On Wednesday morning, Jan. 13, in Tehran, a motorcyclist drove alongside a grey Peugot and affixed a magnetic bomb to its exterior. The blast killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a scientist, deputy director of Iran’s uranium enrichment lab. He was the fifth nuclear scientist murdered since 2007. For the assassins, generally believed to be Israeli, the way to stop Iran from developing its nuclear capacity is to murder its scientists. And, as was to be expected, Iran retaliated with a series of car bombs in India and Georgia.

So opens the best article I have seen on the Iranian nuclear question, Paul R. Pillar’s “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran,” in the Washington Monthly. Pillar, who teaches national security studies at Georgetown University, was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. He makes, in my opinion, an utterly convincing argument that less harm would result from allowing Iran to develop its bomb than in either the United States or Israel or both initiating a preemptive war to prevent Iran from developing the weapon. A war under that pretense would be both contrary to international law, and worse, against the moral law. It would not achieve its stated purpose, and it would kill thousands of innocent persons.

Backtrack a few weeks. According to Time magazine, at their Washington meeting, Benjamin Netanyahu learned to trust Barack Obama, in that now Israelis are convinced Obama is serious about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But Peter Beinhart, former editor of the New Republic and voice of a younger generation of American Jews, concluded in Newsweek that Obama has capitulated to Israel, given up on criticizing Israel’s spreading settlements on the West Bank, and has tried to buy off Netanyahu with a promise to sell Israel bunker-busting bombs if it holds off its strike to 2013—after the elections.

The American public is undisturbed about going into a third war. In an interview on Alternet, Glenn Greenwald, a Salon.com columnist, makes the point that “Americans have this image of war being something where you send in drone planes, or even manned aircraft, over Iran and drop a few bombs and their nuclear program is destroyed.” The reality is much different. This would be a big, long, bloody war in a big country. He quotes an Israeli intelligence Mossad director stating that an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” Listen to the interview here.

According to Pillar, there are those in the United States, many of the same persons who got us to invade Iraq under false pretenses, who “genuinely yearn for war.” And we find ourselves arguing around the “sensible” idea that “all options must be on the table” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “All options?” Does “all” include the U. S. and Israel dropping a series of nuclear bombs on Iran’s cities and many scattered nuclear factories to settle this question once and for all?

Among the warriors there are two schools of thought. “The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us” they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, and cannot be counted on to act rationally.” Rick Santorum says their “theology” promotes martyrdom. (Santorum, never having had Catholic higher education, seems unaware of the “glory” of martyrdom in Christianity.) Pillar answers that Iran’s leaders have demonstrated that they want to preserve their power in this life — not the next. And more evil leaders than Iran’s—in Russia and China — have been rational enough to restrain themselves in response to deterrence diplomacy.

The “more-sophisticated sounding argument among policy-debating intelligentsia is based on a lot of untested “what-ifs” and “they could” arguments.  They “could” give nukes to terrorists or sell them on the black market; but “nuclear weapons are most useful in deterring aggression against one’s own country,” it would be foolish to give or sell them to someone else. At any rate, says Pillar, “worst-case speculations are not adequate justifications for going to war.”

We foolishly imagine—as we did when we invaded Iraq—that an air bombardment is the key to victory. In fact, only a land invasion and occupation could accomplish the stated goals of the Iranian war.  Get out the map of the Middle East, study the land masses of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, and ask ourselves if we want to add a third war to the two already killing our young men and women and countless innocent civilians, as well as crippling our economy and eroding our honor.
 

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

Comments

Gabriel Marcella | 3/20/2012 - 11:11am
Paul Pillar speaks with authority. At the same time we need to take the Iran nuclear scenario a few steps forward. Getting the bomb will increase Iran's coercive ability in the region, which will require regional countries to improve their defenses. But no country, other than the United States, has the deterrence capability (conventional and nuclear) to dissuade Iran from using it. Israel is part of the deterrence calculation, but it's not clear that it has the conventional means. There is also the problem of a delivery system. Eventually, if not already, Iran would develop the means to deliver it by air.

