“Fisking” Hugh White on Iran

Dec 7, 2011 | Tzvi Fleischer

Fisking Hugh White on Iran

Oft-quoted Australian “strategic analyst” Hugh White had a piece in The Age yesterday day on the Iranian nuclear crisis which betrayed such a lack of serious and logical strategic thought, so many shallow and glib yet ill-informed assumptions, that it seemed to be simply begging for a thorough “fisking” (Urban Dictionary definition: “The word is derived from articles written by Robert Fisk that were easily refuted, and refers to a point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies.”) Here’s my effort.

Make no mistake, the Iranians will have their nuclear way
Hugh White
December 6, 2011

Tehran’s arms plans can’t be halted: we need to focus on how we live with them.
WESTERN leaders talk big about Iran’s nuclear ambitions being ”unacceptable”. But what they say makes little difference. The Iranians really want nuclear weapons, and the rest of the world has no credible way to stop them.

Actually, we do, he just rejects them all. It’s not that we can’t – White just doesn’t want to do what’s required (which admittedly is difficult and costly) and prefers to pretend that options do not exist.

We are going to see a nuclear-armed Iran whether we like it or not. The challenge now is to work out what that means, and what we should do about it.

As we shall see below, White’s answer to this question is that it means Iran can dominate the Persian Gulf, and what we should do about it is to desperately seek a deal to let them. His argument poses as hard-nosed “realism”. In actuality, it is an argument for appeasement. I don’t mean that to sound like name-calling – appeasement is defined, according to one of the most widely used definitions as “the policy of settling international quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict.” It does not have to result in what happened with Hitler in the 1930s, though this is always a danger, but it can be a rational policy. However, White’s article would be more honest if he admitted that this was what he was advocating – bizarrely, in the name of “realism.”

Last week’s storming of the British embassy in Tehran reminded us how hard Iran is to deal with. Meanwhile, last month’s report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran is perfecting the design of a nuclear weapon as well as producing the enriched uranium needed to make it. Iran is well on the way.

It is not hard to see why Iran wants nuclear weapons. One reason is fear. Iran lives in a fractious region surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbours – Russia to the north, China to the north-east, Pakistan and India to the east, Israel to the west. And, of course, Tehran fears America, and perhaps believes that nuclear weapons will help it avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

But besides fear there are also ambition and pride. Iranians see themselves as heirs to a great civilisation, and the Middle East’s natural leader. They see nuclear weapons as both the necessary instrument and the natural prerogative of a great regional power. Why, they ask, should India and Pakistan be accepted as nuclear powers and not Iran?

It is a fair question.

White might at least have attempted to answer the question, then, rather than simply conceding Iran’s point. Firstly he might have noted that, unlike India and Pakistan, Iran signed a treaty, the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, in which it promised not to build nuclear weapons. Moreover, in exchange for doing so, it gained access to civilian nuclear technology. That’s how the treaty works – states get nuclear technology in exchange for promising not to build nuclear weapons with it. Iran took the technology and is building bombs with it anyway. This led to a series of legally binding “Chapter VII” UN Security Council resolutions which demand that Iran stop enriching uranium, making Iran’s action unequivocally illegal.

He might also have noted that Iran is virtually alone among the world’s nations in making it a matter of public policy that another UN member state, Israel, must be “wiped off the map.”

Fear, ambition and pride is a potent mix of motives. It does not justify Iran’s nuclear program, but it does explain why its government is so committed to it, and why so many Iranians across the political spectrum support it. And it explains why even the tougher economic sanctions now being enforced are unlikely to change Iranian minds.

Actually, this whole “all Iranians want a nuclear weapons for purposes of prestige” argument is something of a myth. The leaders of the opposition “Green Movement” published a covenant last year in which they said they would not seek nuclear weapons if they led Iran, as top Iran scholar Abbas Milani has noted. And it seems clear that the opposition probably represents the majority of Iranian public opinion. Meanwhile, many polls (see here, here, here, here and here) show a majority of Iranians want nuclear power only, not bombs (It is worth recalling that in most of their public statements, Iran’s leaders only talk about their “peaceful” nuclear program, and deny that they seek nuclear weapons, so it is not surprising that many Iranians take them at their word.)

With sanctions failing, someone – presumably Israel or America or both – appears to be trying sabotage of critical machinery and assassination of key personnel to slow Iran’s nuclear program. No doubt this is causing distress, delays and expense. But the chances of stopping the program this way, or delaying it by more than a few months, are very slender.

But any delay is good. White is way too quick to dismiss delay as an important aspect of policy. Iran is a country with a majority which opposes the current regime and wants some form of regime change. It has huge internal problems and tensions. Most experts believe that in the long term, the current, particularly aggressive Islamist Iranian regime cannot survive, though of course no-one can predict accurately when change will occur. But if the nuclear program is delayed long enough, it is very likely a change in Iran will occur which will bring to power a regime that is prepared to forgo the quest for nuclear weapons.

