Think again

Even Will the Wise is not always

Iran nuclear talks in Geneva 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran nuclear talks in Geneva 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
George Will is perhaps the only Washington pundit to whom one would be tempted to apply the adjective wise. So when he comes out in favor of interim accord entered into (or more precisely, almost entered into) by the P5+1 and Iran, as he did last week (“The Two Options on Iran”), one must attend to his arguments.
To be sure Will’s support for the accord comes from an unconventional direction. He concedes all the opponents’ arguments about the interim accord’s “manifold defects and probable futility.” And what critics consider one of its critical defects – i.e., that it signals once again to the Iranians that they have nothing to fear from an American military attack and shackles Israel as long as there is an agreement in force – he considers its greatest virtue.
In any event, in Will’s view, Israel’s superb air force is too far away and too small to do more than briefly set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program. All an Israeli attack against Iran’s known nuclear enrichment sites would achieve, writes Will, is the expulsion of the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the end of the sanctions regime.
Perhaps he is right about that. And he is almost certainly right that sanctions by themselves, without a credible military threat, never had any chance of ending the Iranian efforts to attain nuclear weapons.
As Walter Russell Mead observes, nations that want nuclear weapons badly enough usually obtain them.
President Obama made the same point about sanctions at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institute last week (though that is not the tune he has sung in the past).
CONSIDER THE implications of the statement that sanctions cannot dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons: Absent American military action Iran will obtain nuclear weapons. Only if Supreme Leader Khameini were convinced that an American attack was imminent and that it might threaten the very existence of the Islamic Revolution, might he cease and desist. Precisely that fear of the demise of the Islamic Revolution led Khameini’s predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, to drink of the “poison chalice” and sign a peace agreement with Iraq ending the two countries’ eight-year war at the cost of one million dead on both sides.
We can dismiss as so much palaver all the talk about giving Iran the chance to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful. For starters, Iran possesses the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves; it has no need for civilian nuclear energy.
Second, Iran has enriched uranium to 20%, in excess of any conceivable civilian use, and its heavy-water reactor at Arak is designed to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb.
Finally, if it were pursuing a civilian nuclear energy program, it could have obtained nuclear fuel for a fraction of the cost of its own enrichment program, and without incurring any of the economic sanctions that have inflicted tens of billions of dollars of damages on the Iranian economy. Only the supreme importance Iran attaches to acquiring nuclear weapons could explain its willingness to pay the huge economic cost.
THE IRANIANS will only sign a final agreement with the P5+1 if they reach their goal under the terms of the agreement. And history suggests that they will be able to do so. North Korea signed three different accords with the United States undertaking to abandon its nuclear weapons program and submit to increased inspections, and today North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. (Wendy Sherman, the current lead American nuclear negotiator with Iran, was one of the main architects of the 1996 agreement with North Korea.
The next year North Korea tested a nuclear device.) The increased IAEA inspections so touted by the president and secretary of state apply only to known Iranian enrichment sites. And American intelligence has been caught by surprise by every successful test of a nuclear device since the Soviet Union in 1949. There is no more room for confidence that we know all of Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. (Iran has never voluntarily disclosed a new enrichment facility.) Iran has mastered the technological aspects of nuclear enrichment to a level necessary for a nuclear bomb. The biggest gaps left in its nuclear weapons program concern its ability to mount a nuclear warhead for its longer-range missiles and the accuracy of those missiles. But the interim accord does nothing to limit or even regulate Iranian research on nuclear weapons technology or on missile development. It is silent as to the Parchin site, about which the IAEA has compiled a thick dossier on testing of nuclear triggers. The weaponization research and missile testing will surely continue under the interim accord, which is likely to be renewed numerous times.
Finally, what happens when Iran decides the time has come for the acquisition of a bomb and declares all existing agreements abrogated or just waits for an interim accord to expire prior to expelling all IAEA nuclear inspectors, as North Korea did in 2003? The interim accord has at most lengthened their “breakout” time by a few weeks, according to David Albright, a former IAEA inspector and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security.
WILL ACCEPTS that Iran will likely attain nuclear weapons, but argues, following Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution that “going to war with Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran.” Why? Because even a successful American attack would do no more than set back the Iranian nuclear program two or three years, before they rebuilt it. Thus the only way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, then, would be a land war in Iran, a country whose population is three times the size of that of Iraq.
But why is that so? If the United States demonstrated that it had no intention of allowing Iran to obtain a bomb by knocking out all its existing installations, why would the Iranians go the huge expense of rebuilding new installations only to have them blown up again? Moreover, American air power poses a potential threat to the Islamic Revolution. As former CIA director James Woolsey told me a few years ago, any aerial attack on the nuclear facilities must also “cut off the head of the snake” by eliminating as many of the assets of the Revolutionary Guard as possible.
At the Saban Center, President Obama made an even weaker argument for the futility of an aerial attack: Iran would still possess the “knowledge” necessary for nuclear enrichment. It is not theoretical knowledge of nuclear enrichment that is crucial, however, but the technical expertise to produce the centrifuges and get them working and the tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure necessary to do so.
WILL MOCKS opponents of the interim accord for their talk of appeasement and references to Munich.
He accuses them of envying the moral clarity of the ’30s. That’s silly. That clarity only came in retrospect, when it became clear that the West’s failure to prepare to confront Germany, as Churchill urged on almost uniformly deaf ears, had cost the lives of tens of millions of human beings.
“War,” Will writes, “is an imprudent and even ultimately effective response to the failure of diplomatic and economic pressures to alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders.” He seems to suggest that the Iranian nuclear program is a purely internal matter, unlike Nazi Germany’s take over of the Sudetenland.
But his is a distinction without a difference. The Islamic Revolution is guided by an expansionist ideology.
The prime advantage of nuclear weapons for the Iranians is as an umbrella allowing Iran and its subsidiaries like Hezbollah greater freedom of action worldwide. At present, for instance, the United States has the power to easily prevent Iran from closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which over 20% of the world’s oil currently passes. That would be a much dicier proposition, however, if Iran possessed even a primitive nuclear device. So Iranian nukes are hardly an internal matter, comparable to the choice between democracy and theocracy.
Will challenges those who prefer war to containment of a nuclear Iran – which the president’s Saban Forum appearance confirmed sotto voce is his administration’s policy – to clarify their cost-benefit analysis.
Fair enough. No war should ever be undertaken lightly. But Will too must give us his cost-benefit analysis.
He does not do so. He dramatically overstates the fallout of an American aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as I argue above.
Nor does he deal with the consequences of a nuclear Iran. One such consequence would be the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world’s most unstable region, which is home to the most fanatical populations. Another would be the greater freedom of action for Iran and its subsidiaries, like Hezbollah. And with the ascendancy of Iran goes the correspondent loss of American power and credibility, as it is exposed in Bernard Lewis’s words to be “harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend.”
Finally, Will does not address what it would mean for Israel to live under the threat of a nuclear Iran.
True, the mullahs would not be likely to launch a nuclear attack any time in the near future. At present, they lack missiles accurate enough to do so. Nuclear weapons would be primarily to provide an umbrella to allies such as Hezbollah.
Indeed, the most likely scenario for the launch of nuclear warheads at Israel, as Bret Stephens has argued, would be if the mullahs felt power to be slipping from their grasp in the face of internal discontent. At that point, why not at least fulfill one of their fondest theological dreams and strike at Israel? Given the long-range prospects of the mullocracy, however, that is not a negligible possibility, or one in the shadow of which most people would choose to raise their children.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.