Is Iran a Threat?

On Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, I gave a talk at the Rotary Club of Monterey. I’ve spoken there two or three times in the past, always with a good response, but always on economic issues. This time I decided to push the envelope by making my case that the Iranian government, while it is a threat to its own people, as all governments are to various degrees, is not a threat to the United States. The president of the club told me that the turnout for the speech, whose topic was announced well in advance, was unusually high. I would estimate it at 120 to 140.

A tech-savvy participant had found a map of Iran showing it surrounded on all sides by U.S. military bases, with a U.S. flag representing each base (here’s a similar map). He asked me if I wanted that shown, and I said, “Yes, thank you.”

Here’s my talk as given, minus a joke that would require the context of what had happened earlier in the event.

Thank you for inviting me here. I start by noting that nothing that I say in this talk necessarily represents the views of the U.S. government, which will become increasingly obvious, or the U.S. Navy, which isn’t as obvious given that presidential candidate Ron Paul, who agrees with me on this issue, collects more campaign contributions from active-duty military than all the other candidates combined.

I notice that on your pennant, you have Rotary’s four-way test for taking action, and I agree with all four. [The four are: (1) Is it the TRUTH? (2) Is it FAIR to all concerned? (3) Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? (4) Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?] As you will see, these principles are important for understanding my talk. Moreover, in a recent debate in South Carolina, the only candidate for president who agrees with what I’m about to say, Ron Paul, stated a shortened version of them, the Golden Rule, and was booed.

A Question for Mr. Romney

In a 2007 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Republican candidate for president 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,” The 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. Had I been in on the interview, I would have asked Mr. Romney these two follow-up questions:

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% of them out. Let’s say the Iranian military has little capacity to respond. Let’s assume, with little justification, that our troops in Iraq are safe. [Incidentally, Mr. Romney, they’re not safe. Soldiers in a war zone are not safe.] Here’s my first question: would you second Mr. Bush’s decision to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? My second question is, 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: virtually everyone understood in 2007—and not much has changed since then—that many of the Republican candidates, with the notable exception of Ron Paul, would, if Iran is found to have nuclear weapons, have the U.S. government try to eliminate them with bombs. And now Leon Panetta and Obama have joined the Republicans with their statements that “all options are on the table.”

Which leads to the second, and more fundamental, question: why attack Iran?

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 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.” 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 ran 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. 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 just 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. 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 heard 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 wanted the Bush “regime” eliminated and Republicans want Obama’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 mad men or mad women.

Moreover, even if Ahmadinejad were mad — and there is no evidence that he is — the position of president, the job Ahmadinejad holds 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 kind of like the position of vice president in the United States, or at least the position of vice president before Dick Cheney. My Hoover Institution colleague Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who was one of the few to predict that Ali Khamenei would take over, estimates that Ahmadinejad is approximately the 18th most-powerful politician in Iran.

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, 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. Also, 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. People who have power, whatever their motivation for that power, are almost never willing to give it away.

Moreover, it’s not clear that the Iranian government is close to having nuclear weapons.

If you have read otherwise in U.S. newspaper headlines, then read beyond the headlines. Read, for example, some of the latest articles by investigative journalists Gareth Porter and Seymour Hersh. Porter has debunked some well-publicized but unsubstantiated claims made in the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Just one example: the Soviet scientist whom the IAEA report claims is a nuclear-weapons scientist who helped Iran’s government construct a detonation device is not, in fact, a nuclear- weapons scientist. Instead, he, in Porter’s words, “has worked solely on nanodiamonds from the beginning of his research career.”

Or consider how the Jim Lehrer NewsHour edited a recent interview with Leon Panetta. Here’s what Panetta said about Iran in a Jan. 8 interview on Face the Nation:

Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us.

Margaret Warner edited it down and showed the following the next night on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour:

But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us.

Do you see the difference? [DRH note: a number of people in the audience nodded their heads.]

