Iran: The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger?

December 27, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

On Christmas Eve, a time ostensibly meant for peace & goodwill, the New York Times ran an epic op-ed arguing for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Should you have the stomach to endure Alan Kuperman’s belch of war-baiting, you can go here; it’s some real ‘Deck The Halls’shit.

Because I’m not particularly interested in the substance of Kuperman’s argument (there are already some excellent rebuttals by the likes of Marc Lynch & Matt Duss), I’m instead going to note Stephen Walt’s reaction. For Walt, this is but the opening salvo of a concerted campaign to pressure President Obama into taking military action. He warns that opponents of this action should start refining their arguments now because the march for war may soon become a deafening din.

Now, Walt does occasionally overstate things, but it’s still true that for as long as the diplomatic wrangling continues, the media will continue to give space to those who’re keen to tell us what to bomb when (not if) it all fails. So I think it’s worth reflecting on what kind of shape our side of the debate is in, and to be honest, I think we could use some work.

There’s definitely a tendency to blithely assume that advocates for military action are just raving mad Bush-era leftovers who never stopped to acknowledge how their rabid war-mongering has diminished both America’s economic prosperity and its effectiveness as an international actor. Whilst that’s true in many cases, although the pro-bombing crowd has the weaker argument, it could still have the winning argument.

First, opponents of military action should acknowledge that the negotiations/sanctions tactic might fail & that Iran might succeed in developing a nuclear deterrent. When people like Kuperman accuse us of ‘appeasement’, it’s partly because we write as though negotiations will end the diplomatic stand-off. That could happen, but I’m not betting any money on it.

So we should write with the assumption that Iran could one day have a nuclear deterrent, and that even if that day came, bombing would remain a bad idea. To do this, there are four arguments: that a strike would have negative consequences for the US & its allies, that it would stoke massive instability in the region, and deal a damaging blow to whatever remains of the green revolution. The fourth argument is that Iran is a rational player in international politics, and that building a bomb doesn’t mean they will use it. That last one’s going to be the toughest for folks to accept.

If a country like Switzerland was in the process of building a bomb, there’d be few people flinching with fear. Sure, that’s partly because the Swiss are friendly, democratic & secular, but also because we assume they would adhere to the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. In contrast, one of the consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror is that it’s left the impression that Muslim states, societies & citizens have such a reflex for martyrdom that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction has no weight. If this were true, then being hit with a retaliatory nuke would be a glorious event for it would further the jihad and bring the Iranian dead closer to Allah.

If people believe that the Iranians are prepared to use a nuclear weapon against Israel – or anyone else – then they’ll be much more amenable to the idea of making the first strike. The way we win the public debate is by demonstrating that whilst Iran may have a vile regime, it’s not being led by suicidal lunatics. Sadly, I fear that might not be an easy argument to win.


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