Standoff with Iran Shouldn’t be Solved with Military

Council Board Member, Aron Bernstein has written a piece for Alternet entitled, "Standoff with Iran shouldn't be solved with military," this piece was originally published on April 10, 2012.

Based on the best American, Israeli and international intelligence, the fact is that Iran does not have a single nuclear weapon. Yet, during the past few months, the specter of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons has been repeatedly raised. The image of a future Holocaust caused by Iranian ballistic missiles headed toward Tel Aviv has been used in an attempt to push the US into a preemptive military strike.

Is this a realistic threat? The answer is probably no. It is a worst-case scenario, reminiscent of the Cold War arguments that saw every Soviet move as potentially aggressive and led to a tremendous expansion of both nuclear arsenals. Fortunately, these weapons were never used, but the difficulty of reducing them is still with us, as well as the lingering hostility. This is limiting important areas of cooperation, including efforts to solve the Iranian nuclear problem.

Iran's non-compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency requests for information about its nuclear program raises serious worries about its intentions. It could mean that the Iranian regime may be working toward a point where it can develop a bomb in a relatively short time if it decides to do so—what is known as having “breakout capacity.�

The main argument for a preemptive strike is to eliminate the possible Iranian development of nuclear weapons while it may be possible. There are many problems with this approach. At a minimum it will lead to local armed conflict and at a maximum to a larger war. It will most likely only set back the Iranian nuclear program for a few years. It will play into the hand of the Iranian hardliners who may want to develop a nuclear weapon. A preemptive strike would most likely end any possibility of a diplomatic solution.

It should also be acknowledged that Israel is estimated to possess about 100 or more nuclear weapons. Should Iran actually develop a weapon, it would be suicidal to use it against a nation so well armed. Whatever gains Iran might accrue from attacking Tel Aviv would be wiped out by the destruction in Tehran and also, perhaps, of its leaders. We should also keep in mind that the international sanctions currently in place against Iran would be nothing compared to the unified global action taken against the first nation to use a nuclear weapon since 1945.

Americans can sympathize with Israeli fears of what an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean for their country. There was great concern in the US when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949. For the last 63 years we have lived with the potential threat of a Russian nuclear attack. This never happened, due to deterrence (containment) as well as the reluctance to start another major war following WWII.

During the Cold War, there were many suggestions about launching a preemptive strike. If we had lost our cool and done so it would have been an unimaginable disaster. Talk of Iran's regime is reminiscent of President Reagan’s March 1983 speech, which referred to communism as “the focus of evil in the modern world.� Yet at the October 1986 Reykjavik summit, he seriously discussed with Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the “Evil Empire,� the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

As in the present Iranian case, many people said the Soviet Union was not deterrable and would stop at nothing to destroy us. Yet throughout the Cold War we managed the confrontation with firmness and diplomacy and gradually reduced the risks of a catastrophic war breaking out. The same can be done with Iran now.

Alarmists are warning that unlike the Soviet Union, Iran is not deterrable, containment is not possible, and we need to draw some line that Iran cannot cross without a preemptive strike. We are warned that diplomacy and sanctions will not work.

Clearly, it's imperative to do all we can to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons using diplomacy and sanctions. However, we should also not forget all of the lessons we learned from the Cold War. It will only make a bad situation worse if we succumb to panic (or political pressure) and start a war. President Obama has made some progress on this issue by insisting on diplomacy now. Later this month, talks between Iran and major powers over Iran's nuclear energy program are set to take place. Sanctions are having an increasingly negative effect on the Iranian economy that hopefully will increase interest in a diplomatic solution.

The drumbeat of preemptive war talk can only have a negative effect. Neither we nor any self-respecting state is likely to back down under threats. This undercuts the promise of a negotiated settlement, the optimum way to resolve this problem.

But at the same time, Obama has ruled out containment of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. By conceding that containment is not acceptable he has boxed himself into a potentially dangerous situation some months from now if the short time allocated for diplomacy does not produce quick results. It is important for those opposed to the dangerous possibility of a war with Iran to make their voices heard.

Aron Bernstein is professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a national board member for the Council for a Livable World.