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14 January 2006


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does this mean you support airstrikes?

W. Patrick Lang


What I support means nothing except to me. What do you support? pl


Don't know yet, but I do think the US ought to propose direct talks. Sanctions strike me as a dead end.

W. Patrick Lang


"Direct Talks." Good idea. pl


"but the rational among us know that this will not happen."

How do you know that?

Are "the rational among us" the ones in charge?


I don't know what action I would support against Iran. Hostile action by the U.S. against Iran will almost certainly further inflame the region. I take Colonel Lang's point that Iran with a nuke is very dangerous. However, in my opinion the most dangerous country in the world right now is Pakistan. They already have nukes and to paraphrase a retired General, they are one bullet away from a change in leadership that would be hostile to us. I don't know if the costs of hostile action against Iran might not outweigh the benefits.

The one thing I am certain of is that we need an informed discussion in the U.S. about our role in addressing the Iran nuke problem. Assertions by President Bush are not an acceptable substitute for an informed discussion that gives us the pros and cons of any action we might take. Any decision we make has to be driven by the best analysis we can assemble and not by the idealogues that have given us the mess in Iraq.


Alvord, who do trust to give us an informed discussion? The news media? Hah, they're just stenographers for the administration. In the meantime, Iran is laughing at us, saying "Oh yeah? you and what Army?"

I fear for the future of my country and the world.


PL, it was NOT a rhetorical quip.

Jerry Thompson

Memo to self: Deterrence works. For over ten years now we have been deterred by the North Koreans. Had a politician had the courage to say those words ten years ago, maybe we might have treated Iran (and Iraq as well) more seriously. Now we are deterred in the Gulf. Two problems we've never taken seriously: (1) How to conduct operations without air superiority? and (2) What strategies to adopt when operations are deterred?

Susan in Iowa

Colonel Lang, There was an article in the Atlantic Monthly a year ago that discussed options against Iran going nuclear. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200412/fallows
The article discussed a "war game" exercise conducted with people who have served in various parts of the government. The conclusion of that piece was that we have to talk to Iran, while seeming to be prepared to attack them.

If this conclusion is correct, we should not be outsourcing diplomacy entirely to Europeans. We have the "hammer" of the American military, or what's left of it. The EU3 are in less of a position to coerce Iran if we refuse to join them at the table.

I think the record in Iraq does not give confidence that we would handle a military move against Iraq intelligently. I have respect for our military, but the civilian leadership has made poor decisions, and there is no reason to think that will change. Our previous diplomacy has not been very effective, either. We took the position that we would not talk directly, as though somehow we get cooties if we talk to an adversary.

But I do not see how we can do nothing. I think Iran and North Korea are far more threatening than Iraq ever was, even with those pesky WMDs. We should involve China, Russia, and the Saudis in solving the problem by convincing them that it is in their self-interest not to have a nuclear-armed Iran. We need to recognize that a nuclear-armed Israel is a legitimate concern for its neighbors, and address that concern without detracting from Israel's security. We need to be actively and directly involved with Iran, to at least delay what is happening there. I think the Secretary of State must make this her top priority, and our UN ambassador should be duct-taped to a chair so he can't escalate hostilities with intemperate remarks.


Intereseting that no one has discussed Iran's primary motivation for wanting the bomb. The Iran-Iraq War (and the recent invasion of Iraq) taught Iran all it needed to know about the value of nukes. 1986-1988 saw the U.S. intervene directly in the Iran-Iraq War by doing tanker escort operations for the Kuwaitis. Those operations prevented Iran from cutting off Iraq's oil lifeline. Iran learned that they needed to be able to close the Persian Gulf to guarantee their security. Nukes are the only means to do that. Recent U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have left Iran surrounded by U.S. bases.

If I'm sitting in Tehran, I want nukes to ensure my survival and freedom of action. And that, by the way, is a view that is held across the entire Iranian political spectrum. The only dispute on nukes is how aggressive to be in pursuing them.

Against that backdrop, it will take RADICAL changes in U.S. policy and military posture in the Persian Gulf to convince them to take a different approach.


Col. -

It goes without saying that without the invasion of WMD-less Iraq, we would have better options all around against the very real and present danger of a nuclear Iran. On the diplomatic front, given our international standing as a debtor nation to China and a democracy advocate for Russia, we would have to make a real solid case for either of those countries to help put real pressure on Iran. Any chance there, you think? India? Well, they're living next to Pakistan as it is and they could use the Iranian oil, I'd guess.

