Neocons Dream Up Scary Iran Scenarios

As American neocons continue to walk the United States toward another war in the Middle East, this time with Iran, they have been laboring to come up with rationales, including alarmist scenarios of what a nuclear-armed Iran might do geopolitically, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The alarmism about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is unmatched by any comparably intense attention to exactly why such a possibility is supposedly so dire.

Among the voluminous opinion pieces, panel discussions, campaign rhetoric and miscellaneous outcries on facets of this subject, one could search in vain for any detailed analysis of just what difference the advent of an Iranian nuke would make. Most of the discourse on the topic simply seems to take as a given, not needing any analysis, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be so bad that to prevent it warrants considering even extreme measures.

Recently Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy produced what appears to fill this gap. His monograph, titled “Nuclear Weapons and Iran’s Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios,” is, at least on the face of it, a serious effort to analyze the regional and global consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

It is the most extensive consideration of this question I have seen from anyone who clearly believes that an Iranian nuke would be very bad. As such, Jain deserves credit for taking this stab at the subject. As a serious, extensive effort, his paper can be taken as demonstrating the limits of any case about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Jain begins by stacking the deck in describing the Iranian objectives that presumably would underlie any use to which the Iranians would put a nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a “pragmatic regime” driven primarily by “a desire to protect and deter outside attack” would be far different, he says, from their possession by an “ideological regime,” which is the label he pins on Iran.

This is consistent with much of the alarmist rhetoric, which depicts the Iranian regime as somehow fundamentally different from most governments in how it thinks and operates and what it aspires to. But what exactly defines an “ideological regime” and distinguishes it from a “pragmatic regime”?

There is plenty of ideology floating around, some of which has significant implications for foreign policy and international security, and the more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the regime in Tehran isn’t so different after all.

This example ought to be too obvious to need pointing out, but we recently had a government right here in Washington that got so influenced by an ideology (in this case, the neoconservative kind) that it launched a major offensive war of choice thousands of miles away, at much cost and misery to the United States. Is this what Jain means by an “ideological regime”?

Jain allows that “some analysts” see the Iranian regime, like many other regimes, concerned with its own survival and with deterring and preventing hostile actions from those who have given it good reason to be perceived as threats, in this case, Israel or the United States. Then he dismisses this view in a single sentence as “inconsistent not only with Iranian activities on the ground but with the longstanding public statements of its own leaders.”

But he never actually addresses the record of Iranian activities on the ground. That record in fact shows a lot of pragmatism and even caution.

Jain does go on to quote at length the public statements of Iranian leaders, to depict an Iran driven by revolutionary and aggressive objectives, but does not weigh any of this rhetoric against the fundamental interests of defense and survival. He also does not distinguish between what is merely rhetoric or political blather for domestic or international purposes and what represents genuine, active objectives of the Islamic Republic.

None of this, however, is what is most significant about Jain’s paper and what it demonstrates about the limits of argumentation about an Iranian nuclear weapon supposedly being a dire threat. Jain does not fall back on the familiar but crude notion of Iranian leaders as a bunch of mad mullahs who are irrational, cannot be deterred and cannot be trusted not to push the launch button for any crazy reason.

Instead Jain takes the more sophisticated approach one more often hears in discussions of this subject among policy elites: that the real danger of an Iranian nuke is not that Tehran would launch a nuclear bolt out of the blue but instead that such capability would somehow lead to other forms of aggressive or dangerous Iranian behavior.

The Iran he depicts is not an irrational actor but instead a very calculating one that pursues an assortment of regional and global objectives. And so most of Jain’s paper is a scenario-by-scenario rendition of all kinds of nastiness that Iran could conceivably perpetrate, either within its own region or farther field.

The possibilities discussed run from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. All of these scenarios are put under the heading “Iran as a Nuclear Weapons State”. And each scenario has a subsection titled “Impact of a Nuclear Capability.”

But here’s the main thing to notice: nowhere is there any explanation of exactly how and why a nuclear capability would make a difference in Iranian behavior. The most that Jain can offer is to assert several times that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability” it might do thus-and-so. We never get an explanation of exactly how such a shield should be expected to work.

The scenarios are basically just a spinning out of an assortment of things one could imagine Iran doing, some of which have some relationship to things Iran is already doing and some of which are only flights of fancy. Nuclear weapons play hardly any role in these products of imagination.

In this respect Jain’s approach is again typical of most of the ringing of the Iranian nuclear alarm bell one hears in sophisticated policy advocacy. The idea is that armed with a nuke, Iran would somehow become more aggressive and troublesome because it would be feeling its oats. (Jain doesn’t use this phrase, but I have heard others arguing in the same direction use exactly those words.) The argument really is that vague.