All of these will require deliberate calculations by the Iranian leadership. They will weigh the pros and cons, and each step of going forward will heighten regional insecurity and the prospect for hostilities. This does not mean war, but a Middle East engaged in a nuclear standoff is not a pleasant prospect.

It's also entirely possible that Iran might calculate that strategic ambiguity, i.e. giving indications of developing nukes, is more beneficial than actually getting the bomb.  None of this should suggest that the Iranian leadership ought to be trusted.
Beth Cioffoletti | 3/22/2012 - 10:46am
The pressure is on for everyone to buy into the "indisputable" notion that war and weapons make peace, isn't it?

According to an America magazine review of Jim Douglas' book, "JFK and the Unspeakable", Douglas and others believe that dark forces emanating “from the C.I.A and the military-industrial complex - powers that could not bear to see the president turning more and more toward a vision of total nuclear disarmament” were behind the assassination.

And Douglas invokes Thomas Merton as his guide, first witness and chorus, on his pilgrimage to uncover the truth:

In 1962, Merton wrote to a friend expressing “little confidence” in Kennedy’s ability to escape the nuclear crisis in an ethically acceptable way:


“What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”


Kennedy did turn toward peace, and had been secretly corresponding with Soviet leader, Nikita Khurschev, on a plan to stave off nuclear disaster. This was considered “traitorous” in the eyes of the U.S. powerbrokers, and thus marked Kennedy for death. Douglas shows how those who could have exposed the truth were pursued by the C.I.A and killed, one as late as 1995 (3 decades later!)

The “Unspeakable” is a phrase coined by Merton to suggest the systemic dark forces that would stop at nothing and were behind the death of JFK and other tragic events of the 1960s.

From the America article:


“The very concept of a government-directed conspiracy may come as a shock to those who have trouble believing their country could ever be involved in “the unspeakable.” Yet JFK and the Unspeakable is a compelling book, a thoroughly researched account of Kennedy’s turn toward peace, the consequent assassination and its aftermath. By capturing the essence of John F. Kennedy’s vision, it is also a reminder of the urgency of the struggle for peace in our world.”
C Walter Mattingly | 3/20/2012 - 7:00am
What Israel is doing with Iran bears a great deal of similarity with what President Kennedy did during the Cuban Missile crisis. Were Iran, like Cuba, a hundred miles from us, threatening the US with annihilation, we would likely respond as we did before.
Marie Rehbein | 3/22/2012 - 10:39am
I only offer this half in jest.  Let's trade our position in Afghanistan to Iran in exchange for weapons inspections.
Sheila Harrison | 3/20/2012 - 6:41am
Very good article. Recommend reading  " War And The Soul" by Edward Tick,PH.D.
provides a lens to how destructive war is to society.
Gabriel Marcella | 3/22/2012 - 9:55am
Beth,
With all due respects nuclear weapons is not about equal opportunity and fairness in international affairs. It's about power, leverage, threatening neighbors, and the potential for war. Proliferation of nukes will not promote stability and peace. It will heighten fear and create conditions for more confrontation.
ed gleason | 3/19/2012 - 8:34pm
Very Good article but with pandering pols and Fox news it's almost impossible to say the USA doesn't have to do anything about Iranian bombs. Let's just repeat the fact that Israel has 300-400 nuclear weapons and the excellent means for delivery.Iran has neither bombs or a delivery system. Does Israel welcome UN nuclear inspectors... even US inspectors ?? Iran can't even successfully  retaliate for the Israeli assassinations on Iranian civilian scientists
Amy Ho-Ohn | 3/22/2012 - 9:30am
It is an indisputable fact that the world is much better, safer, more just, less murderous and more prosperous when the United States of America has overwhelming military superiority. Everybody I have ever met who pretends to doubt this has simultaneously tacitly admitted his (or her) own hypocrisy on the question by choosing to live one of the parts of the globe that are particularly well-protected by American power.

That is the justification for our nuclear arsenal. In the modern world, a nuclear arsenal is an indispensable part of overwhelming military superiority.

