Why Wait To Disarm Iran?
There's no possible advantage in waiting until Tehran has nukes.
A contradiction must be faced by those of us who don't especially like the propaganda name neoconservative but who wish that there was a useful term for someone who favors a robust American attitude toward totalitarian and aggressive states. This contradiction often takes the form of wanting to emphasize a threat without overstating it. One can begin by viewing this argument from its opposite side. In the recent past, extremely nasty and dangerous one-party or one-man regimes in Serbia and Iraq have made real trouble for their neighbors and been a nightmare to their "own" people and have mocked all the canons of international law but have been considered by many commentators as too risky to confront. Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn't want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command. If NATO bombed the Serbian positions around Sarajevo, say, it would unleash a monster of reaction that would draw a Russian intervention on the side of Belgrade, trigger a massive backlash throughout the Balkans, drown the region in bloodshed and "a wider war," and all that. Likewise, a military move against Saddam Hussein would incite him to saturate our troops with chemical weapons, ignite the oilfields, destroy Israel, inflame the "Arab street," and overthrow every friendly Middle Eastern government, etc., etc. Those of us who wanted to get rid of these hideous governments were bombarded with arguments that said, in effect, they are not only a threat but actually a lethal threat, and their forces are made up of people who are 10 feet tall. The contradiction cut both ways, in other words.
So, much kudos to David Ignatius of the Washington Post for his column last Friday, in which he restates the findings of a little-known trade publication with the arcane name ofNucleonics Week. To quote directly, the article reports that there might be some reason to think that:
Iran's supply of low-enriched uranium—the potential feed-stock for nuclear bombs—appears to have certain "impurities" that "could cause centrifuges to fail" if the Iranians try to boost it to weapons grade.
Among other things, this could explain why Iran is cynically negotiating to send its low-enriched uranium to other states, such as France and Russia, to have it enhanced to a higher grade. Such a move, of course, would also be compatible with a "peaceful" program, if anyone is left who believes that this is all the Islamic republic really wants.
So backward has the theocracy made its wretched country that it is even vulnerable to sanctions on refined petroleum, for heaven's sake. Unlike neighboring secular Turkey, which has almost no oil but is almost qualified—at least economically—to join the European Union, Iran is as much a pistachio-and-rug-exporting country as it was when the sadistic medievalists first seized power. So it wouldn't be surprising in the least if a regime that has no genuine respect for science and no internal self-critical feedback had screwed up its rogue acquisition of modern weaponry. A system in which nothing really works except the military and the police will, like North Korea, end up producing somewhat spastic missiles and low-yield nukes, as well.
But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to "break-out" as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?
Remember that Iran acquired a good deal of its original materiel on the black market, buying through proxies and using other means of deception, before anyone knew what was going on. This in turn means that it would be very much harder to acquire replacement supplies, in the face of continuing invigilation from the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and several intelligence services. Logically, then, even a minor disruption or dislocation of one of the existing key Iranian sites could have the effect of retarding the whole tenuous program for quite a while. And in the meanwhile, the internal clock of Iranian society is running against the continuation of outright dictatorship. So who should be scared of whom?
I have never been present for any discussion of any measures that could even thinkably be taken against Tehran that does not focus obsessively and exclusively on the possibly calamitous outcomes. Israel hits Iran and—well, you fill in the rest. The target sites are, anyway, too much dispersed and too deeply buried. You know how it goes. Apparently, nothing can be done that does not make a bad situation worse. It is as if there could be a worse outcome than the nuclear armament of a lawless messianic state that tore up every agreement it signed even as it bought further time while signing it.
In that case, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and many others should never have said that such an eventuality was unacceptable. They should have said that there were some conditions under which it was acceptable, and also clearly specified what those conditions were. If there's no saber in the scabbard, then at least don't make the vulgar mistake of rattling it.
Against this, we are at least entitled to consider the idea that a decaying regime that is bluffing and buying (or rather stealing) time on weapons of mass destruction is in a condition that makes this the best moment to do at least something to raise the cost of the lawlessness and to slow down and sabotage the preparations. Or might it be better to wait and to fight later on more equal terms? Just asking.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images.