If one is to get beyond arguments that are as mushy as oatmeal and to try to put together a more rigorous analysis, several things would be required to conclude that the advent of a nuclear weapon would change Iranian behavior. One is that there is something Tehran wants to do and sees it as in its interest to do but, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, is not doing now.

Second, the reason Iran is not doing that behavior now is that someone else is holding over its head a threat of retribution or retaliation if it were to indulge in the behavior. Third, the other party would no longer wield such a threat if Iran had a nuclear weapon, and the reason it no longer would wield the threat is that it considers it credible that Iran would escalate to the nuclear level whatever matter is in dispute.

I have thought hard to come up with plausible scenarios that meet these requirements and have been unable to do so. The last requirement, about credibility of escalation to the nuclear level, is especially hard to meet. I have not heard from anyone else any plausible scenarios that meet these requirements either.

Applying this kind of rigor to Jain’s scenarios reveals how inapplicable a change in Iran’s nuclear status would be to any of them. To take one example in which he endeavors to mention nuclear weapons beyond the general “shield” notion, he talks about Hizballah and Hamas possibly becoming more emboldened because Iran might extend a nuclear umbrella to these groups.

So in the face of Israel’s overwhelming nuclear superiority, Iranian decision-makers would be willing to risk Tehran to save Gaza? Could Tehran expect anyone to believe that? Another of Jain’s scenarios, which is to create in league with Venezuela a latter-day version of the Cuban missile crisis, stretches credibility even more.

The crude and sophisticated versions of the alarm-ringing are not all that different, because the sophisticated version ultimately depends on the credibility of Iranian leaders, under certain circumstances, actually pushing that launch button.

Jain concedes that “the United States might succeed in deterring Iran’s use of nuclear weapons, as well as direct military aggression against its allies” but contends that the intimidation, subversion and other behaviors he discusses “could pose a greater challenge.” The fatal flaw in the argument is that if the use of nuclear weapons is not credible because it is deterred, than the mere possession of such a weapon is strategically incapable of shielding other behavior.

A presentation such as Jain’s, given all the extensive scenario-building involving a wide variety of things that most of us can agree we would not like to see Iran do, coupled with the window-dressing about “impact of a nuclear capability,” can create the impression that a lot of awful stuff could really happen as a result of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

But take a second look, bearing in mind that the issue is not how many unpleasant things we can conceive of Iran doing, but rather what difference a nuclear capability would make in its ability or inclination to do those things, and there isn’t really any substance there.

One should also note how much all of this type of argumentation is not a matter of what is probable but instead only of what is possible and what Iran “could” do. (Sounds a lot like all that war-selling rhetoric about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with his presumed weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t it?)

Jain is not being deceptive; he duly acknowledges that he is dwelling in the realm of mere possibilities. But we ought to keep this in mind when we get to what we all know this is eventually about. “At some point,” says Jain in his conclusion, “the costs and risks of more coercive options, including military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, may have to be weighed against the costs and risks of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear capability.”

Indeed, let there be such a weighing. And when such a weighing is done, let the same standards for assessing costs and risks be applied to the coercive options as are applied to an Iranian nuclear capability.

If assessment of the costs and risks of militarily attacking Iran ranged as fancifully far into mere possibilities and bad things that “could” happen as do the discussions in Jain’s paper and elsewhere of the costs and risks of an Iranian nuke, then the consequences to U.S. interests of a resort to military force would be seen to be not just very bad but horrendous.

Meanwhile, Jain deserves compliments for making perhaps the most extensive attempt I have seen to construct an argument about the hazards of an Iranian nuclear weapon. As such, his paper enables us to see just what such an argument consists of. No real shield or anything else substantial. Just some oats.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared in The National Interest.)

12 comments for “Neocons Dream Up Scary Iran Scenarios

  1. flat5
    January 13, 2012 at 09:16

    The Intrigues of Persia

    Humanitarian gestures and covert actions won’t stop Iran’s bomb..

    As a supervisor at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was engaged in building a nuclear bomb in violation of four binding U.N. Security Council resolutions. On Wednesday he was assassinated after a bomb was attached to his car, making him the fifth senior Iranian nuclear scientist known to have been killed in recent years.

    His death will serve a useful purpose if it convinces a critical mass of his colleagues to cease pursuing an atomic critical mass. That wouldn’t be a bad way to bring the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program to a peaceful conclusion. But don’t count on it.

