclear tests in 1998, calls it “nuclear apartheid.”
Moreover, the Bush Administration doesn’t just insist on retaining our nuclear weapons, but on improving them far into the future. The 2002 “nuclear posture review” – almost wholly unnoticed by the American peace community – put forth plans to unveil new generations of nuclear weapons in 2020, then again in 2030, and then again in 2040. Just in time for the atomic centennial.
Imagine how the bitterness over the nuclear double standard will intensify if we display our determination to perpetuate it indefinitely through force of arms.
We believe that the Iranian nuclear crisis could be dramatically defused, in a stroke, if American leaders would simply say to Iranian leaders:
“We don’t expect you to endure the nuclear double standard forever until the end of time. The NPT doesn’t just impose non-proliferation obligations on you, it also imposes disarmament obligations on us. We understand that you will not forever forego nuclear weapons if we insist on forever retaining nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons won’t protect you, and nuclear weapons don’t protect us. We know that eventually we must abolish these abominations, or they will abolish us.”
Think how much it could do — both to de-legitimize Tehran’s nuclear aspirations and to transform the nuclear policy debate — if an American president were simply to utter something like those five sentences.
Unlikely, admittedly, in the case of this president.
Maybe the next president.
If it’s not too late by then.