Iran and the Goldilocks Principle: Why Kuperman is Completely Wrong and the Leveretts are Only Partly Right and There are no Tunnel Bombs

In the past three weeks, Iran observers have been baffled by the range of opinion appearing on the op-ed page of The New York Times concerning Iran, and the uneven reporting on that country. Before the holidays, Alan Kuperman, a political scientist at the University of Texas Austin, called for bombing Iran– becoming the first respectable academic in the US to take a position usually associated with discredited angry Neoconservatives such as John Bolton. Kuperman’s argument is wrong in almost every particular, and that the NYT editors published it was considered alarming by many Iranists. We all remember how the newspaper printed a long series of bald-faced lies and easily disproved fantasies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq in 2002, which certainly helped legitimate and pave the way for war on that country. We worried that the fix was in against Iran.

Then this week, the NYT published a piece by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett arguing that Obama should open Iran just as Nixon opened China, and that the significance and legitimacy of the Green opposition movement has been vastly exaggerated.

Then yesterday a supposedly hard news article implicitly argued that Iran is constructing a nuclear bomb in hidden underground tunnels.

I don’t think the editorial board at the Times has made up its mind on what to do about Iran, unlike the case with Bill Keller in 2002-3, who clearly bought flimsy Neocon propaganda about Iraq hook, line and sinker. (Howell Raines was unconvinced but being weakened by the Jason Blair plagiarism scandal, and in any case seemed unable to demand that Judy Miller properly balance her pieces.) So now it is presenting a wide range of views, which is as it should be.

Being someone who has spent his life studying Iran, I am of course frustrated by what I see as significant flaws in the debate as conducted by policy thinkers in the NYT. But I have long since concluded that the New York – Washington – Tel Aviv discourse about the Middle East is not about the Middle East but about New York and Washington and Tel Aviv, and that it is virtually impenetrable because it is driven by powerful interests rather than a dispassionate consideration of facts on the ground, a sense of proportionality, and a textured knowledge of the target country (and I do mean target). But let me here put forward an argument for a Goldilocks principle with regard to Iran, a policy of just the right size, neither too big for the facts nor too small for the risks.

I concur with much of what Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett say in their piece, which argues that Iran gives no evidence of being on the verge of revolution. I should say that I know and admire them, and share their conviction that the Obama administration should engage the government in Tehran, whatever it is. We had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and face to face talks all through the 1980s, at a time when that regime really was on the verge of falling. You can’t know the future. Diplomacy, as Kissinger correctly observed, is a game played with the pieces that are actually on the board at any one time.

But I do not share their dismissive attitude to the Green movement. I think it is big, nation-wide, multi-class and significant. And I fear that they have fallen for the regime’s phony counter-demonstration on Dec. 30 as a sign of wide and deep support for the regime. I don’t deny it has its supporters. But I think the ground is shifting against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which helps explain why they are becoming more and more repressive.

The logical problem is, how can you both acknowledge the depth and legitimacy of the Green Reform movement and at the same time urge President Obama to pursue engagement with Ahmadinejad’s government? Me, I don’t see the problem here. We didn’t close the Polish embassy during the Solidarity movement. You deal with the government in power on bilateral issues as long as it is there. If it falls, then you deal with the new government. It is not as if we are offering the regime weapons or materiel that could be used against the protesters. We’re just jawboning them.

The Leveretts’ position has the virtue of complete consistency. My position is more ambiguous and admittedly harder to make an argument for. But my position accounts for all known factors, whereas the Leveretts have a blind spot toward the most significant movement of popular mobilization in Iran in thirty years– which is in its own way not realistic.

(The Leverett’s reply here. One thing I noticed is that they seem to think that the Green Movement is secular, while ‘most Iranians are still religious.’ But many Greens are religious, as was obvious from looking at the crowds on Ashura, and their mantra is ‘God is Great.’)

The NYT article about the tunnels under Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant is breathless and presents no evidence whatsoever for its thesis. Is it being alleged that Iran has squirreled away enormous numbers of centrifuges in the tunnels? How are they getting water and electricity? How would they avoid showing an electromagnetic signature? Has anyone seen a centrifuge down there? It is all innuendo, reminiscent of the allegations about Iraq’s supposed nuclear program in 2002-3.