But White has the typical blindspot of foreign policy realists – they think in terms of units called “states” which have “interests”. The idea that the nature and worldview of the units, and thus the interests that they have, can change is not a part of the analysis.

Furthermore, sanctions and other measures can not only create time for changes inside Iran, they can help encourage it – especially if the Iranian opposition is given more covert help and sanctions damage the ability of the unpopular regime to buy loyalty and pay off sources of opposition,

This is why talk keeps coming back to military options. It is tempting to believe that if diplomacy or dirty tricks fail, armed force offers a swift, effective option. But this is an illusion. No credible military option offers even a modest chance of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and little prospect even of slowing it down significantly.

The uranium enrichment plants at the heart of Iran’s program are easy to hide and easy to protect by burying them deep underground. Neither Israel nor America can be confident they could find enough of Iran’s’ critical nuclear infrastructure to make any significant difference to its weapons program, or destroy it once they had found it. The most they could realistically expect is to set Iran back a few months or perhaps a year.

To start with, this estimate of the delay that can be induced is very low compared to most others. A study of a potential Israeli strike by the Washington-based and highly regarded Centre for Strategic and International Studies found that an Israeli attack which could delay the Iranian program by 1 to 3 years was “possible” if “complex and high risk.” A more recent study by Columbia University strategic expert Andrew Long confirms that Israel is still capable of pulling off such a strike. According to a Wikileaks release, US Defence Secretary William Gates secretly told the French that Israel could pull off a strike on Iran, that might or might not be successful, but if it was, could delay the program by “one to three years.” The Americans, with much more and better military resources, can almost certainly do much better in terms of the probability of success and thoroughness of the outcome. In any case, it is generally assumed, in most analysis, that a successful attack, assuming it could be achieved, would set back the program by “one to three years”, not a “few months or perhaps a year.”

And that is not to be sneezed at. As noted above, delay is a good policy outcome. One to three years gives time for things to change inside Iran.

Moreover, who says that one strike has to be the end of the matter? If there is a strike and the Iranians insist on rebuilding the program, what is to stop another strike from taking place in future when they again get close.

So, yes, a military strike will not “solve” once and for all the Iranian nuclear problem – but very few policies in international politics ever “solve” anything once and for all. So that’s not a very good argument not to do it – unless you have a better alternative.

This meagre gain has to be weighed against Iran’s ability to retaliate. It has many ways to hit back against America and Israel. Serious voices in both countries caution that the cost-benefit analysis simply doesn’t add up.

While its true that some serious voices do say this, including in Israel, other serious voices say that it might well be worth it. Jeffrey Goldberg’s important article in the Atlantic last year, which explored this question after numerous interviews with all major players, concluded that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that it is a “near-certainty” Israel will act if the US fails to stop Iran by other means. White’s argument here amounts to – some people are against it, therefore it is unthinkable. That’s not a very convincing argument.

So it is time to stop talking about how to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons, and start asking what it means when they do. The consequences will spread wider as Iran builds bigger, longer-range missiles, but the first and greatest consequences will be in Iran’s neighbourhood, especially for Israel.

Here, White falls into the trap of viewing everything in the Middle East through the prism of the Arab-Israel conflict. He later says Iran has a good chance of dominating the Persian Gulf, which is the conduit for 33% of the world’s oil, thus potentially affecting the whole global economy, not to mention numerous Arab states, which, as Wikileaks documents have shown, are privately at least as concerned as Israel about Iran. Yet White mistakenly insists that Iran is mainly a concern for Israel.

The most obvious danger is in fact the least likely. Nuclear deterrence ensures that Iran is extremely unlikely simply to launch a direct nuclear attack on Israel. Iran’s leaders know Iran would simply then be destroyed by a massive Israeli nuclear retaliation – and if the Israelis didn’t get them, America would. Moreover, Washington will extend a similar deterrent umbrella over any of Iran’s other neighbours who feel directly threatened by nuclear attack.

The assumption that deterrence will obviously be completely effective is way too simplistic because it is again rooted in facile and unexamined political realist assumptions. The assumption of realists like White is that nations rationally seek survival, whatever else they seek, and will act rationally to ensure survival by not risking a nuclear confrontation. But rationality and interests are in fact more complicated than this. Goals and values of states and governments are actually quite varied and rooted in very different worldviews, and also complex are the assumptions about causes and effects that go into efforts to implement those goals. Realists, and Western theorists generally, are too quick to assume that other cultures basically have the same goals and values for their societies as they do.