I notice you say air strikes could "set back" the Iranian program enough to be considered worthwhile. It would seem wise to calibrate the benefits as precisely as possible before we fly in. Given a massive air campaign, all those moderate Iranians - many whom probably don't like the religious authorities but probably for reasons of national pride (see Pakistan) and deterrence (dangerous neighborhood) - would be at best marginalized, worst radicalized. The Iranian regime would take the gloves off - our soldiers wouldn't appreciate the increased attentions in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Israeli bus commuters. Set them back, sure, but talk about motivation for getting the job done once the dust clears. So any such strike had better set them way, way, way back. Maybe the Atlantic article had it right and a combo threat/talk approach would work; from my chair, it looks as though they are motivated enough and our strategic position is weak enough for them to call our bluff any time.

So, my big question - how far back?

Thanks as always for the discussion,

W. Patrick Lang


Depending on thorough a job you did you could set them back at least five years from where they are at the time. pl

W. Patrick Lang


Very sound stuff. I am sure you remember that the Iranians tried a number of ways to interdict the oil flow out of the Gulf in that war. In addition to your namesake boats, they acquired naval cruise missiles from the Chinese and put them down at Hormuz. They also tried floating mines on the tides into the shipping lanes.

Some of their arriving equipment went in through Jubail on the east coast of SA and through another port north of Yenbo on the west coast and was shipped across the desert.

A lot of it also went in through the port of Kuwait.

But, you have it right. they want an "equalizer." pl


"...they acquired naval cruise missiles from the Chinese...."

Yes. And the Chinese purchase a lot of that sort of technology from - oh the Irony of it all - Israel.

Of course Israel obtained a lot of the technology that they sell to the Chinese who in turn sell to the Iranians from - again the sting of irony - the US.

(Though I recognize that some significant amount of technological transfer between the above parties occurs via theft).

Iran with enriched uranium is a bad thing. Iran with the ability to accurately deliver enriched uranium, in the form of armed and functioning nuclear weapon, to a foreign target is a worse thing.

I would suggest that choking off this stream of miltech sales might be in the direction of making the world a safer place?

John  Howley

How will other Shiites in the Gulf respond when we pound Iran from the air? Bahrain is 70 percent Shia, ruled by Sunnis. They (the Shia) are very enthusiastic about the new "Iraq model" of democracy. See today's NYT "In Tiny Arab State, Web Takes On Ruling Elite" at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/international/middleeast/15bahrain.html

W. Patrick Lang


They will be unhappy. History is usually a matter of choice between undesirable alternatives. pl


Floating mines is one thing, but were the naval missiles ever used during the Iran-Iraq war - I don't recall their widespread use? Are such missiles too vunerable to our air and naval assets? The asymetric threat is disruptive enough with the risk premiums on oil, but if we have burned them with air strikes, do they have enough naval missiles to hurt gulf shipping traffic? During the Iran-Iraq war, they had their hands full with the Iraqis and wouldn't want to get the US fully involved beyond intelligence and supply. Assuming our nuclear and ground options are limited, with an active bombing campaign and their Iraqi flank secure save for basing our air assets, are their conventional missiles a threat?

On another tack, our airmen captured by the enemy will undoubtedly regret the administration's defence of torture.


W. Patrick Lang


I never said they used the "Sea Squirrels" (joke). They were a threat in being and a lot of fretting went on over them. The best threats are the ones you don't have to use.

Boghammer is right. They are seeking to dter us and dominate the Gulf region among other things.



Never fear. Fearless George is on the scene. He can handle it. Think Iraq. On second thought, ....


I take your point on un-used threats being better. But our choices overall really don't seem all that good. And five years after we bomb and they reconstitute, we go back in? What company manufactures JDAMs? Good stock pick.



Okay, here are what I see as our alternatives, since talks are *not* going to dissuade the Iranians:

1. An oil embargo to prevent the Iranians from shipping out their oil, basically shutting off their ability to pay the Russians for the technology they're buying. Problem is, they may already have enough technology to finish their bomb.

2. A long and expensive air campaign to basically bomb Iran into rubble until they agree to drop their nuke program. This would have to first be preceded by withdrawing our forces in Iraq into defensible positions where they would not be vulnerable to Iranian infiltrators and Iranian-inspired Iraqi Shiite insurgents, thereby turning over much of Iraq to the insurrection but that's not much different from the facts on the ground today anyhow. It would have to also be preceded by moving every operational U.S. aircraft carrier into positions where their aircraft could be used for bombing missions. Combined with #1 in order to eliminate ability of Iranian forces to pay for resupply of destroyed armaments.

