Paul Pillar

Tackling a Problem Does Not Equal Attacking It

A sleight-of-hand is taking place in discourse about the Iranian nuclear program that also occurred in the selling of the Iraq War. That earlier sales campaign promoted a false equation: that a presumed unconventional weapons program in a troublesome country is equivalent to a case to attack the country with military force. That they are not equivalent is demonstrated by any careful consideration (which the administration of George W. Bush never conducted) of the logic and policy options involved. It also is demonstrated by the fact that many people both in the United States and abroad who believed that the Iraqi regime had active unconventional weapons programs nonetheless also believed that a war in Iraq was unwise. Subsequent history demonstrated that they were right about the war being unwise, and they would have been right regardless of the status of unconventional weapons programs in Iraq. But the war-makers in the administration managed to persuade enough other people in the United States of the false equation to launch their war. Part of the persuasion was to propound the notion, also false, that more peaceful alternatives had been exhausted. One of the too-little-remembered aspects of pre-war history was that it was the regime in Washington, not the one in Baghdad, that kicked international weapons inspectors out of Iraq before the war.

There clearly are major differences with the current issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the most obvious of which is that we do not have an incumbent president or a cabal in the current administration that is hankering to start a new war. And with an openly declared uranium enrichment program in Iran, the factual issues of what is taking place regarding weapons programs in the country in question are different. But there is again agitation for a new war, even if it is not coming from the administration of the day. There is again the false notion that alternative courses of action are about to be exhausted (if still more pressure and still more sanctions do not get the Iranians to cry uncle), even though major alternative strategies toward Iran, involving comprehensive engagement and safeguards surrounding acceptance of an Iranian enrichment program, have gone untried. And there is again—and this is the sleight-of-hand—an emerging false equation between, on one hand, having reasons to be concerned about Iranian nuclear activities and to devote a considerable amount of policy attention to the issue and, on the other hand, having a case to launch a war against Iran.

The slippery rhetorical conflation involved is most recently apparent in commentary about the diplomatic cables compromised by WikiLeaks, as they relate to Arab views about Iran. I addressed this briefly two days ago; since then there has been still more commentary and still more blurring of the distinction—and it is an important distinction—between how Arabs worry about Iran, including its nuclear program, and the sentiments the same Arabs have toward a possible U.S. or Israeli military attack against Iran. The dominant posture among Persian Gulf Arabs, which came through clearly in numerous conversations when I was in the Gulf region this spring, is that they do worry about Iran and hope that we are worrying too but that they do not want any military attacks, which would be the most dangerous and destabilizing thing that could happen in their neighborhood. See the informative comments on this subject from Marc Lynch, who observes, “The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis.”

Even without blurring the key issues involving Iran, any careful consideration of those issues leads to the conclusion that a military attack on Iran would be a colossal mistake. The dangers of a nuclear armed Iran are most often merely assumed, not analyzed, and overrated. The negative consequences of going to war are barely considered at all. I will explore those topics further at other times. The current point is that we should at least start by keeping the issues straight, clear, and distinct. Even analytically impoverished hawks ought to be able to accept that. And even if an Iranian nuclear weapon were worth losing sleep over, that is very, very different from having reason to start a new war, which would give us reason to have far more sleepless nights.