Can a Nuclear Strike on Iran Be Prevented?

The Bush administration has put together all the elements it needs to justify the impending military action against Iran. Unlike in the case of Iraq, it will happen without warning, and most of the justifications will be issued after the fact. We will wake up one day to learn that facilities in Iran have been bombed in a joint U.S.-Israeli attack. It may even take another couple of days for the revelation that some of the U.S. bombs were nuclear.

Both Americans and the rest of the world have left the door wide open for this to happen. The international community has failed to declare the Iraq war illegal (e.g., Resolution 1483) under international law, implicitly condoning the next similar U.S. adventure. Furthermore, since the IAEA resolution of Sept. 24, 2005, it is “legal” for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict with Iran.

And the discussion now riveting the country’s attention, about whether the administration misused faulty intelligence to justify attacking Iraq, plays right into the plan to attack Iran. Many critics of the war are implicitly conceding that if the intelligence had been right, the attack on Iraq would have been justified. However, the charges that were false for Iraq are true for Iran, or are at least widely accepted to be true.

Since after the fact there isn’t much one can do about it, except, in Cheney’s words “clean up the diplomatic mess,” it is important to bring up the topic for discussion now, even if the administration would prefer that you focus instead on the Iraq mess, incredible as that may seem.

How the Iraq Deception Aids an Attack on Iran

The country is up in arms over the “16 words” in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq “attempting” to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Some criticisms imply that if indeed there had been such an attempt, the attack against Iraq would have been justified. Iran makes its own yellowcake and is processing it into uranium hexafluoride at this very moment. According to the latest reports, the material being processed is enough for 10 nuclear bombs.

The other reasons given to attack Iraq apply at least as much or even more so to Iran and will be brought up by the U.S. government after the attack, so we may as well consider them now:

Iran has denied most of the allegations listed above. However, the accusations are widely reported in the Western press as facts, and most Americans have accepted them as such.

Consider the following: if the Bush administration knew that it was misusing and manipulating faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion, as most Americans now believe, it also knew that the truth about nonexistent Iraqi WMD would come out after the fact. Whether the American people interpreted it as incompetence or deliberate deception, the administration’s decision to go to war would eventually be subject to widespread criticism on either ground. Why did the administration choose to build up a case for invading Iraq out of thin air, knowing full well it was destined to fall apart in the aftermath?

I believe there are two complementary reasons. (1) The faulty arguments to attack Iraq provide an even stronger justification to attack Iran, as explained above. Since the country has already accepted that line of argument, the administration can argue after the attack on Iran that it did not need to go to Congress or the American people to ask for their support again. (2) The real, ultimate goal was always to attack Iran, but the Iraq invasion was a necessary intermediate step.

What the Rest of the World Is Doing

The United States used diplomacy, in particular UN resolution 1441 of November 2002, which was supported unanimously by the Security Council, as a cover to justify its military action against Iraq, and it is using the same strategy again. Europe is enabling the U.S. strategy by pushing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the Security Council. When the process reaches a dead end at the Security Council, or even if it never gets there, the U.S. will argue that the international community, especially Europe, “share[s] our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it.” Depending on whether diplomatic action stalls at the Security Council or before that at the IAEA, the U.S. will argue that each entity “has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.” Russia and China oppose placing sanctions on Iran, but they are not taking a strong stand against U.S. aggression.

Why a Nuclear Attack Against Iran Is Imminent

The U.S. and Israel have made it clear that they will not allow Iran to implement a civilian nuclear program that includes the fuel cycle, because it will bring Iran closer to a point where it could develop nuclear weapons if it so decided. Iran claims the right to develop civilian nuclear technology, including the fuel cycle, which is explicitly allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These are completely irreconcilable positions, and in the absence of compromise they can only be resolved by military action in which the stronger side prevails. The U.S. is not negotiating with Iran either directly or indirectly and is in essence demanding that Iran prove today beyond any doubt that it will not have nuclear weapons in the indefinite future, which is as impossible as it was for Saddam Hussein to prove that he did not have weapons he didn’t have.

Iran is much stronger militarily than Iraq was, and is potentially a much larger threat to Israel. Iran will continue to grow stronger in the future, and following the Bush logic, it is preferable to preempt than to wait. The Bush statement in the 2002 State of the Union address,

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

was directed to Iran as much as to Iraq. So was the following:

“I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

Furthermore, the balance of power in the region has been upset by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in an irreversible way. The containment that Saddam Hussein provided to Iran’s power in the region no longer exists, and if the U.S. reduces its presence in Iraq without attacking Iran, Iran is likely to establish itself further as a strong regional superpower, expanding its influence over Iraq as well as the broader Middle East.

So why hasn’t Iran been attacked yet?

