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Why Neocons Pretend a Nuclear Iran Would Destroy Israel (Hint: They Don't Think Americans Are Very Smart)


This post first appeared on A Tiny Revolution.

It turns out John Bolton is still out there, and still frothing at the mouth about Iran:

What outsiders can do is create broad support for Israel's inherent right to self-defense against a nuclear Holocaust and defend the specific tactic of pre-emptive attacks against Iran's Esfahan uranium-conversion plant, its Natanz enrichment facility, and other targets.

Yikes! I hope he cleaned the flecks of spittle out of his mustache afterward.

Anyway, expressed like this, the public neoconservative perspective on Iran obviously seems insane. Even if the Iranian government obtains nuclear weapons, it's not going to suddenly nuke Tel Aviv (or Paris or Washington) just for a few seconds of satisfaction before it itself is incinerated.

But Bolton et al don't actually think that will happen; it's just propaganda for the bovine public. However, they do have a genuinely rational fear about Iranian nuclear weapons: the danger isn't that Iran would use them to attack us—it's that Iranian nuclear weapons would deter us from attacking them.

This was expressed straightforwardly in a 2004 paper called "Strategy for a Nuclear Iran" by Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. (Donnelly isn't as well-known as other neoconservatives, but he was actually the main author of the infamous "Rebuilding America's Defenses" paper from the New American Century.) Here's the most important part:

Regardless of who is elected to the presidency in November, the growing threat posed by a nuclear Iran is certain to be at the top of the next administration’s national security agenda...Tehran’s traditional hankering for nuclear weapons has sharpened significantly. Iran’s conventional options are now restricted to attempts to limit American access to the region...

The surest deterrent to American action is a functioning nuclear arsenal...To be sure, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a nightmare. But it is less a nightmare because of the high likelihood that Tehran would employ its weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups—although that is not beyond the realm of possibility—and more because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East. The danger is that Iran will “extend” its deterrence, either directly or de facto, to a variety of states and other actors throughout the region. This would be an ironic echo of the extended deterrence thought to apply to U.S. allies during the Cold War. But in the greater Middle East of the twenty-first century, we are the truly revolutionary force and “revolutionary” Iran is more the status quo power...

What would the consequences be of a bargain with Iran—be it grand or small—for a strategy of political transformation in the greater Middle East? Is it possible to pursue détente with Iran and regime change elsewhere?

That actually makes sense. (And in fact, while no one noticed, something similar also appears in "Rebuilding America's Defenses": "adversaries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea are rushing to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as a deterrent to American intervention in regions they seek to dominate.") If you believe the U.S. must be able to attack any country on earth anytime it wants, you'd be right to be frantic with fear about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Neoconservatives do have to be willing to appear to be lunatics in public in order to get what they want, but that's just because they believe the American public is too stupid to understand the subtleties of their statecraft. So they have to make things "clearer than truth."ELSEWHERE: This point—that no one can be allowed to deter us from attacking them—has been expressed many times by the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

P.S. I'm guessing I'm literally the only person on earth who's read "Strategy for a Nuclear Iran" besides Thomas Donnelly.

P.P.S. My favorite part about all this is Donnelly endorsing the U.S. behaving as (he claims) the U.S.S.R. did during the Cold War. Da, Comrade.

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