    Opponents of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions have been attempting for years to use a combination of diplomacy, sanctions and covert action to persuade the mullahs that they have more to lose than gain from building a bomb. So far, none of it has worked: Diplomacy has mostly allowed the Iranians to play for time. Sanctions so far have been too narrowly targeted to have much effect, though that may change now that the U.S. and Europe are finally targeting Iran’s oil trade.

    As for covert activity, we may someday learn the full story of who did what, how they did it, and what effect it all had. But to judge by last November’s report on Iran’s nuclear programs by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran is closer than ever to a bomb. That’s despite the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassinations, and last year’s mysterious explosion at a missile factory.

    What goes in the cloak-and-dagger world also goes for public diplomacy. Americans can take pride in last week’s dramatic rescue by the destroyer USS Kidd of 13 Iranian sailors who had spent 40 days as hostages of Somali pirates. But if the Administration thought that would break the tension following Iran’s threats over the Strait of Hormuz, Tehran had other ideas.

    Days after the Kidd rescue, Iran imposed a death sentence on 28-year-old Amir Hekmati, an Arizona-born Iranian-American and former U.S. Marine. Mr. Hekmati was charged with spying for the CIA and convicted of being moharebe, or an enemy of God, the worst offense in the Iranian penal code. The U.S. government categorically denies that Mr. Hekmati worked as a spy. His family says he was in Iran on his first visit to see his grandmothers when he was arrested last August.

    The Islamic Republic has a long history of detaining foreigners on dubious espionage charges and then trying to use them as diplomatic bargaining chips. But if Mr. Hekmati is simply their latest victim, the death sentence is unprecedented for an American citizen. It is also a reminder of how little U.S. gestures like Thursday’s rescue count in Tehran’s calculus. An evil regime will not be swayed by the conspicuous performance of good deeds.

    Much of the world wants to believe that force won’t be necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the explosions and killings show that a covert war involving deadly force is already underway. The Obama Administration says Iran plotted to kill a Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, and Iran is trying to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as it previously did in Iraq. Many more people will die if the world doesn’t get serious about stopping this rogue regime.
    Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page 16

  2. charles sereno
    January 12, 2012 at 19:09

    Mr. Pillar gives us a rare example of reasoned, comprehensive analysis. While Ash Jain may appear to be a straw man, he is indeed one of the best picks of a sad lot. I would like to pose a more challenging question to Mr. Pillar. Could you compare and contrast Israel in the 60’s and Iran today with regard to a nuclear option?

  3. Carax
    January 12, 2012 at 02:40

    The US has been meddling in other country’s affairs for decades and not tending to the business of helping its own people. It’s time for nation building in North America for a change. But this will not happen. The covert war with Iran has already begun. We have a Nobel “Peace” Prize President in the back pocket of the Pentagon who is also busy undermining Venezuela with a view toward toppling President Hugo Chavez – maybe because that country makes the American Dream look bad; Chavez has rid his country of the parasitic oligarchy that used to run the country, the people there now have free health care, free education from kindergarten to university, guaranteed civil rights, etc.

  4. knowbuddhau
    January 11, 2012 at 12:37

    Thanks for focusing on the myth-making inherent in our violent system. For an interesting exercise, substitute “mythology” for reductive synonym, “ideology.”

    What’s the power of myth got to do with geopolitics? It’s the power that brings into being the world stage on which we’re playing our oh, so notorious parts. It’s the power by which the imperialist intentions of TPTB are materializing (literally, putting into material form) this world of hurt we live in. Our intentions, amplified by the power of myth, materialize our realities. Want to change reality? Change the metaphors through which we envision it.

    I’d like to see Consortiumnews examine myth-making as a tool of all policies, foreign and domestic. And there’s one policy in particular that I’d most like to see exposed and renounced.

    It’s all about the Pentagon’s absolutely hubristic delusion: that it can assert “full-spectrum dominance” over all earthly life, forever.

    Think about it, my fellow Americans: How can DOD achieve FSD abroad, if it doesn’t obtain here at home? “Full-spectrum dominance” means exactly that! It includes us. IOW, NDAA.

    Joint Vision 2020 Emphasizes Full-spectrum Dominance

    By Jim Garamone
    American Forces Press Service

    WASHINGTON, June 2, 2000 – “Full-spectrum dominance” is the key term in “Joint Vision 2020,” the blueprint DoD will follow in the future.

    Joint Vision 2020, released May 30 and signed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry Shelton, extends the concept laid out in Joint Vision 2010. Some things will not change. The mission of the U.S. military today and tomorrow is to fight and win the nation’s wars. How DoD goes about doing this is 2020’s focus.

    Full-spectrum dominance means the ability of U.S. forces, operating alone or with allies, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the range of military operations.

