The cover of the latest Economist reads “Iran” in ominous black letters peppered with nuclear emblems, most of which, like Iran’s nuclear facilities, are depicted deep underground. Being dropped from above are two bombs, one emblazoned with Old Glory and the other with the Star of David. The imagery suggesting an American or Israeli pre-emptive strike could not be clearer. Neither could The Economist’s take on such prospects: “Why an attack will not eradicate the nuclear threat”.
The magazine sums up the views of many, particularly in Europe, who agree that Iran’s nuclear program must be halted but not through military means. While this is a reasonable stance, it must also be supported as such. And here, The Economist falls short, relying on weak assumptions and citing evidence that belie their own conclusions.
“If Iran is intent on getting a bomb…” starts one paragraph. If? Let’s consider, in November of last year the IAEA released a report asserting that Iran is carrying out “activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” including “the acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network.” Does The Economist believe that Iran is willing to withstand ever crippling sanctions and international isolation for a theoretical research project, an academic exercise?
Even the Iranians have dropped this pretense. A high level strategic analysis published by the Iranian Defense Ministry in 2010 contends that in the event of an unconventional attack, “Iran needs to respond with a nuclear strategy.” In other words, it’s not if they want the bomb, it’s if they can attain one.
Even so, warns the Economist, military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be ill advised because “using Western bombs as a tool to prevent nuclear proliferation risks making Iran only more determined to build a weapon.” Essentially, don’t try to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, otherwise Iran will want to develop nuclear weapons.
An attack will also prompt Iran to stop cooperating with the IAEA and move its nuclear production underground, warns the magazine. Except, this is already happening, and the authors acknowledge as much in the same issue. “In 2006 [Iran] restarted its centrifuge programme, ended compliance with the additional protocol and turned a deaf ear to the IAEA’s questions about weaponisation. It continues to allow inspectors in, but, as this week, refuses them access to the things they demand to see.”
The suggested solution? Ratchet up sanctions and hope for a new government to forswear the bomb. But which government is The Economist waiting for? Nuclear development started under the pro-Western and secular shah of Iran, continued under the mullahs since 1979, supported by the former reformist President Rafsanjani, paraded by President Ahmadinejad, and duly blessed by his opponent from the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Iranians of all backgrounds see nuclear development as a matter of national pride and every major political leader has reflected this sentiment.
All this is not to say that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the right move. The magazine does raise important considerations as well, such as the probability of success in striking nuclear facilities and the pace at which Iran can rebuild their program.
In the end, it may well be that the benefits of military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities do not outweigh the potential costs. But in making this analysis, let’s be frank about the reality of the situation. Iran wants the bomb, they’re actively developing one, and sanctions are unlikely to stop them. Now what? We will find out soon enough.
David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.