3. A nuclear-armed Iran.

Those are the only alternatives I see. The Iranians are not going to drop their program. They see it as their deterrent against Israel and the United States (which they view as Israel's lackey in the Middle East).

The only real question is what are the Russians and Chinese going to do. My first glance thought is, "Not much." Neither has a military capable of projecting force, Iran doesn't need Chinese "volunteers" (they'd have plenty of volunteers of their own), and while the Chinese are in a position to send military technology to the Iranians (unlike the Russians, whose economy still isn't robust enough to support giving away their best armaments), the reality is that Chinese military technology is 1970's-era junk that is of little use against modern aircraft (other than their very latest aquisitions from the Russians, which are 1980's-era junk of minimal use in modern warfare).

Because this is basically a campaign of strategic bombing of civilian areas in order to force Iran to its knees, it would be quite unpopular world-wide. Due to the fact that U.S. military spending exceeds the rest of the world combined and no other power has a significant force projection capability beyond its own borders, a military response by other powers is unlikely in the short term. However, the Iraqi conflict has uncovered a significant weakness in the U.S. military -- its inability to occupy hostile areas and suppress hostile populations without committing genocide, due to lack of manpower. In addition, it has uncovered significant weaknesses in the US's ability to finance these expensive overseas campaigns, weaknesses that are currently being papered over with Asian money buying US government debt but that cannot continue forever. Given the reliance of the US government and US institutions upon foreign investment, it is unclear what economic repercussions could happen, but they are unlikely to be favorable to the United States, possibly even affecting the ability of the US to sustain military operations in the long term. Given that much of the US's supposed "Gross Domestic Product" no longer exists as tangible goods but, rather, is intangible items sold and traded in the realm of ideas and services, it is unclear whether historical comparisons of GDP to military output apply. Whereas almost 40% of the US economy was in manufacturing during the Vietnam War, for example, less than 15% of the US economy is in manufacturing today. Arguably it can be thus be stated that the ability of the US economy to sustain long-term military spending has declined dramatically since the Vietnam War. It can be argued that if spending 10% of GDP on defense during the Vietnam War wrecked the economy in the next decade, that due to this decline in the ability of the US economy to provide tangible goods, 3.75% of GDP spent on defense today would have the same negative effects upon the economy. Once you consider in the "one time" costs of the Iraq conflict and the additional costs of a campaign against Iran, you would be at over 4% of GDP spent on defense, or a pace unsustainable given the deterioration of the US's ability to provide tangible goods for its economy.

Thus the net result is likely to be significant declines in the standard of living in the United States due to reductions in necessary government services such as police, fire, and K-12 schools, significant increases in taxes when the US government is no longer capable of floating bonds due to lack of foreign investors willing to buy said bonds, significant inflation when the bonds coming in for redemption are force-purchased by the Federal Reserve because the alternative is a government default, and other similarly significant economic effects. Whether these economic costs are worth the benefits of an Iran which does not possess nuclear weapons is an exercise left to the reader.

- Badtux the Economics Penguin

Commodore Sloat

PL: "I don't care if it is 'just' or not. A nuclear Iran is too dangerous to be tolerated."

This may be true, but we may not have the choice of "tolerating" it or not, and we cannot make the mistake of assuming a nuclear Iran is too dangerous to *contemplate*. I agree with Fallows that we can try by negotiating from a position that implies we might use military force, but even limited attacks in Iran would absolutely devastate what little chance we have left of making any progress in Iraq. And, as you point out, short of total war with Iran, limited strikes will do little more than delay an Iranian nuclear program. If they're even capable of that. The bottom line is, if Iran is determined to achieve nuclear status (and it seems that they are), they ultimately will, and we won't have the choice to not tolerate it.

The real question we will have to face whether or not military strikes delay the program a few years is, how best to deal with a nuclear armed Iran. While there aren't many positive outcomes of that, we should recall Pervez Hoodbhoy's thesis about a nuclear-armed Pakistan back in 1993 (see http://www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=jun93hoodbhoy) -- an Islamic bomb did not then and will not now destroy basic facts about statecraft. Deterrence works. National leaders act in their perceptions of their rational self interest. And they pursue nuclear technology for reasons of national and cultural prestige -- which of course has particular resonance in an Islamic context, esp. in Iran.