    Joint Vision 2020 addresses full-spectrum dominance across the range of conflicts from nuclear war to major theater wars to smaller-scale contingencies. It also addresses amorphous situations like peacekeeping and noncombat humanitarian relief. Key to U.S. dominance in any conflict will be what the chairman calls “decision superiority” — translating information superiority into better decisions arrived at and implemented faster than an enemy can react.

    The development of a global information grid will provide the environment for decision superiority.

    That was written in 2000. Now we know what they meant by “global information grid:” warrantless wiretapping, surveillance drones, online PSYOP, etc.

    FSD is DOD’s attempt to assume the role of GOD.

  5. January 11, 2012 at 10:14

    As a response to “truth”… the first comment above.

    Truly pathetic hate mongering based on fantasy and lack of information.

    “There about to be extinct…kill…all of them…”…are you joking?

    Their….their! Not THERE. Learn how to spell and the proper use of words.
    And what amazing lack of intelligence is displayed in that short ditty.

    I guess U.S. and British intelligence agency backed ouster of their duly elected government back in 1953 and the installation of the SHAH and his oppressive regime in order to assure western dominance of their (note proper use of word) oil resources shouldn’t contribute to any sense of paranoia on the part of Iran.

    What 30 years of aggression? The only significant military action taken by Iran has been against Iraq, and that only because of attacks by the U.S. backed Saddam in an insane, pointless(aren’t all wars?) genocidal (to both nations) war that managed to snuff out millions in the 70’s and 80’s. Hmmm…Donald Rumsfeld meets and greets and sells stuff to Sadaam in 1983? Hmmm…Cheney was the head of Halliburton with no stake in middle eastern oil?….hmmm no need to be concerned…look away from the curtain, there’s nothing there little girl…

    Get a life. Get a brain. Use it. Read the facts. Stop the hate.

    • Eddie
      January 12, 2012 at 00:07

      I agree 100% with your two paragraphs assessing the US history in Iran. It’s pitiful when you think about how the US helped foment the Iran/Iraq War back in the early 80s, when Saddam was at his worst (and we were supplying him intelligence support from our spy satellite data, among other things), which reportedly resulted in approximately 1,000,000 deaths… and yet we’re always trying to pass ourself off as the ‘humanitarian intervenor’. Iran hasn’t gone around to the other side of the world numerous times, with 7 aircraft carrier groups, nuclear armed submarines, drones, etc, etc, but yet THEY’RE the wild rogue aggressor because they MIGHT be developing their FIRST nuclear weapon?? This US exceptionalism/hubris is seemingly open-ended, with no upper boundary. I suspect that the only thing which MAY stop it is when it gets way too expensive, and we may be approaching that.

      A quick note about calling-out the troll on his use of the wrong ‘there’ in “there about to be extinct” – – – the correct term should actually be “they’re”, the contraction for ‘they are’. The ‘their’ that you referred to is a possessive adjective denoting ownership or belonging, and isn’t appropriate in this sentence (though I’m sure it doesn’t make any difference to the guy who wrote it anyway).

  6. truth
    January 11, 2012 at 09:08

    what a load of cowardly crap your spreading,iran has been attacking us for 30 years its payback time,there about to be extinct, hopefully we will kill all of them

    • Fibonacci65
      January 11, 2012 at 09:44

      Insanity–both your response and the neocons drumming up excuses for wars. yeah, that worked well in, oh let’s see–Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Iran is not Grenada (the only war the US has recently won, by the way) and it has not been attacking anyone for 30 years–the neocons have been attacking the US for all those years, get some facts into your life, please.

    • Hossein
      January 11, 2012 at 12:26

      bomb bomb bomb Iran? sounds like the neoCon zionist agenda . It’s unconscionable, and one out of 25 people are born sociopaths, unable for their entire life to form a fully functional humane conscience… I find that these unconscionable people raise a lot of hatred which comes back at them… I can spot a sociopath by the way he walks, the words he choses, their blindness to their inappropriateness.. it’s like a flag they carry with them and they do not know they are waving it.. to the sociopath “freedom and Liberty” is escape from conscience.. to them conscience is a restriction on their “freedom and Liberty” so they attack every hint or expression of conscience like it was their worse enemy. On that they are correct. The Iranian Government is a Constitutional Democratic Republic -Parliamentary type- all elected to office.. and The Government has a Department of Conscience with preemptive veto power on all that government does…

    • bilejones
      January 11, 2012 at 16:52

      Another barking mad fear crazed moron.
      Must be American.

      • Lester Shepherd
        January 12, 2012 at 23:39

        You got it! A moron!

        I wonder why Korea doesn’t give Iran a bomb or two?

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