Why Attack Iran?

A Question for Mr. Romney

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said something quite interesting about Iran. One of the editors at the Journal asked him how he would respond upon learning that President Bush had launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He answered:

"I would hope that the president would have outlined a great deal of information. I have very little information, for instance, on: How many nuclear facilities are there? Where are they? Can we take them out? Can we not? What is the capacity of the Iranian military to respond? Are our 160,000 troops in Iraq safe, or are they going to get hit?" (Brian Carney, "Mitt Romney: Consultant in Chief," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2007)

Brian Carney, the Journal editor who wrote the article, noted that Romney always likes to ask such questions the way a consultant would: getting a quick understanding of the situation in order to assess it. That’s how Romney made his substantial fortune as a business consultant. Carney and I would agree that there’s nothing wrong with that. It would be nice to have a president who digs and probes. But do you notice two other questions missing? I do. These are the two follow-up questions I would have asked Mr. Romney had I been one of the interviewers:

Let’s say you get your questions answered as follows. There are many nuclear facilities and they’re scattered around. But we can take 100 percent of them out. The Iranian military has little capacity to respond. Let’s assume, with little justification, that our 160,000 troops in Iraq are safe. [Incidentally, Mr. Romney, they’re not safe. You might have heard that the U.S. is at war in Iraq. War is unhealthy for soldiers and other living things.] Here’s my first question: Would you second Mr. Bush’s decision to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? My second question: If you answer yes to the first question, why would you bomb Iran?

It’s too bad that Romney apparently didn’t answer my first question and that, apparently, none of the Journal editors asked it. But they probably didn’t need to. The reason: almost everyone understands that, if Iran were found to have nuclear weapons, virtually all of the Republican candidates, with the notable exception of Ron Paul, would support the U.S. government trying to eliminate them with bombs. Which leads to the second, more fundamental, question: Why?

What if Iran Gets Nuclear Weapons?

More and more people seem to take it as given that a nuclear-armed Iran would use its nuclear weapons to attack the United States. Yet there is no plausible argument, and very little evidence, for that conclusion.

First, we found out that we could co-exist with the Soviet Union, a country with hundreds of times the number of nuclear weapons that Iran could ever hope to have. How did we co-exist? Very simple. Our government made it clear that if the Soviet Union attacked the United States with nuclear weapons, the U.S. government would respond all-out against the Soviet Union with such weapons. The so-called doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), though it was mad in a certain sense, worked. The Soviet Union never attacked us.

But, say the critics, Iran is different. They have all those mad mullahs over there who don’t care about life on earth and simply want to destroy – fill in the blank – Israel, the United States, or Israel and the United States.

Yet there is little evidence that the leaders of Iran are mad. Instead, they are cautiously conservative. Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and adjunct professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in his recent book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S., states it as follows: "But whenever Iran’s ideological and strategic goals were at odds, Tehran’s strategic imperatives prevailed." (p. 3) He notes that the Iranian government has had informal alliances with Israel against the major Arab nations in the Middle East. These alliances existed not only when the shah was Iran’s dictator, but also for much of the time the mullahs have run Iran. Through the government of Switzerland, Iran’s government made an overture to the Bush administration in 2003, in which it asked the Bush administration to meet Iranian officials to discuss ending the sanctions and bringing Iran back into the community of nations, in return for Iran’s forswearing any attempt to build nuclear weapons. According to Parsi, the Bush administration, at the behest of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, rebuffed them. Moreover, the Bush administration verbally attacked Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, for being the bearer of good news. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, incidentally, even though she was President Bush’s National Security Council director at the time, claims to have no memory of this Iranian overture. Interestingly, Parsi quotes none other than Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA), saying of the Iranian government in 2006, "I don’t think they are irrational, I think they are very rational."

"Madman" Ahmadinejad

Ah, say the critics, but President Ahmadinejad is a madman. Think about that term "madman." I’ve never seen that term thrown around so loosely in my lifetime as in the years since 2001. "Saddam Hussein is a madman." "Ahmadinejad is a madman." The neoconservatives and others who make such charges rarely give evidence for it. They simply assert that such people don’t care if they live or die and are, therefore, willing to do almost anything in pursuit of their goals. Notice that those same people virtually never make the charge against evil dictators who are U.S. allies. The best one-line refutation of this standard charge against foreign dictators that the U.S. government dislikes is one that President Carter’s secretary of defense, Harold Brown, gave when discussing the Iranian hostage crisis. I recall (although I could not find it on the Web) that when told that the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t care whether he lived, Brown responded, "A man who makes it to age 80 cares whether he lives."

We don’t have to settle for Brown’s one-liner. We can also look at the facts. It’s true that Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust. But, as Parsi pointed out in Treacherous Alliance, Iran’s "Supreme Guide," the Ayatollah Khamenei, forbade all Iranian officials from denying the Holocaust, a fact that frustrated Ahmadinejad. As a result, when Ahmadinejad visited New York in September 2006, he refused to repeat his remark. Moreover, denying obvious facts is hardly a sign of madness; the more straightforward explanation is that Ahmadinejad is a bald-faced liar. How about Ahmadinejad’s famous statement that he wanted to wipe Israel off the map? Here’s the problem: he didn’t say it. You read that right. The famous line that has become the one-line argument for bombing Iran has been stated incorrectly – again and again. Repetition of a false charge doesn’t make it true. I’m not an expert in Farsi, but notice what Ahmadinejad said: “Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.” What does the word rezhim-e sound like to you? It turns out that it means "regime." So what he was saying was that the Zionist regime should be eliminated. This is not at all the same as proposing that a country be wiped out. Democrats want the Bush "regime" eliminated, and Republicans wanted Bill Clinton’s "regime" eliminated. In fact, some of Israel’s Jews, as well as a sizable fraction of American Jews, want the Zionist regime eliminated. Believe it or not, there are Jews in the world who believe in religious freedom. This hardly qualifies them as madmen or madwomen.

Moreover, even if Ahmadinejad were mad – and there is no evidence that he is – the position of president in Iran is not like the position of president in the United States. Most of the power resides with a Muslim oligarchy and with the "Supreme Guide," which is why the "Supreme Guide" had the power to tell Ahmadinejad to shut up when it came to talking about the Holocaust. The position of president there is like the position of vice president in the United States, or at least the position of vice president before Dick Cheney.

What about the danger that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will turn them over to terrorists? Why would the Iranian government want to do that? The government would give up a lot of power in return for – what? Moreover, as Parsi points out (p. 271), the Israeli government has made it clear that if Israel is nuked, then, no matter who did it, the Israeli government will hit Iran, using, if necessary, its second-strike capability from one or more of its three nuclear-armed submarines (p. 270). Finally, notes Parsi, even if this deterrent did not exist, Iran wants terrorist groups as proxies, and if they acquired nuclear weapons, they would cease to be proxies. Whatever their motivation, people who have power are almost never willing to give it away.

George Orwell pointed out in his novel 1984 that when governments want to have power over us, they come up with threats to scare us. If they scare us enough, then they can grab power. The Democrats do this with global warming, with the goal of having more power over our daily lives. The Republicans, since 9/11, have tried to scare us by exaggerating by a few orders of magnitude the threat of terrorist attacks and nuclear-armed governments run by madmen. This is the stuff of novels, and not very good novels at that. The best way to combat this nonsense is to get knowledge and to confront the propagandists at every turn.

Meanwhile, there is no good reason to attack Iran. Indeed, for the U.S. government to attack a country that has not attacked us and isn’t even threatening to do so would be to commit an immoral, and probably illegal, act. But that’s another story.

Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org