I'm not saying a nuclear Iran is not problematic; only that it is likely to be a reality that the U.S., for better or for worse, will have to find a way to adapt to. In my estimation, military confrontation, even limited strikes designed to delay a nuclear program, is likely to backfire in the long run.


I think you are ignoring a very real retalliatory potential held by the Chinese. The Chinese can inflict economic damage on us. The range of damage they can inflict is from mild pressure to serious/long-term.

Yes, China would be hurting itself to some extent by waging this sort of war, but I would say that economic warfare would be implemented by the Chinese in accordance to its own cost/benefit curve and that there are points along that curve where the benefits of the conflict outweigh the costs (to the Chinese).

China (and Asia generally) are increasing oil dependent. What value do they place on maintaining a foothold and a check against US hegemony in the region; a foothold that is now essentially via Iran?

What assurance of access would we offer to China?


I think if you look at the tail end of my thesis, you'll note that economic pressure is one of the things I mentioned. I think, however, you overestimate the amount of economic pressure that China *by itself* could put upon the United States, though. Certainly there is an enormous balance of payments issue between the US and China. But if you look at China's holdings of U.S. debt, they are relatively modest compared to those of Japan or even Taiwan. Most of the dollars going to China are going towards modernizing the Chinese economy, a task which they really began in earnest only 15 years ago and which is still decades from completion. At the moment, the Chinese economy has managed to move from the 1950's to the 1970's technology-wise. Heck, they didn't have even one vacuum tube in that manned spacecraft they sent into orbit, woot! But until this project is finished, they have limited ability to retaliate economically.

However, if US actions are so explicit as to draw near-universal condemnation, what little bit of damage China could do to the US economically would get dramatically amplified by the actions of the remainder of the world. Nearly half of all "floating" U.S. bonds (as vs. government-owned bonds like those in the Social Security trust) are owned by foreign interests. The same deal with mortgage-backed securities. You dump these onto the market, and suddenly two things happen -- the U.S. government is forced to print money in order to float new securities in order to avoid shutting down the government for lack of borrowing power (the U.S. government prints money by having the Federal Reserve buy the securities), and the money spigot for the housing market gets turned off because who would want to buy new securities for full price when they can buy all those old ones now flooding the market for pennies on the dollar? The resulting massive inflation and inability to finance new homes would cause a massive drop in housing prices (and I am talking about *massive* drop, current prices in most major markets are three to four times higher than sustainable under these conditions). Given that the artificially-pumped-up real estate prices constitute half of the net worth of the United States at the moment, you're talking about an enormous decline in national wealth and well-being.

That is what happens if the world at large is outraged by U.S. actions, as would occur if a massive strategic bombing offensive was undertaken against Iran, targetting civilian areas in an effort to convince the Iranians to allow armed inspections and dismantling of nuclear programs. Unfortunately, I cannot see that any military intervention less than that would be capable of doing anything other than creating minor setbacks to the Iranian program. We can't invade (with what army?!) and "precision" strikes are not going to be much use against the widely dispersed hardened sites used in the program. About all we could do would be to blow up their reactor, which is fine and dandy, but their (currently-unfinished) reactor (a light-water reactor) isn't really designed to create nuclear weapons anyhow (you'd want a heavy-water reactor like Pakistan's, or a graphite-moderated reactor like North Korea's, in order to produce massive amounts of bomb material quickly... BTW, this is why the Pakistani bomb did not surprise me, the moment I heard they were building a heavy-water reactor I knew what they were up to, what is surprising is that it surprised other people).

In short, I'm not seeing many good options here, other than letting the Iranians have the bomb and threatening to nuke them to glass if they ever use it. That's not really satisfactory, but the strain of Iraq is already causing economic problems in the United States (economic problems currently being papered over via foreign borrowing but that can't go on forever), and causing a massive recession -- nay, outright depression -- in the United States probably isn't worth the benefits of a nuclear-free Iran.

One thing this does bring up is that we need to get our own nuclear program back online. At the moment Pakistan and Israel have more ability to build atomic weapons than the United States. Our nuclear weapons reactors have been offline for over a decade now, and the infrastructure for building a plutonium "pit" is back at the experimental stage again because all the old technology has rusted away or had to be dismantled due to becoming too "hot" to work with. If the new world order is a nuclear-armed world that will have to be threatened with massive nuclear destruction if they use nuclear weapons, well, it's not the new world order I really wanted for my children and grandchildren, but reality doesn't care, it just is...

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