Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October Missiles

“The low-IQ U.S. President and his country’s Secretary of State John Kerry speak of the effectiveness of ‘the U.S. options on the table’ on Iran while this phrase is mocked at and has become a joke among the Iranian nation, especially the children.”
—Iranian General Masoud Jazayeri, as reported by Fars News Agency in March 2014

“We don’t ask anyone’s permission to enhance our defense power or missile capability and will firmly pursue our defense plans, particularly in the field of missiles. And [the long-range missile] Emad is one of the outstanding examples of this.”
—Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, on October 11
Here is a question that intrigues me.

When there is a tragic and senseless outburst of gun violence in the U.S., the president—like many others—is quick to argue for legislation to limit access to weapons. But when it comes to dealing with a nuclear-aspiring country like Iran, he is quite willing to allow it to have nuclear weapons—albeit after an ostensible ten-year delay—in the optimistic hope that, in the absence of sanctions, the country’s character will mature sufficiently to avoid a catastrophic use of those weapons. (Let us note that this question can also be turned around to highlight an apparent inconsistency in Republican positions.)

To be fair, the two problems are very different, and I have deliberately framed my question to provoke thought. Everyone is against mass shootings by mentally disturbed people. Everyone (at least officially) is against Iran getting nuclear weapons. The disagreements are over how to prevent these things from happening.

In the case of domestic gun violence, the president would say that he merely wants to tighten up laws that are too loose. Republicans (and, frankly, a lot of Democrats) would disagree. They would say that there are plenty of gun laws on the books and that they have either shown themselves to be ineffective or that the problem lies in enforcement. Therefore, according to them, adding more laws which, by definition, affect only law-abiding citizens makes no sense.

In the case of Iran, the president does not look at it as a case of keeping dangerous weapons out of irresponsible hands. His argument for striking a deal was that, because sanctions were falling apart (a contention that seemed to me, frankly, more than a little self-fulfilling), the only other alternative was war. This is typical of his frequent rhetorical approach of setting up false choices to make his own position appear unassailable. But he does have a point. When calling for “common sense gun laws,” he is reacting to specific acts of violence. In the case of Iran, Tehran does not actually have nuclear weapons yet, so their use at this point is only speculative. Thus, even if the Iranians do go nuclear, as long as they do not actually use their weapons in anger, the president can claim vindication. As long as they do not, say, attack Israel with them, then there is no problem. A nuclear Iran would definitely change the psychology and balance of power in the region, but as long as there is no war, there is presumably no problem with a nuclear Iran from the president’s point of view.

On the other hand, if those weapons did get used, then the situation would be more analogous to the problem of U.S. gun violence. Whoever is president at that point would be in the position of dealing with an act of violence after the fact. She or he might even feel compelled to call for disarmament in the Middle East. But the chances of that happening would be nil. The greater likelihood from now on is that more states will acquire nukes as a hedge against the Iranians.

President Obama might have found it difficult or impossible to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it is still always easier to prevent a country from going nuclear than to get that country to de-nuclearize after the fact. But there are examples. A newly independent Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nukes in exchange for security guarantees from the West. Libya voluntarily dropped its nuclear program after the United States invaded Iraq. And let us not forget that Syria could possibly be a nuclear state by now if Israel had not bombed its reactor.

I find it difficult to believe that the administration is naive enough to think that Iran will not go nuclear at some point. After all, the agreement specifically allows it—after a waiting period. So the president must be confident—or else doing a lot of finger-crossing—that Iran will behave responsibly once it has become a nuclear power. Under the agreement the International Atomic Energy Agency is committed to releasing a report by the end of the year on the status of Iran’s alleged weaponization work, but U.S. officials said over the weekend that the IAEA report would have no bearing on moves by the international community to lift sanctions on Tehran. Nor is the agreement affected by the fact that Iran has been conducting ballistic missile tests, since the agreement does not forbid them. The missile tests do, however, violate a United Nations Security Council resolution, but there appear to be no consequences forthcoming for that breach.

A person could stay up at night worrying about all of this, but it is probably better to think positively and hope that everything will turn out fine. Still, it is interesting to note that, after all the fuss made over the Iran nuclear agreement, when the Nobel Peace Prize was handed out recently, despite the expectations of some, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems not to have even been considered.

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