The NYT quotes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the recently announced Qom enrichment facility: “If they wanted it for peaceful purposes,” he said of the Qum plant on CNN, “there’s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.” ‘

But actually the reason for the proposed underground Qom plant is likely precisely that Alan Kuperman wants to bomb the above-ground plants. Iran maintains that It is to preserve equipment and know-how from any such air strike. It does not actually seem suited either to producing fuel or to allowing a quick breakout capability. Moreover, it was not kept secret. It was announced 18 months before any actual equipment or uranium is to be moved there. On announcement it was immediately opened to UN inspection, and the IAEA declared it nothing more than a hole in the ground at the moment. If it were for bomb making, it would not have been announced and would not have been opened to inspection.

The tunnels are also intended to ensure that Iran’s enrichment facilities could not be paralyzed by air strike in future, especially once the Bushehr reactors get going and the low enriched uranium is fuel supplying electricity. There is no evidence that they are more than tunnels.

The ‘sinister tunnel’ argument comes just after media mogul and arch-warmonger Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London published a story based on obviously altered and forged documents claiming Iran was working on a ‘nuclear trigger’ for a bomb. Can you say, ‘Niger yellowcake,’ children? Thanks to Gareth Porter for exploding this fraud. See his piece on the way US intelligence community dismissed the document as fraudulent, and his more recent evidence for tampering with the text.

Alan Kuperman argued that “there is only one way to stop Iran,” from getting a nuclear warhead, to wit, bombing its nuclear facilities.

Kuperman begins by assuming that Iran is making a drive to acquire a nuclear warhead, despite the position both of the US intelligence community and of the International Atomic Energy Agency that there is no evidence for a weapons program, and despite the fatwa or formal legal ruling of theocratic Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that deploying nuclear weapons in war is constrary to Islamic law. Kuperman may as well argue that the Vatican is operating a secret large abortion clinic beneath the Basilica of St. Peter, on the grounds that the Vatican’s excellent clinics could be dual use and easily turned to this purpose, and despite the absence of any Italian police or other reports of any such activity.

Kuperman’s thesis cannot be ruled out. It is possible that Iran is secretly trying to get the bomb. The IAEA is frustrated that the regime will not provide the kind of transparency that could rule out such a possibility all together. But we can’t go to war on the basis of suspicion. Moreover, leaks from US intelligence say that both defecting Iranian scientists and US signals intelligence (eavesdropping on Iranian officials) support the lack of a weapons program. And, Iran’s only known centrifuge facility, at Natanz, has been subject to ongoing UN inspections. No country that was continuously inspected by the IAEA has ever developed an atomic weapon. If you want to know what a country looks like that is trying to make a bomb, look at Israel and North Korea. Israel never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and never allowed international inspections of its Dimona plant. Israel is estimated to have several hundred nuclear warheads. North Korea had signed the NPT and allowed inspections, but kicked the inspectors out in late 2002. While everything about North Korea is murky, it appears to have created any quantity of plutonium for a bomb only after this expulsion of the IAEA.

The Natanz facility in Iran is being inspected, and no bomb can be made there as long as it continues to be inspected, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has admitted.

Kuperman says that Iran is a supporter of terrorist groups and that it will give its (non-existent) nuclear bomb to such a terrorist group. This argument is a fallacy. No nuclear power would ever trust some rogue group with such powerful technology, and none ever has. Moreover, the terrorist group Iran backs actually turns out to be Hizbullah in Lebanon, which has been designated a national guard for the south of the country by the Beirut government, and which has democratically elected members of the Lebanese parliament, and which has cabinet ministers serving in a national unity cabinet. It is pure politics to dismiss Hizbullah as a mere terrorist group. Iran is also alleged to give money to Hamas in Gaza, though my suspicion is that Hamas gets far more support from Arab Gulf millionaires than from Tehran. Iraq’s government, by the way, although ostensibly now an American ally, supports both Hizbullah and Hamas and called for a diplomatic boycott of Israel during the Gaza War. So Iran’s support for these two is not distinctive in the region.

Not only would Iran not give Hizbullah or Hamas a nuclear weapon, but there would be no point in doing so. Both have a problem with Israel, but a nuke set off in the Mideast would kill as many Arabs as Israelis and would poison their own territory and people with the fallout. Hamas has a consistent policy of not attacking US targets. Were either to deploy an Iranian-made bomb against a Western country, it seems obvious that Tehran would be nuked in retaliation. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which has never been breached, would operate to restrain Iran from acting so foolishly.

Kuperman argues that Iran would not retaliate against a strike on Natanz by targeting US troops in the region, and paradoxically at the same time argues that “it does that anyway.”