Only because several elements had to first fall into place, as they now have. The attack on Iran will occur at any time in the coming days or weeks and will include the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. Let us summarize the pieces of the puzzle assembled by this and previous administrations that lead to the upcoming nuking of Iran:

Why are nuclear weapons an indispensable part of the enterprise? Because conventional military action against Iran would be very costly and would likely lead to disaster. Iran has dozens of Shahab 3 missiles that can reach Israel and many more short-range missiles that can target U.S. forces in Iraq, potentially with chemical warheads. It also has a 7 million-strong Basiji volunteer militia and local support from the Shi’ite population in southern Iraq, all of which would easily overwhelm the 150,000 U.S. troops and the weak Iraqi army.

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq, a conventional aerial attack against Iranian installations (like Israel did to Osirak’s reactor in 1981) would also have been futile. Iran’s facilities are numerous, many are underground, and partial destruction would only have led to a radicalization of Iran’s regime and a full-scale drive toward nuclear weapons.

However, to justify the breaking of the 60-year-old taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, it is necessary for the lives of many Americans to be at stake. Otherwise, the American public would not condone the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. By placing U.S. forces within range of Iranian missiles and conventional forces, a situation has been created in which the American public will support the use of nuclear weapons to save thousands of American lives. This is why the invasion of Iraq was a necessary prelude to the nuclear attack on Iran.

Most importantly, the value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is emphasized in Defense Department policy, and it will undeniably enhance their deterrent effect to demonstrate that the U.S. is ready to use nuclear weapons, lest the world forget after 60 long years of dormancy that nuclear weapons are for real.

Why a Nuclear Attack on Iran Is a Bad Idea

Now that we have outlined what is very close to happening, let us discuss briefly why everything possible should be done to prevent it.

In a worst-case scenario, the attack will cause a violent reaction from Iran. Millions of “human wave” Iranian militias will storm into Iraq, and just as Saddam stopped them with chemical weapons, the U.S. will stop them with nuclear weapons, resulting potentially in hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Middle East will explode, and popular uprisings in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with pro-Western governments could be overtaken by radical regimes. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, and a nuclear conflict could even lead to Russia’s and Israel’s involvement using nuclear weapons.

In a best-case scenario, the U.S. will destroy all nuclear, chemical, and missile facilities in Iran with conventional and low-yield nuclear weapons in a lightning surprise attack, and Iran will be paralyzed and decide not to retaliate for fear of a vastly more devastating nuclear attack. In the short term, the U.S. will succeed, leaving no Iranian nuclear program, civilian or otherwise. Iran will no longer threaten Israel, a regime change will ensue, and a pro-Western government will emerge.

However, even in the best-case scenario, the long-term consequences are dire. The nuclear threshold will have been crossed by a nuclear superpower against a non-nuclear country. Many more countries will rush to get their own nuclear weapons as a deterrent. With no taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, they will certainly be used again. Nuclear conflicts will occur within the next 10 to 20 years, and will escalate until much of the world is destroyed. Let us remember that the destructive power of existing nuclear arsenals is approximately one million times that of the Hiroshima bomb, enough to erase Earth’s population many times over.

Furthermore, despite all the U.S. and Israeli allegations, there is not a shred of real evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The fact that it hid its nuclear program for many years is understandable, given that the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran and first accused it of pursuing nuclear weapons many years ago. Since 2003, all Iranian nuclear activities have been open and accessible to the IAEA, and Iran has signed an additional protocol that allows unannounced inspections of all its facilities. Iran would not be able to develop nuclear weapons under these conditions even if it wanted to. Finally, Iran has offered to enter into partnerships with foreign companies to provide additional assurances that its uranium enrichment is devoted solely to civilian purposes. Recall that uranium enrichment for reactors is at 3-5 percent levels, while weapons require 90 percent levels, which demands a qualitatively different effort.

Can a Nuclear Attack Be Averted?

The reader will notice that this section is very short. Creative ideas are needed!

Because the United States is counting on the “nuclear option” to ensure the success of military action against Iran, it is not seriously pursuing diplomatic alternatives, such as negotiating directly with Iran to reach an agreement on a civilian nuclear program under strict international supervision.

It is essential to debate whether the U.S. should use nuclear weapons against Iran before it happens rather than after. In the case of Hiroshima, because the existence of nuclear bombs was classified information, a public discussion on whether nuclear bombs should have been used against Japan to end World War II could not occur. Many physicists who were part of the Manhattan Project in 1945 urged the government not to use the newly developed weapons, but their calls went unheeded.

Today, a public debate can occur. The scenarios described in the Pentagon document [.pdf] in which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons include “for rapid and favorable war termination on U.S. terms,” against “an adversary intending to use WMD against U.S., multinational, or alliance forces,” and “to demonstrate U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons.” These are not acceptable scenarios. It is not in the best interests of the United States nor the rest of the world for the U.S. to base its military planning on such policies, because if it does so a situation will inevitably arise in which no alternative will be left, as in the case considered here. There has to be a public discussion in the media, online, and in Congress. Unless there is an extraordinary outcry of opposition against such policies, they are bound to be implemented in the very near future.