Iranian leaders are not the same as the Cold War leaders of the Soviet Union in one important respect – they are deeply religious and see the legitimacy and purpose of their state in religious terms. They believe in an afterlife more important than this life; they believe that martyrdom is a very important religious value; and they believe that if the leaders of the faithful act in accordance with God’s plan, however that is interpreted, God will somehow guarantee them both protection and victory. Furthermore, like many religious traditions, Shi’ite Islam includes a belief that the end of days and the coming of the kingdom of God will come after a terrible global conflict, and there is considerable evidence that certain circles among Iran’s leaders are deeply devoted to the belief that it is their role to bring about the end of days. Doyen of Middle East scholars Bernard Lewis has repeatedly called attention to prevalence of this mindset and the genuine dangers it entails.

But Western scholars again often have difficulty grasping that a thorough-going and sincere religious worldview along these lines is possible – even though it has been actually quite common throughout recorded history.

Even if an immediate military strike on Israel is unlikely (and it is, though that doesn’t mean Israel should be prepared to risk it), that does not mean that there is no risk Iran’s future nuclear weapons will be used. Without any of the religious complications of the Middle East, the US and USSR came very close to escalating into a nuclear exchange during the Cuban missile crisis. This could very easily happen in the Middle East if future violent crises break out, as they almost certainly will.

Furthermore, White seems to assume that a nuclear Iran will introduce a two-way deterrence with Israel, and the US playing perhaps a guarantor role. But it is widely known that the Saudis will almost certainly follow suit – as they hinted again yesterday. Moreover, while the Saudis recently announced their own nuclear program, they may not have to wait for this to mature to gain nuclear weapons – there are persistent reports that Pakistan is prepared to sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, and that Saudi Arabia actually paid for much of the Pakistani nuclear program with this possibility in mind.

Furthermore, once the Saudis and Iranians have nuclear arms, most analysts expect other major regional players – for instance, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq – to follow suit in order to meet the new nuclear standard to be taken seriously as a regional power. Given the violence and volatility of the Middle East, can anyone seriously argue that the chance of a nuclear exchange will be negligible because of deterrence even after multiple nuclear powers emerge, creating a complex and inherently unstable balance of terror in the region?

Then there is the danger of loss of control in Iran, or supply of nuclear weapons to terrorists. As Colin’s Rubenstein’s editorial in this month’s review notes:

The Iranian regime is divided, unstable and unpopular, with a struggle occurring between three sources of power: the clerical Supreme Leader, the President and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IAEA report fingered the IRGC – a body replete with radical true believers whose function includes training terrorist groups around the world – as the organisation principally responsible for the nuclear program. The Iranian regime could fall through an internal power struggle or in one of the popular uprisings that they have so far succeeded in quelling. What would then prevent a renegade group from the IRGC using the nuclear arsenal or providing it to its terrorist allies?

And yet White casually assures us we don’t have to worry about any of this because deterrence will work.

So the more important effect of Tehran’s bomb will be indirect – in the way it shifts the conventional balance of forces in the region. With its own nuclear umbrella, Iran will be much less fearful of attack by its neighbours, and much more willing to use its conventional forces to attack them. Moreover, Washington will be much less likely to intervene. So with nuclear weapons, Iran will stand a much better chance of realising its age-old ambition to dominate the Gulf.

Again, he’s pretty cavalier about a pretty disastrous scenario – and not only for the countries directly involved – if Iran is free to invade its neighbours and dominate the world’s oil supply. Aside from the danger of a nuclear war this could risk (after all, White says the US will provide a nuclear umbrella to these states- but he then assumes that the US and Saudi Arabia will leave them to the wolves if they are invaded by Iranian troops), imagine the havoc Iran could play with the global economy by threatening to shut off a very large percentage of the world’s oil supplies once it did “dominate the Gulf.”

The other big effect of an Iranian bomb will be to neutralise Israel’s nuclear advantage. For decades, Israel has known that if it ever faced defeat on the battlefield, it could stop an invasion by threatening its attackers with nuclear strikes. This threat has been credible as long as Israel has been the region’s only nuclear power. It will stop being credible when Iran can threaten nuclear strike against Israel in retaliation. Then Israel’s survival in a war will again depend on its tank brigades, and they cannot hold back its enemies forever.

This is one of White’s silliest passages because his whole argument here makes no logical sense and clearly hasn’t been thought through. Yes, Israel could currently fall back on nuclear threats or even use if it faced battlefield defeat and an invasion was imminent. It’s happily never had to confront this situation. But now imagine there’s an Iranian nuclear counter. Does this really change the calculus?

The country already faces conventional annihilation in White’s scenario (which I think is pretty unlikely for the foreseeable future). But now, according to White, Israeli leaders say “Wait, we can’t use or threaten to use our nuclear weapons because Iran will retaliate?” But the country’s existence is already at stake – are they really going to commit national suicide rather than risk nuclear retaliation? What do they actually have to lose if the country is going to be destroyed anyway if they don’t act?