This muddled argument is frankly uninformed to the point of wilfullness. The US military alleged that in recent years, the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps supplied Shiite militias in Iraq with explosively shaped projectiles that were deployed against US and British troops with some lethality. This charge was never satisfactorily proven, but that it could have been done, and could still be done, is indisputable. After the US pledged to leave Iraq, such EFP attacks declined sharply. In December 2009, no US troops were killed in hostile action.

By late August 2010, there will likely only be 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq, who would be easily targeted by a renewed wave of roadside bombs and EFPs, and were Iran to be behind it, it would be just as difficult to prove as before. So not only would Iran retaliate, it could do so against essentially defenseless non-combat US troops through Iraqi proxies in such a way as to hold itself harmless. 50,000 non-combat US troops in Iraq are not troops; they are Iranian hostages.

Moreover, the US needs Iranian cooperation, and frankly its pressure on Shiite militias such as the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army, to help ensure that the withdrawal goes smoothly.

Iranian cooperation in calming down Afghanistan, especially in Herat and in the Hazara Shiite and Tajik regions, could be essential; and it may even be needed for logistical purposes if Pakistan’s security deteriorates much further (Germany is already thinking in this way).

The US and Iran have a tacit alliance of convenience against al-Qaeda in Iraq and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a strike on Natanz would risk turning Tehran into a spoiler in both countries.

Were Iran to begin playing that sinister role, it would certainly have the effect of denying Obama a second term, since it would embroil him in several quagmires abroad and Carterize him.

Finally, as Kuperman would know if he knew anything serious about Iran, a strike on Natanz would unite the Iranian public against US and Israeli imperialism and would kill the current reform movement, since everyone would rally around a beleaguered regime. Iranians are highly committed to the nuclear enrichment program, though only a third think a nuclear bomb is licit. In the 19th century Britain and Russia told Iran it could not build a railroad. Iranians are not going back to that foreign-imposed backwardness. A more hands-off approach would hold out the real possibility of regime change within the decade, well before Iran is likely to have a bomb anyway, according to the US National Intelligence Estimate.

Marc Lynch also presents arguments against the Kuperman piece and lists other refutations. And see Steve Walt, as well.

To recap: Iran does not have a bomb, is forbidden by its theocracy from getting a bomb, exhibits no evidence of having a nuclear weapons program visible to US intelligence, would not give its non-existent bomb to Hamas or Hizbullah anyway, and moreover it would be useless to them. A strike on Natanz would completely destroy the nascent reform movement and ensure the survival for perhaps decades of the current theocratic regime. All this is not to take into account that no such strike could actually hope to eliminate Iran’s enrichment capabilities, and that it might well, change the mind of the Supreme Leader, so that he launched Iran on a crash program to get a bomb for defensive purposes (having noticed the difference between the way the US dealt with Iraq and North Korea).

So, let’s be realistic here. Iran is a low-level problem and is in some ways helpful to Obama’s goals of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and leaving stable regimes behind (Tehran loves both Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai). We should be talking to it and bargaining with it over its enrichment activities, to make them more transparent, or to give them an incentive to abandon them a la Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. It is unlikely that China will permit an immediate ratcheting up of sanctions in any case. Iran would be better off coming in from the cold and having its natural gas developed, and someday its leaders may see that.

We should call Iran out for its repression and demand release of prisoners of conscience, even as we talk to the regime about bilateral issues, just as we did with the Poles or Soviets. But we should not heavy-handedly intervene in its domestic dispute. The US helped overthrow two Iranian governments (1941 with Britain and the USSR, and 1953) in the 20th century and bears some guilt for messing the place up. Let us treat Iranians like adults, engaging them even as we allow them to make their own destiny. And let us once and for all try to get past the Great American Dr. Strangelove Complex. Contrary to what Alan Kuperman thinks, the Iranians are not actually polluting our precious bodily fluids, and no Texans need to ride a bomb down on Natanz waving a ten-gallon hat.

End/ (Not Continued)

19 Responses

  1. "We should call Iran out for its repression and demand release of prisoners of conscience,…"

    The US government has no standing to demand any such thing given its record in similar regard.

    The best thing the US Empire can do is pack its bags and withdraw from all its bases, cleansing them of all the spilled toxins before they leave. Let the dogs of war and the heirs to Bacon's call for genocide howl all they want. The age of waging offensive war for gain is over. We face three crisies that cannot be defeated with a gun, bomber, or ICBM–the economy, global warming, and the peaking and eventual decline of fossil fuels.

  2. This is absolutely the best piece written on this issue by anyone, ever, period, in every detail. Utterly right;flawless, perfect.

