Sunday, Nov 28, 2021

Even George Will Isn’t Always Right

Even those of us who are less than certain that President Barack Obama and Senator John Kerry “have Israel's back” would be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the dean of American political commentators, George Will. So when Will argues, as he did last week, that the interim accord almost (it appears not to have taken effect due to unresolved differences) entered into by the P5-plus-1 and Iran is the best possible result, his arguments must be addressed.

To reach that conclusion, Will adopts virtually all the arguments of opponents of the interim accord and turns them on their head. Of its “manifold defects and probable futility” he is in full agreement with the harshest critics of the accord. Indeed, the best thing to be said for the interim accord, in Will’s view, is precisely what most of the critics view as its greatest defect: It renders highly unlikely any American military response to Iran’s nuclear program and makes it impossible for Israel to act militarily, as long as Iran and the P5-plus-1 are operating under some kind of diplomatic agreement.

 

In any event, Will argues, Israel’s superb air force is simply too small to set back the Iranian nuclear program, spread over numerous sites with many of them hardened underground, for more than a year or two at most, and perhaps not even that. And such an attack would likely lead Iran to expel all nuclear inspectors and bring to an end the international sanctions regime.

 

About this much, Will may well be right. And it is certainly true that Israel would only employ a military option as the course of last resort, when all else had clearly failed.

 

Will also might be right that it was folly to believe that sanctions alone – certainly not backed up by a creditable threat of military action – would ever convince Iran to forego its nuclear weapons program. As Walter Russell Mead has observed, nations determined to obtain nuclear weapons usually do. President Obama made the same point at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institute last week.

 

BUT THAT MEANS Iran will not be dissuaded by peaceful means from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The only way that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be convinced to abandon the quest for a nuclear weapons would be if he realized that the alternative was the loss of the mullahs’ power. Only the fear that the Islamic Revolution was in mortal peril led Ayatollah Khomeini to drink from the “poison chalice” and sign a peace treaty with Iraq after the deaths of over 1,000,000 Iranian and Iraqi citizens in the bitter eight-year Iraq-Iran War.

 

Let us give up once and for all the claptrap about Iran proving that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. That is ridiculous. For starters, Iran, with the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves, has no need for civilian nuclear energy. And if it did, it could have obtained nuclear fuel for a civilian program at a fraction of the cost of its own enrichment program, and without incurring any of the economic sanctions that have cost its economy tens of billions of dollars. The only possible reason to endure that hardship is because the regime places a high value on obtaining nuclear weapons.

 

Thus, to argue that sanctions will never cause Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment is to argue that they will never give up their goal of obtaining a nuclear weapon, which they regard as the great equalizer as they pursue a campaign of Islamic expansion.

 

Thus, we can be sure that Iran will only sign a final agreement if they can see their way to reaching their goal under the terms of the agreement. And why should they doubt their ability to do so? North Korea signed three different accords with the United States undertaking to abandon its nuclear weapons program. (One of the lead negotiators of the 1996 agreement entered into by the Clinton administration was Wendy Sherman, the current lead negotiator with Iran.) Today, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons.

 

American intelligence has been caught by surprise by every successful test of a nuclear device since the Soviet Union in 1949. And there is no more room for confidence that we know all of Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities – none of which have ever been voluntarily revealed.

 

The interim accord does nothing to limit or even regulate Iranian research on nuclear weapons technology or on missile development. That research will surely continue under the interim accord, likely to be renewed numerous times. So what happens when Iran decides the time has come for the acquisition of the bomb and declares all existing agreements abrogated or just waits for an interim accord to expire prior to expelling all nuclear inspectors?

 

WILL ACCEPTS THAT IRAN will likely attain nuclear weapons, but argues, following Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, that “going to war with Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran.” Why? Because even a successful American attack would do no more than set back the Iranian nuclear program two or three years before they rebuilt it. The only way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, then, would be a land war in Iran, a country whose population is three times the size of that of Iraq.

 

I have never grasped the argument that Iran would simply rebuild again. If the United States demonstrated that it had no intention of allowing Iran to obtain a bomb, why go through repeated rounds to reach the same result, unless Iran somehow managed to achieve an impermeable air defense interim, which it cannot? Moreover, if an initial attack also hit at the assets of the Revolutionary Guard – i.e., cut off the “head of the snake,” in the colorful phrase of former CIA Director James Woolsey – Supreme Leader Khamenei would find himself in the same situation as Khomeini when he signed a peace agreement with Saddam Hussein – i.e., in danger of the Islamic Revolution biting the dust.

 

WILL MOCKS opponents of the interim accord for their talk of appeasement and references to Munich. “War,” he writes, “is an imprudent and even ultimately effective response to the failure of diplomatic and economic pressures to alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders.” He seems to suggest that the Iranian nuclear program is a purely internal matter, unlike Nazi Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland. But it is a distinction without a difference. The Islamic Revolution is guided by an expansionist ideology. The prime advantage of nuclear weapons is not to use them against foes – unless the mullahs felt their regime was on the verge of collapse internally – but as an umbrella allowing Iran and its subsidiaries like Hezbollah greater freedom of action worldwide. A nuclear Iran is hardly an internal Iranian matter, such as the choice between democracy and theocracy.

 

While acknowledging that the interim accord “will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Will, for whom I have the greatest respect, challenges those who prefer war to prevent Iran from doing so to clarify why its consequences would be less dire than a war with Iran.

 

Fair enough. No war should ever be undertaken lightly. But Will, too, must give us his cost-benefit analysis. He does not do so. And, as I have argued, he overstates the fallout of an American aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

 

He does not even deal with the consequences of a nuclear Iran, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rich but highly unstable Middle Eastern regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, the encouragement of Iran’s ambitions, or the correspondent loss of American power and credibility, as it is exposed in Bernard Lewis’ words to be “harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend.”

 

Nor does he address what it would mean for Israel to live under the threat that one day, when the mullahs feel they have nothing to lose, they will let loose their nuclear weapons on Israel.

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