America has been casting for the role of global villain ever since the Cold War ended and Russia started inspiring more feelings of pity and jokes than terror. What we have settled for is a revolving door of minor regional powers like Serbia and Iraq, with Iran serving as the latest of these fun-sized Soviet Unions.
Since the Iranian nuclear program is moving forward at a continuous and steady clip undeterred by threats and sanctions, many are starting to wonder if the Islamic Republic will need to be dealt with in the manner of its Serbian and Iraqi brethren, namely, with military strikes.
They should stop wondering, because the answer is no.
First of all, Iran is going to get the bomb eventually. We need to accept this. More than merely the search for a deterrent, the bomb has become a point of national honor that will not be thrown away lightly.
National pride has been a key factor in virtually every nation’s decision to acquire the bomb. In some cases, notably France, it was virtually the only reason. Iran is one of the most nationalistic countries in the world, with some justification. Persia was one of the world’s great civilizations. The ancestors of today’s Iranians developed monotheistic religion before the birth of Abraham and beat back the legions of Rome for hundreds of years.
No matter how much he or she hates the regime, the nuclear program is a symbol of the greatness of Iran’s people and civilization. To sacrifice it is simply unacceptable, especially when they have already suffered so much for it. Jason Razaian, a journalist in Tehran, noted that for the average Iranian citizen, “shutting down Iran’s nuclear program … is out of the question.”
Granted, this point is unlikely to ever gain wide traction. Iran is the kind of thing most people would rather fire missiles at than try to understand. Luckily, there are reasons why a strike to stop Iran would fail that don’t require learning anything about Iranian culture.
An air strike, whether by Israel or the United States, is highly unlikely to do anything more than slow the program down. The probabilities that all of Iran’s sites are known and can be taken out with air strikes are minimal, to say the least. Iran learned from past Israeli air strikes on Syria and Iraq and built their facilities deep underground for a reason, namely so that they would be really hard to take out from the air.
What the world needs is a nuclear Iran that is a responsible shareholder in world order and peace, which would require a liberal, democratic regime. That will only come about if the Green movement, the anti-regime protestors that came so close to throwing off theocratic rule in 2009, are able to finish the job.
There is nothing that will do more to bind the people closer to the regime than a war against a foreign aggressor, especially if that aggressor is the hated Israelis. Military action does nothing except move the Iranian people closer to their harshly theocratic government. An air strike will accomplish the exact opposite of what the world should want to see in Iran.
What irritates me most in the discussion about the Iranian nuclear program is the tired and moderately racist idea that the Iranians will use the bomb because they’re somehow crazy. This first requires the logical acceptance that the current regime in Iran is worse than Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, which requires a truly staggering amount of historical ignorance.
It next requires a denial of the fact that most of the regime’s “craziest” statements, including Ahmajinejad’s quip that there are no gays in Iran and that Israel must be wiped off the map, were mistranslations from journalists more interested in stories than the nuances of Farsi.
Finally, it requires an acceptance that everyone in a position to affect nuclear policy in Iran is perfectly willing to watch his or her nation be destroyed in the inevitable Israeli retaliation. Israel has a second strike capability, so any attack on Israel ensures that Iran becomes an irradiated wasteland within hours.
Ultimately, what does Iran do with a bomb? The answer is quite simple: nothing. Nuclear weapons are remarkable for their lack of usability. Does it nuke Israel? No, for the reasons above. Does it give a nuke to terrorists to use against the United States? No, too obviously traceable. If New York was hit Iran still becomes Chernobyl in the desert.
The call for military action against Iran is siren song at its purest. Hopefully, our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have put enough wax in our ears that we can resist this time.