In other words, Israel’s ability to use nuclear weapons to deter a conventional attack remains even in a situation of mutual nuclear deterrence. To prove this, one has to only consider the Cold War. After the establishment of a Soviet balance to the US nuclear monopoly by around 1960, did anyone argue that the US was now free to invade Russia, or vice versa, because, the invaded country would never use its nuclear weapons in response, as this would risk nuclear retaliation? Of course not – that would have been crazy. The same applies in this scenario – assuming as White does, that a stable Israel-Iran deterrence applies.

No, the dangers to Israel from a nuclear Iran come from either Iran’s use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in a confrontation with Israel – as described in one of the possibilities described above – or more likely in its ability to dominate the region and create a relentless non-conventional threat to Israel. This would involve converting Israel’s neighbours into radical regimes devoted to confrontation with Israel. This would entail forcing Israel to vastly increase defence spending to counter a conventional threat now largely in abeyance thanks to the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and lack of ability or motivation for conventional war on the part of Israel’s other neighbours. But even more importantly would be the expansion of the “resistance” model pioneered by Hezbollah and Hamas to all of Israel’s borders – involving constant terror and small rocket attacks from all sides. Today, Israel can control this threat through retaliation and the deterrence it creates. With a nuclear Iran backing such groups, this becomes much more difficult and risky.

Such a scenario risks the long-term erosion of Israel’s viability.

All this points to a very uncomfortable conclusion. As Iran becomes stronger, it becomes more important for those with vital interests in the Middle East to get along with it. For America, a stable long-term future for the Gulf is going to be impossible unless the US and Iran can get on better together. That means giving Iran more political space. Not easy.

Here’s the casual pitch to appease Iran – “to get along with it.” He admits its not easy, but does not admit that what Iran is likely to demand – its “political space” – is dominance of the Persian Gulf and a free hand across the region, and that thisis all but impossible for the West to grant – as the Obama Administration found out when it tried a policy of “constructive engagement” with Iran in its first year and a half in office. Is the US really going to give Iran a free hand to, for instance, attempt to overthrow the Saudi government, something they will certainly want?

And of course, there is the cavalier assumption that Iran, with its vision of itself as a leader of a global Islamic revolution, can be appeased, which, based on the history of appeasement, everyone knows is a foolish thing to assume.

More likely is that efforts will have to be made to contain Iran, which as a new study from Thomas Donnelly, Danielle Pletka, and Maseh Zarif of the American Enterprise Institute makes clear is far from a cheap or easy policy to implement, and may actually be more risky and expensive than the admittedly difficult and costly use of force to prevent Iran going nuclear.

For Israel, it means all the compelling arguments against compromise with its neighbours run up against the cold, unsentimental logic of power. Iran’s nuclear program is just one, very important, reflection of the fact that time is not on Israel’s side.

Here is perhaps the least informed passage in the whole poorly thought out essay. It is “realist” rhetoric about “the cold, unsentimental logic of power” in the service of an ignorant and far from “realistic” expression of conventional wisdom on the Middle East – “Israel must make ‘concessions’ to its neighbours in order to gain peace and security.” What’s wrong with this proposition is two fold – the casual assumptions that peace is being blocked by a lack of Israeli concessions, and that once a peace deal is reached, Israel’s peace and security will be guaranteed.

As I have noted previously, the whole impasse over recent years between Israel and the Palestinians is not over whether Israel will offer enough “concessions” to allow a two-state resolution, it is over the question of whether Palestinia statehood means that the conflict is over, and peace becomes the norm. This is what the whole Palestinian unilateral efforts at the UN in recent months, and the ongoing refusal to negotiate directly with Israel are about. I can’t assemble all the evidence in this space, but I strongly recommend the Update I published last week on the “Palestinians at a Crossroads”, and especially the third piece in it from Foreign Affairs by Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner to explain this reality in more depth.

With more States like Egypt move into the rejectionist/Islamist camp in the wake of the Arab Spring, it today looks less likely than ever that Israel can fully guarantee its security through a two-state resolution, no matter how many “concessions” it offers.

But even White must be aware that Iran does not seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal – it vehemently objects to one and insists Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Moreover, it is in a position, through sponsorship of radical Palestinian groups, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon, to prevent any peace, or if one is reached, to attempt to convert a new Palestinian state into a launching pad for additional and relentless “resistance” attacks on Israel.

Indeed, in cold , authentically realist terms, it makes much more sense for Israel to conclude that if Iran is going to go nuclear as White predicts, the one thing it cannot risk is a Palestinian state in the West Bank turning into an Iranian base. White’s assumption that enough Israel concessions will appease a rampant nuclear Iran and guarantee Israel’s future security against all its neighbours is a departure from his usual “realist” approach into a political philosophy that can be best described as “pollyanna-ist.”

Tzvi Fleischer



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