The UN calls out the Iranian nuclear program

The UN has released a report stating that Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” adding fuel to a debate that has been going on for years about the status of their nuclear program.  In the past, the Israelis have declared the Iranian weapons program an ‘existential threat’ and openly suggested that they will launch a unilateral attack on suspected development sites if the US does not act.

It might be that the Iranians are building nuclear weapons and not merely, as they claim, a civilian nuclear energy program; for sure, they are being as opaque as possible.  But here is another possibility that should at least be gamed out*: maybe the Iranians are bluffing, much as Saddam Hussein did.  Presumably, the Americans and Israelis were not the only ones surprised to discover that, in fact, Saddam did not have a WMD program; the Iranians, too, had spent the better part of two decades since the end of the Iran-Iraq War struggling to contain a threat that turned out to be little more than a feint.  With WMDs and a perceived willingness to use them, Saddam was a regional force to be reckoned with; without them, he would just have been a broke, second-rate dictator.  The Iranians might reasonably conclude from this that the next best thing to having nuclear weapons or other WMDs is being perceived to have them, that leverage can be gained from a bluff as well as from a bomb.

Oddly, this possibility seems not to have merited high-level attention among Western policy-makers.  In a piece in the New Yorker this summer following a National Intelligence Estimate that cast doubt on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, Seymour Hersh quotes an unnamed senior European diplomat as saying:

Yes, it may very well be the case [as the National Intelligence Estimate states] that there is no evidence of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.  To me, that is not the whole basis of making a judgment.  The more important questions are: Is Iran behaving in a way that would be rational if they were not developing nuclear weapons?  And the answer on that is very clear — their behavior only makes sense if their goal is to have the bomb.  And are they doing the other elements of developing a bomb?  And they definitely are.

But the answer to that first question is not very clear.  If they are bluffing, it would be perfectly rational for them to take actions that look like they might be developing weapons: a bluff won’t work if they don’t make it credible.  There would be some risk in this approach, but not much.  No doubt, the Iranians feel confident that after the Iraq war the US no longer has the appetite or resources for another large-scale invasion and that an Israeli attack would cause some physical damage — though, of course, it could not destroy a weapons program if it does not exist — but would do Iran’s rulers a world of good in terms of their (currently shaky) domestic political standing.

I am not in a position to second guess the intel flowing to the US or Israeli governments; but then, nor are most of the people who are speaking most loudly on this issue.  What can be assessed is the strategic thinking at work and the sort of inverted reasoning that asks, basically, why else would they be acting as they are and then fails to consider all the possibilities is precisely what led to such grave errors in assessing Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities.

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* Update 10 Nov 2011: I used ‘gamed out’ (above) merely as a figure of speech but, by chance, the next day Karim Sadjadpour published “Ayatollah for a day” in Foreign Policy that talked about his experience doing just that.  In late-2009, the Brookings Institution brought together two dozen former US officials and Middle East specialists to participate in a simulation exercise involving an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  As it happens, that Iran might be bluffing and thus a strike unnecessary was, literally, not a scenario that was even included in the war game.

Sadjadpour got to play Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.  So how did the Iranians react to a strike?  They played dirty: striking back at Israel, of course, but also Saudi oil fields, soft targets in Europe, and Western assets in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to spread as much pain as possible to redirect the costs of Israel’s actions.  As for the long-term consequences, Sadjadpour says, “it’s way too murky to say anything but this: It will be ugly.”  But he does have some advice:

As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, Israel and the United States should “focus less on the gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun.” Bombing Iran, he said, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it — and only increase his desire to get the gun.

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Update 25 February 2012: At last, someone has acknowledged the possibility that the Iranians might be bluffing.  Ironically, it comes in the context of an American intelligence assessment that there is ‘no evidence that the Iranians have decided to build a nuclear weapon’ — negative proof, you would think, but in this climate of mounting enthusiasm for war that is unlikely to be persuasive.  Witness David Kay, head of the C.I.A. team that searched for Iraq’s weapons programs after the United States invasion, who explains away this conclusion by saying, “They don’t have evidence that Iran has made a decision to build a bomb, and that reflects a real gap in the intelligence.  It’s true the evidence hasn’t changed very much [since 2007] but that reflects a lack of access and a lack of intelligence as much as anything.”

Maybe Kay and others are correct in their pessimism, but when trying to assess Iranian intentions in an environment of ambiguous information it is essential to consider all four quadrants on the matrix of possibilities.  One, certainly, is that they are hell bent on developing a nuclear weapon — we can be sure there are enough Israeli and American analysts keen to keep that scenario on our radar screens — but another is the Saddam scenario of deliberate opacity.  As reported by the New York Times:

Yet some intelligence officials and outside analysts believe there is another possible explanation for Iran’s enrichment activity, besides a headlong race to build a bomb as quickly as possible. They say that Iran could be seeking to enhance its influence in the region by creating what some analysts call “strategic ambiguity.” Rather than building a bomb now, Iran may want to increase its power by sowing doubt among other nations about its nuclear ambitions. Some point to the examples of Pakistan and India, both of which had clandestine nuclear weapons programs for decades before they actually decided to build bombs and test their weapons in 1998.

“I think the Iranians want the capability, but not a stockpile,” said Kenneth C. Brill, a former United States ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency who also served as director of the intelligence community’s National Counterproliferation Center from 2005 until 2009. Added a former intelligence official: “The Indians were a screwdriver turn away from having a bomb for many years. The Iranians are not that close.”

Note that even this is not quite the full Saddam scenario because it still envisions Iran’s goal as being ‘a screwdriver turn away’ from having a nuclear weapon; that is, becoming a nuclear power in all but name.  Saddam never got anywhere near that close.  True, his program was hobbled by sanctions, but that just proves they work and that there are other policies besides war — including the ongoing sabotage and targeted assassinations — that can stop the Iranians.

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