Still, I think there’s a good chance that the Iranian government will develop nuclear weapons. Why might they want them?

[DRH note: At this point, I paused and pointed to the large screen that showed Iran surrounded by U.S. military bases. I estimate that about 20 percent of the audience laughed.]

The chief of staff of India’s army, after the 1991 Gulf War, said that the lesson he drew from that war was that no nation should go to war with the United States without nuclear weapons.

Why might the Iranian government fear the United States? Oh, I don’t know: does the term “Axis of Evil” ring a bell? Anything else? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Why did the U.S. government support Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran? Because Iran had become an enemy of the U.S. government after Khomeini took over and after the Iranians had taken Americans in the U.S. embassy hostage. One reason many Iranians hated the U.S. government was that the CIA, with Kermit Roosevelt and Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. leading the charge, had deposed the democratically elected premier, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953 and reinstalled the shah of Iran. The shah created a secret terrorist police force, SAVAK, that tortured its own citizens and imprisoned political opponents. The CIA helped train SAVAK. On domestic policy, the shah undertook a highly inflationary monetary policy that caused the value of the Iranian currency to plummet. Inflation, torture. Funny how that upsets people.

Interestingly, when James Woolsey, former director of intelligence for the Clinton administration’s CIA, spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School, where I teach, in August 2003, he addressed the 1953 uprising in response to a question from me. During his speech, Woolsey had stated that the war with militant Islam had begun in November 1979 when some Iranians took over the U.S. embassy. I asked him whether he didn’t think it might have begun in 1953, when the CIA helped depose Mossadegh. Laughing, Woolsey replied that, when it came to the Middle East, the Americans, as Winston Churchill had said, after doing many wrong things, would always end up doing the right thing. In other words, Woolsey seemed to admit CIA complicity, but he dismissed the idea that this mattered because the U.S. government, at some point (he didn’t specify when), had gotten it right. But Woolsey’s answer evades the issue: did the U.S. government’s 1953 actions have bad unintended consequences?

In 1980, President Carter was asked about the 1953 event at a press conference and he said that that was “ancient history.” Have any of you ever taken a course in ancient history? Do you remember covering events that happened just 27 years earlier? [Many in the audience laughed.]

The Case Against Sanctions on Iran

When I was a kid, Glen, the boy next door, once played a nasty trick on my brother, Paul. Glen held his cat in his arms, brought it within a few inches of Paul’s face, and pulled its tail. The suddenly angry cat bit Paul’s face. My brother and I were upset; we both thought that the cat, if it bit anyone, should have bitten the perpetrator.

When governments impose economic sanctions on people in other countries, they, too, are pulling the cat’s tail. Glen’s intent was to get his cat to bite my brother. His plan worked. The intent of the government that imposes sanctions is often to get the people in the target country to “bite” their government. That typically doesn’t work. Why? People are smarter than cats.

For the last few years, the U.S. government and some other governments have wanted to dissuade Iran’s government from pursuing nuclear weapons. To do so, they have imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran. In May 2011, for example, the U.S. government imposed sanctions to try to reduce the supply of gasoline to Iran. Drying up gasoline supplies to Iran, which, surprisingly, imports much of its gasoline, has been a method favored by those who want to hurt Iranians. In one of the 2008 presidential debates, for example, Republican presidential candidate John McCain advocated such sanctions.

It’s not clear how effective such sanctions can be. The companies and governments that the U.S. government threatens to penalize if they export gasoline to Iran might just be replaced by companies over which the U.S. government has little leverage.

But let’s assume that the sanctions can do real harm. What happens next?

One thing we can be sure of is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are not doing without gasoline. No. The people who do without gasoline, or with less gasoline, are everyday Iranians who have approximately zero say in the policies that the U.S. government wants to change.

So, what is the U.S. government hoping for? It hopes that Iranians — like my neighbor’s cat — will lash out at whoever’s face is right in front of them. The idea is to induce Iranians to see their own government as the enemy so that they will put pressure on it.