  3. Entertaining advocacy piece. I agree with most of it.

    Interesting that you attach significance to the WPO poll reflecting Iranian attitudes toward nuclear bomb making, yet imply a rejection of its findings concerning an Iranian majority accepting Dr. Ahmadinejad's legitimacy as president, as well as an overwhelming majority approving of the IRI system of government.

    (Did you think no one would catch that?)

    -Pirouz

  4. The point I wish to make here is marginal to your balanced and thoughtful post.

    Does anybody recall the last time U.S. media made a lot of noise about sinister tunnels?

    I'm referring to the tunnels that Libya was building to transport water across the desert. During their construction, American media engaged in a hysterical campaign of propaganda about the military purposes of these tunnels.

    Now, many years later, the tunnels are doing exactly what the Libyans said they were meant for: carrying water.

  5. Juan you are on fire with this critique of militarist trial balloons in establishment media. The parallels to Judy Miller time are indeed frightening. Meanwhile Iran's Greens are evolving organically in diverse directions based on their intense experience of movement politics in collective living memory, and that process calls for informed solidarity not intervention! But let's name the main source of anxiety, and the probable reason for all the disinfo currently on display: the lack of clarity from our Nobel Laureate In Chief. The folly of the current Afghanistan escalation, and the high profile of so many gruesome hawks in administration ranks, are worrisome indicators as to U.S. policy in the near term. In fact is there any compelling reason to discount a Clintonesque dog-wagging scenario in this mid-term election year to drown out the economic bad news and political paralysis?

  6. I see no problem of "consistency" in your position. The genuine efforts of the Obama administration to engage Iran have worked well with his condemnations of their repressive acts. The mullahs are having difficulty blaming dissent on foreign plotters.
    Even if the need to bomb Iran were to arise, one bombing raid does not end our relationship with the region. We would want to be able to say, "Look we told you not to do that." We would want to remind the neighbors, "We gave them every chance."
    In politics, even the use of force is a message, not an end in itself.
    Engagement? Definitely. Bombing? If it comes to that. But the phoney arguments for bombing only make it clearer that we are not there.
    As for a mission like Nixon going to China, it is absurd. Nixon would not have gone during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution or the slaughter of Tianenmen Square. You do not shake the oppressor's hand while the blood on it is still wet. All that does is estrange you from the forces that may well shape the future.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for noting that an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel would kill as many Arabs as Israelis and that it would be suicidal. I've been saying this for years and it's just so plainly obvious that anyone should see it. The notion of Iran as a nuclear threat is so idiotically absurd it hurts to see the MSM noising it about.

  8. Such utter common sense, Prof. Cole. Haven't we learned our lesson by now?

    But I want to know where the real political influence lies on this issue. I keep hearing it is only a matter of time before the bombs start to fall on Iran. I hope somebody can prove this wrong. Where does Obama stand on this? Does he have any real clout to prevent a self-defeating decision on this?

    I think we know where all the fear mongering is coming from. It is the same folks that forced the Iraq war down our throats and who intimidate the MSM.

  9. But I do not share their dismissive attitude to the Green movement. I think it is big, nation-wide, multi-class and significant.

    I agree with that. You'd have to ask, but the Leveretts likely agree with that. They haven't said anything inconsistent with it.

    But a movement can be "big, nation-wide, multi-class and significant" and still not be either a national majority or a national consensus.

    I think you're holding the opposition to too low a bar. A movement does not get the right to change the government by being "big, nation-wide, multi-class and significant".

    A movement that does not have at least 50% popular support does not and should not speak for a nation instead of its elected government. I'm interested in learning what makes you think the opposition has at least 50% popular support – which is not proven by the demonstrations we've seen and not supported by any polls we've seen.

    If you don't have a reason to believe the opposition has 50% support, then the Leveretts are right.

  10. The conflict in Iran seems to me to be about a rather revolutionary change. Iran has always been a "ruled" by a central figure. A good leader meant prosperity and bad ones meant despair. 1978 revolution brought about lot of changes, but continued with the central all authoritarian model. Thanks to the revolution and the changes in the society (e.g. education, flattening of society..) people have moved beyond this model. The Green movement is the start of change to a more decentralized power with checks and balances. And of course such a radical change wont be easy nor quick. Iranians have learned that you can't get decentralized power with a centralized revolutionary leadership. Just as they realized that revolutionary leadership that advocates violent overthrow of a government would itself practice violence.

