False Fears About a Nuclear Iran

We've heard this warning before. It's still wrong.


"The stupidest thing I have ever heard." — Meir Dagan, former head of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, on attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Stupid it may be, but it's also the hottest trend since the iPhone. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last year that if Iran proceeds toward acquiring a nuclear arsenal, "we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the same thing.

The Republican presidential candidates (except Ron Paul) strain to outdo each other in bellicose rhetoric. Mitt Romney says, "If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon." Newt Gingrich promises, "Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon." Rick Santorum is prepared to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.

The United States and Israel are keeping their powder dry, but that could change anytime. A report in The Washington Post said, "Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June."

The prevailing wisdom among policymakers, in short, bears an eerie resemblance to the Iraq consensus of 2002. We and the Israelis allegedly faced an intolerable peril from a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction and a lust for aggression. Fortunately, we were told, it was nothing that a short, sudden military attack wouldn't solve.

But in Iraq, it turned out the solution was anything but quick or easy—and the danger was vastly exaggerated. And in Iran? Ditto.

"The working assumption that it is possible to totally halt the Iranian nuclear project by means of a military attack is incorrect," Dagan recently told The New York Times. "There is no such military capability. It is possible to cause a delay, but even that would only be for a limited period of time."

Another prominent Mossad veteran, Rafi Eitan, said the attack would delay Iran's nuclear program "not even three months."

Americans may be led to assume we will pay no price. But Iran has innumerable options for "asymmetric" retaliation—attacking our ships in the Persian Gulf, sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan or the United States, and ordering its Lebanese Hezbollah ally to rain rockets on Israel. We may find that fighting a war with Iran is like making love to a gorilla: You don't stop when you're done; you stop when the gorilla is done.

Why is everyone so eager to plunge into another war? Because of another false fear: that a nuclear-armed Iran will use its new arsenal to obliterate the Jewish state or bully its neighbors.

This panic requires a total disregard for everything we have learned during the nuclear age. Over the past 60 years, assorted enemies and rivals have acquired nuclear stockpiles: the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan and North Korea. All of them have learned that they are useless as offensive weapons against other nuclear states and their allies.

The reason is simple: Any nation that carries out a nuclear attack assures itself of cataclysmic retaliation. You can't win a nuclear war. You can only lose one.

Alarmists claim the past is irrelevant because the mullahs in Tehran are an entirely different enemy: willing to accept national annihilation for the brief pleasure of erasing Israel. But if the Iranians were bent on mass martyrdom, they could have found a simpler way.

The incineration of Israel could be done with conventional weapons—remember what the U.S. did to Dresden and Tokyo?—which are far easier to acquire in bulk than nukes. For some reason, Iran has passed on this option.

China was equally terrifying back when it was developing nuclear weapons. The dictator Mao Zedong declared, "We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution." President Kennedy, however, wisely rejected a preemptive attack.

North Korea provoked intense anxiety when it built the bomb. But in the ensuing years, it has been no more or less intractable or belligerent than before.

Alarmists insist that an Iranian bomb would set off a regional arms race, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey hastening to get their own. But they already face a worrisome neighbor with a nuclear arsenal: Israel. None has seen the need for a comparable deterrent.

The world has seen the rise of one nuclear state after another without the outbreak of nuclear war or nuclear blackmail. Yet this one, we are told, will change the world in ways we cannot tolerate. We've heard that warning before. It's still wrong.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.