But when Iranians suddenly find gasoline in short supply or more expensive, so that even getting to work or to the store is a challenge, they will wonder who is responsible. It won’t be hard for them to find out. Although the government of Iran has a great deal of power to censor what newspapers, radio, and television report, one piece of information that it’s sure not to censor is the role of outside governments in the country’s economic distress.

Of course, the government will exaggerate the harm done by the sanctions. Although socialism is what’s killing poor people in Cuba, for example, Fidel Castro, for almost 50 years, blamed Cuba’s economic problems on the “blockade,” his word for the embargo imposed by the U.S. government in the early 1960s. But he can plausibly make that claim because the embargo exists. Likewise, much of the Iranian people’s pain is caused by their own government’s intrusive limits on economic freedom. In the annual index of economic freedom, published in Economic Freedom of the World, Iran dropped from 80th of 141 countries in 2006 to 112th in 2007, a breathtaking drop for one year. It inched up slightly to 105th in 2009, but that still places Iran low on economic freedom. Although, as in Cuba, this lack of economic freedom is the most important cause of Iran’s pain, sanctions cause further pain. And the Iranian government will be sure to tell its citizens who imposed the sanctions.

What do people in embargoed countries do when they find out that foreign governments threaten them? They want to do what my neighbor’s cat would not do: bite the hand or face of the perpetrator. The idea that one country’s government can, by inflicting pain on people in another country, cause them to pressure their government to change is the stuff of fiction — and not good fiction.

A good way to understand how people in other countries would feel if your government did something to purposely hurt them is to ask yourself how you would feel if a foreign government purposely hurt you. Consider how you would feel if another country’s government imposed sanctions on Americans that were serious enough to cause us real harm. Is your first instinct to be upset at your own government? If it is, you are unusual. I’d bet that you would feel some animosity toward that foreign government.

The further tragedy in the case of Iran is that there does appear to be a strong moderate element there that would like to have better relations with the United States, as well as with other people and governments in the West. By tightening the screws on Iran, the U.S. government is nipping this movement in the bud.

Moreover, if a proposed measure would harm innocent people and not even achieve its goal, that’s a sufficient argument against the measure. Yet, instead of even asking themselves if their proposed measures will be effective, officials resort to a way of thinking so common among politicians — one that was parodied in the British comedy show Yes, Prime Minister. “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, it must be done.”

But I do have a partial solution: have the U.S. government end all current sanctions on Iran, end subsidies to Israel and all other countries in the Middle East, and pull all U.S. troops out of the Middle East. These actions, more than any others, would go a long way toward convincing Iranians that the U.S. government is not a threat. Otherwise, many of them will think, justifiably, that the U.S. government is like my cruel neighbor who used his innocent cat as a weapon.

I’ll end with this:

There is no reason to attack Iran and no reason that is good enough for imposing sanctions. 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 talk.

That’s how I ended. Notice that I didn’t say the traditional “Thank you.” I see that as a cheap way to get applause. I believe, instead, that you should signal that you’re done and let them decide whether you earned their applause. So there was about a two-second lag in which I wondered, “Wow, did I upset them that much?” Suddenly they realized the talk was over and broke into long, loud applause. In the question-and-answer period, with the Rotary president largely choosing the questioners, I would say that five questioners were mildly to strongly supportive and the only other questioner was simply curious about the prospects for war. At Rotary, they have a hard cutoff for their events, and at exactly 1:30 p.m. the president cut it off. About five people came up afterward and expressed support, including a retired doctor who told me that I should get the word out more widely and a former mayor of Monterey, Dan Albert, who told me he liked the talk. One man told me that this was very unusual for a Rotary talk: filled with facts and stuffing a lot into under 25 minutes. All in all, a good outcome. My lesson from this is that you can make the antiwar case if you have your facts and if you treat the audience with respect.

Copyright © 2012 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

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