    I think Mousavi, Khatami, etc understand this. If you listen to Khatami's speech in Jamaran on Ashoura (I wish someone would translate this, as the translations that I have seen are all missing the key comments he made) he clearly states that Mardom Salari (his translation of Democracy), Actors (فاعل) are the People and not the leadership. The role of leadership is to increase awareness ( آگاهی‌)and will ( اراده) of the people to take charge of their political future. That is how he understand Imam Hussein's Ashoura and that is how he sees his role.

    I think that is what the Green movement leadership is about. As such it is not black and white enough to fit into prefabricated models that some of "experts" have been accustomed to. Hence they either discount it or expect a speedy revolution.

  11. Stop me if I am wrong, but I don't think Juan Cole has ever said that the Green movement has majority support (saying the election was rigged is a different accusation). But so what? It deserves all the international support it can get because it is not allowed to operate openly, and it faces severe repression (and surely the worst of the repression will not be disclosed for many years to come, as is always the case with tyrannies).

    Given that the movement faces brutal crackdowns, state-controlled media, deep internal divisions, and persistent accusations of being an imperialist front, the Green movement is extremely successful, and if left to compete in a reasonably fair electoral contest, a Green coalition may or may not win an election. The point is that the repression must end, and the international community – hypocrites and all – must condemn it without giving a different set of sadists the opportunity to launch airstrikes on Iran.
    SM

  12. My take on the NY Times piece was precisely the opposite of Prof. Cole's.

    It seems to me that by indicating the nuclear program was now buried within the moutains of Iran, the piece implicitly pointed up the pointlessness of the Kuperman position.

    An anti-bombing article, if you will.

  13. Foreign Policy had an interesting article on the perception of Iran's Green Movement as a civil rights movement, not a revolution. On this basis, I think their success is much more defensible, considering their circumstance and the elections they faced so recently. I don't think that it was our time to intervene. Looking at Iran's past, there had previously been a very westernized and secular upper class. Of course, this was until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, but I think it hows the capacity of the nation.

    On the side of nuclear proliferation, I think we have to be careful with the countries who have already voided international treaties such as North Korea and even India. Their arms race with Pakistan can effectively ruin all efforts for international disarmament. More effort needs to be put into an international organization that can limit nuclear proliferation, provide greater nuclear security, and that will actually be able to hold nations accountable for going against whatever international standards are established.

    Sorry for the tangent, but we do need to regulate Iran's supposed "peaceful use of nuclear energy" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has already made violations under this category, to what effect? However, at the moment, we do need to not be so short-sighted as to forget that little war we jumped the gun on a few years back that we are still trying to clean up.

  14. Dick Cheney says we have incontrovertiblish proof that Iran is developing nuclear warheads in secret tunnels.

    The New York Times is trying to figure out which way this Iran thing is going so they can get out in front and be first with the newsish lead.

  15. To anonymous@10:08 :

    The NY Times talked about tunnel busting bombs reportedly close to being deployed. NY Times claimed that there are numerous tunnels and then claimed that there is viable US technology to bomb those underground tunnels. It's clearly implying that the US has military options to deal with the tunnel. The article also pointed out that Obama left the military option on the table.

  16. What if Iran wants Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), to prevent the US from carrying out a 'regime change' in Iran. The goal is not to bomb Israel or Palestine or give Iranian proxies nuclear weapons, but to establish a balance of power and an Iranian hegemony in the M-E.

  17. "The logical problem is, how can you both acknowledge the depth and legitimacy of the Green Reform movement and at the same time urge President Obama to pursue engagement with Ahmadinejad's government? Me, I don't see the problem here. We didn't close the Polish embassy during the Solidarity movement. You deal with the government in power on bilateral issues as long as it is there. If it falls, then you deal with the new government. It is not as if we are offering the regime weapons or materiel that could be used against the protesters. We're just jawboning them."

    Yes, this exactly the problem. If we already had an embassy in Tehran, I would agree with you. But any attempts now to reach out to the current regime, after 30 years of no direct diplomatic relationship, will be (mis)interpreted as a tacit approval of the regime's brutal crack down of the opposition and that would make it a bad policy.

    Abbas Milani's response to Leveretts' piece published in The New Republic( link to tnr.com ) is spot on.

  18. How does a back door deal with the IRI, which basically throws the regime a lifeline and legitimizes it, does not constitute an intervention in internal affairs of Iranians??

    Why can't the US stay away from Iran, period. Iran does not pose a threat eitehr to Israel or US. They can't even build a refinary on their own for god sake…

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