It is impossible to argue that anybody on this planet will be better off if Iran has a nuclear weapon. The greatest danger is obviously to Israelis; almost as great would be the danger to "Palestinians" (It is impossible to nuke Tel Aviv without killing a lot of people in Ramallah) and to the iranian people.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 3/19/2012 - 8:24pm
Rafsanjani has repeatedly urged Muslim states to use nuclear weapons to annihilate Israel. To expect the Iranians to use their weapon once they have it is only to pay them the compliment of taking them at their word. So which is it? Are they psychotic, primitive zealots who want the bomb so they can annihilate Israel? Or are they lying, primitive posturers who threaten annihilation just for thrills?

My guess: probably both. How many decades have they been trying to figure out how to build a 1940's era piece of technology?
Beth Cioffoletti | 3/21/2012 - 10:11am
I think that Pillar is right in saying that allowing Iran to have a nuclear bomb is less bad than going to war.

In fact, I don't understand how any country with an arsenal of nuclear weapons has the right to tell any other country that they cannot do the same. 

Being a citizen of a SUPER power country weighs heavy on my soul.  Jesus tells us to lay down our weapons.  Does doing this at an individual level have any effect on the need to be armed as a nation?  Are we being asked, in some way, to protest and resist the insanity of the "arms race"?  How do we do this? 
Beth Cioffoletti | 3/22/2012 - 3:13am
David (#12), if you read my comment, you'll see that I said that no country has the right to tell another country NOT to have nuclear arms, especially one that is already armed to the teeth.

I agree with Crystal (#13).  Why is it OK for us to have bombs while telling others not to?

My conjecture about laying down arms has nothing to do with telling other countries (or persons) to do so as well.  That would be just another show of force.
Crystal Watson | 3/19/2012 - 8:14pm
“We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran,”

Yes, I think we in the US can, but can Israel?  I don't think one has to be a war-monger to worry about what Iran will do with a nuclear weapon.  We may trust Rissua and China with nuclear weapons - they don't live next door to us and besides, we really had no other choice - but we aren't so trusting of North Korea.


Crystal Watson | 3/21/2012 - 9:55pm
I'm pretty much a pacifist and think war is a bad thing but I can't deny there have been times when I wonder what would have happened if people hadn't been willing to fight - in WWII against the Nazis, for instance.  It seems like there must be other alternatives besides just the two offered here:  war or Iran with a bomb.  I think Walter Mattingly's example above of the Cuban Missle Crisis  is a good one - why was it ok for us to demand Cuba have no  missles, but not ok for Israel to demand Iran have no bomb?
Michael Appleton | 3/19/2012 - 8:08pm
I agree wholeheartedly that the suggestion that we contemplate war against Iran is both foolish and immoral. Pres. Obama has been disappointing in his approach to both war and war crimes. As a lawyer, I had hoped that he would commit to re-establishing the rule of law, but he has failed to do so. And his capitulation to AIPAC is extremely disheartening.

Moreover, we need to come to grips with the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is not a friend of the United States and has no intention of working toward a two-state solution for Palestinians. Our own national interests are not automatically aligned with the interests of Israel except in the minds of neo-cons and apocalyptic Christians.

Should the congressional drumbeats for war become louder, will the USCCB issue a policy statement on the individual rights of conscience to reject participation in an unjust war? 
Joshua DeCuir | 3/20/2012 - 10:18am
If it is true, as is both overtly and subtly suggested here, that there are "neocons" lurking in the shadows who "genuinely yearn for war" and are therefore pushing America into war with Iran, then it must also certainly be true that there are many here (the author of this bizarre post included) who see some bizarre conspiracy theories behind non-existent shadows.

But the takeaway for me from this piece is simple.  According to the author, this vast conspiracy for war (i.e. the Republican Party) poses a greater threat to safety than a nuclearized Iran.

Indeed, one could add this to the growing pile of suggestions from this author, which all fit into the same patter.  Republicans pose a greater threat to _______ than _________.
Bill Mazzella | 3/19/2012 - 8:04pm
The neocons are at it again led by such as William Kristol who dragged us into Iraq and will gladly send anybody else's son to war. We live with a nuclear North Korea and Pakistan. A strong argument can be made that nuclear weapons are a deterrent to war. It is very said that many Zionists are using the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust to justify everything Israel wants. What about the danger to the ordinary people of Iran? Not to mention more American and allied lives.