Paul Pillar

Worst-Casing and Best-Casing Iran

The latest blurt in the campaign to launch a war with Iran can be found in the respected pages of that venerable organ of the foreign-policy establishment, Foreign Affairs. The article, by Matthew Kroenig, is so far removed from anything resembling careful analysis that one would hardly know where to start in inventorying its flaws. It has falsehoods: e.g. that “according to the IAEA, Iran already appears fully committed to developing a nuclear weapons program.” (Actually, what the IAEA reported was instead that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”) It has fantasy scenarios to scare you, such as the hoary old specter of a regime giving nuclear technology to terrorists (notwithstanding that there is no evidence of such a thing happening in the more than six decades of the nuclear age, and no reason given by Kroenig or anyone else why Iran would ever have an incentive to do so). It has scattershot assertions that are sprayed at the reader with no apparent effort to paint a coherent picture, let alone an accurate one. For example, Kroenig addresses the effect that a U.S. attack would have on Iranian politics by first saying that hard-liners are so firmly in control that politics couldn't get any worse in Tehran anyway, then saying that a Rafsanjani or a Mousavi would continue the nuclear program (probably true of a peaceful program, but Kroenig is implying weapons), then saying an attack “might actually create more openings for dissidents,” then saying that even if an attack strengthened hard-liners this wouldn't really matter anyway—all within five sentences and with no reference to Iranian oppositionists' own belief that a U.S. attack would be one of the worst things that could happen to them.

You can save time in trying to make sense of this article by reading Stephen Walt's superb commentary on it. Walt captures succinctly the overall approach that characterizes not only Kroenig's piece but also the larger pro-war campaign of which it is typical. When addressing the consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, the war proponents worst-case everything—the discussion is all about the most frightening, most aggressive things that Iran could conceivably do and the most deleterious repercussions one could imagine. But when addressing the consequences of an attack on Iran, everything is best-cased. Nothing but the rosiest assumptions are made about Iranian reactions and other effects of launching a war.

This is not only a highly inconsistent mode of argumentation; it also presents a highly inconsistent picture of Iran. The same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things, according to Kroenig, turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S.-declared “redlines,” once the United States starts waging war on it. The one further observation to add is that insofar as Iranian behavior over time might exhibit any such inconsistencies, it would be in the opposite direction from what Kroenig describes. Ample history demonstrates that having one's homeland become the target of an armed attack is the event most likely to lead even the most inward-looking and peace-loving nation to strike back forcefully. It is what happened to Americans with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Kroenig's article, like other war-promoting pieces, never provides any analysis to support the oft-repeated notion, which Kroenig himself repeats, that possession of nuclear weapons would somehow lead to Iran behaving more aggressively in its region even if it never actually fired the weapons. Walt notes that nuclear weapons simply don't work that way. I have examined this particular question with regard to Iran. Rather than analysis, the notion of greater Iranian aggressiveness is supported by nothing more than a vague sense that somehow those nukes ought to make such a difference. Kroenig imparts a patina of Cold War respectability to some of his assertions by stating that Iran and Israel lack many of the “safeguards” that kept the United States and the USSR out of a nuclear exchange. But actually his piece ignores the rich and extensive body of strategy and doctrine developed during the Cold War that explains things like escalation dominance and that underlies Walt's correct observation about what nuclear weapons can and cannot do. Herman Kahn, the Cold War's foremost guru of escalation, would be rolling over in his sizable grave if he could see what passes for analysis in Kroenig's piece.

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