Feldman on Iranian Nukes

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Noah Feldman’s long article on the Iranian nuclear program manages to be equivocal on such minor issues as “why is Iran building this bomb?” and “what should we do about the Iranian nuclear program?” so I think that if I’d read it blind, I wouldn’t have found it especially obnoxious, except insofar as it’s weird to write such a long article on an important subject and not really say anything about it. But I didn’t read it blind — I got a panicked email from my dad asking if this was “some sort of soft campaign for March’s surprise strike” and saw Martin Peretz call it a “really smart” article. So one starts to worry. And, indeed, there’s much to complain about. So let’s get to the carping.

First off, the geopolitical dynamics. The second paragraph of the article manages to misportray the situation in a fairly significant manner:

Today the nuclear game in the region has changed. When the Arab League’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, called for “a Middle East free of nuclear weapons” this past May, it wasn’t Israel that prompted his remarks. He was worried about Iran, whose self-declared ambition to become a nuclear power has been steadily approaching realization.

Clearly, Feldman is correct to say that Iran’s nuclear program, rather than Israel’s, is what prompted Moussa’s remarks. Israel, however, is very relevant to the conversation. Moussa is not an idiot — he’s a diplomat, he chooses his words carefully. If he wanted to say “a Persian Gulf free of nuclear weapons” he would have said so. But he said “a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.” That means nukes for neither Iran nor Israel. The Arab League proposal, in other words, is that the Arab states will welcome — and, indeed, support — efforts to get Iran to abandon nukes if the West — most of all the United States — will also put comparable pressure on Israel. Perhaps this is a bad idea on the merits. Perhaps it’s simply a non-starter. But that’s the propsal; that’s the position of the Arab states; and the American counter-position (nukes for Israel but not for Iran; sanctions for Iran, $3 billion in annual aid for Israel) should be seen for what it is — a double-standard. Perhaps a double-standard we ought to adhere to, but not one that Muslim public opinion finds justifiable.

Then we get to the portion of the article which takes as its premise the odd idea that we ought to plumb the depth of Islamic theology to see if there’s some unique Muslim friendliness to the idea of using nuclear weapons. A little cultural analysis never hurts, of course, but it would seem to bear mentioning that one and only one nation has ever actually used nukes against an enemy state and that nation was the United States of America.

Similarly, noting that millenarian Islam is an important strain in Iranian politics ought to be put in the context of a United States of America that features millenarian Christianity as an important political strain. I don’t see any reason to believe that George W. Bush is actually trying to bring about the apocalypse, but all the evidence you could bring to bear in applying this argument to Ahmadenijad applies mutadis mutandis to Bush.

Meanwhile, when discussing the likely consequences of a nuclear Iran, Feldman suddenly drops into standard realist analysis. An Iranian bomb would create incentives for countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to go nuclear. But when talking about Iran, this very same analysis — that Iran’s program is motivated primarily by fear of Pakistan, Israel, and the United States — is discounted. But, surely, raison d’etat exists in Teheran just as it exists in Islamabad, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Washington. After all, Iran’s nuclear program predates the Islamic Revolution.

And, again, why all the talk of suicide bombers in the context of nuclear deterrence? The West lacks a significant tradition of literal suicide missions, akin to those of kamikaze pilots or Sri Lankan or Muslim suicide bombers. We do, however, have a quite robust tradition of asking soldiers to undertake near-suicidal missions. Infantrymen are asked to charge fixed defensive positions, to go “over the top” of the trench lines, or to be in the first-wave of amphibious assaults. The 1st Infantry Division’s official history of the Omaha Beach landing states that “Every officer and sergeant” in the leading company of the assault “had been killed or wounded” within ten minutes. This isn’t exactly the same as suicide bombing, but it’s a lot more similar to suicide bombing than suicide bombing is to deliberate, utterly foreseeable, national suicide.

I’ll just conclude by emphasizing that a lot of this discussion seems to proceed as if Iran popped into existence six months ago or the Islamic Revolution occurred sometime in 2002. In fact, Iran has been governed by its current regime for over twenty years, and so we have a long historical record of its modes of behavior. Absolutely nothing in that record indicates a regime eager to seriously risk its own survival, a regime especially interested in launching aggressive wars, or even a regime engaged in a large-scale military build-up.