David R. Henderson  

Is Iran a Threat?

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But, say the critics, Iran is different. They have all those mad mullahs over there who don't care about life on earth and simply want to destroy -- fill in the blank -- Israel, the United States, or Israel and the United States. Yet there is little evidence that the leaders of Iran are mad. Instead, they are cautiously conservative. Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and adjunct professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in his book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S., states it as follows: "But whenever Iran's ideological and strategic goals were at odds, Tehran's strategic imperatives prevailed." He notes that the Iranian government has had informal alliances with Israel against the major Arab nations in the Middle East. These alliances existed not only when the shah was Iran's dictator but also for much of the time the mullahs ran Iran. Through the government of Switzerland, Iran's government made an overture to the Bush administration in 2003, in which it asked the Bush administration to meet Iranian officials to discuss ending the sanctions and bringing Iran back into the community of nations in return for Iran's forswearing any attempt to build nuclear weapons. According to Parsi, the Bush administration, at the behest of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, rebuffed them. Moreover, the Bush administration verbally attacked Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, for being the bearer of good news. Interestingly, Parsi quotes none other than Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad (Israel's version of the CIA) saying of the Iranian government in 2006, "I don't think they are irrational, I think they are very rational."
This is from my recent article, "Is Iran a Threat?" In it, I also get into why I think the sanctions are a bad idea.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
PrometheeFeu writes:

Fundamentally, I think the realist school of thought is mostly descriptive and predictive: Countries have interests and they pursue those interests at the expense of national identity, morals and ideology if need be.

Jeremy N writes:

I'm sorry, but I can't believe the story about Iran making overtures. If it's true, there must be much more to the story. It's pretty much saying that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are more ideologically driven than Iran.

fundamentalist writes:

There is no need to worry about the US attacking Iran. It won’t happen. The US is preparing to deal with a nuclear Iran. Regardless of what the US thinks, almost all Israelis consider a nuclear Iran to be a major threat. Iran has promised to destroy Israel the first chance it gets and Iran finances Hezballah and Hamas. The Iranian dictator, Khamenei, has made it clear that if the US nuked Iran and killed everyone in it he would still attack Israel because other Muslims could repopulate Iran.

Israel will attack Iran in the near future because Israelis think they have no other option. The US needs to figure out how it will respond.

[fundamentalist: Your comments are being moderated and will continue to be moderated until you respond to the email we sent you on Jan. 20th. If you would like us to send you another copy, email us at webmaster@econlib.org --Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

I agree with Jeremy N. If I were to apply the same standard of evidence that David applies, I would credit any number of World Net daily stories about plans to bomb Israel.

David tends to state these things tendentiously too. Some days ago he claimed that an imposing array of US officials said that the Iraq wars were 'for' oil. But a war 'for' oil is a war to TAKE oil. That is what 'for' connotes. Willie Sutton robbed banks 'for' the money. None of the officials David cited said the war aim was to TAKE oil. They talked about things like keeping the straits open or dictators from seizing wells. In other words 'for' allowing the countries involved to sell their oil on the open market. One could say the war was thus 'for' open markets and property rights. That is also why it was 'for' oil: for being able to buy it from those who want to sell it. But Willie Sutton was only looking to take the the money.

fundamentalist writes:

The American Spectator has in interesting article on the topic at http://spectator.org/archives/2012/02/06/pushing-israel-to-war

Mr. Econotarian writes:

1) Iran will never attack Israel in a significant, direct fashion, because Iran will face nuclear retaliation from Israel. Talk of wiping countries from the map is pure bluster.

2) On the other hand, I fully expect the Iranian government to militarily and financially support a wide range of terrorists and islamic militias in many places.

3) The question is whether Iran would provide its nuclear technology to those terrorists or militias. I suspect they would not if they thought the nukes could be traced back to them, due to nuclear retaliation. Also a nuclear weapon is a pretty expensive and politically valuable weapon, not like a katyusha rocket launcher.

4) Having a nuclear weapon would allow Iran to be less vulnerable to limited, conventional attacks from the US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia.

5) Having a nuclear weapon would be a great political victory for the Iranian government in the eyes of its people.

6) It is really unclear to me how we can stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The physics is not tough. A certain level of industry is required to produce them, which Iran is probably capable of (if Pakistan could do it). And it took us how many years to find Osama Bin Laden, who was not hiding in a bomb-proof bunker? And what about the accuracy of our intelligence pre-Iraq invasion? I don't think outsiders could ever know enough to truly knock out the Iranian bomb program.

7) Iran will no doubt weight the defensive and political value of a nuclear weapon against possible (though likely ineffective) conventional attack or sanctions.

8) An attack against Iran will be a political win for the Iranian government in the eyes of its people, as will the sanctions ("see, the rest of the world is against us").

9) However the "selectorate" around the Supreme Leader who are getting rich from the crony socialism of Iran may be influenced enough by the sanctions to encourage policy change.

10) The question will be if the "selectorate" will be able to change the nuclear policy of the now politically advantaged Supreme Leader.

Greg Blanch writes:

Squaring behavioral economics and your “Is Iran a threat?” article:
My understanding is that behavioral economics posits that decision making isn’t as rational as one thinks it to be. If this is true, and you are a proponent of behavioral economics, why would you argue (with support from the Trita Parsi book) that Iran would make the rational choice of not attacking Israel?

Ken B writes:
re Econotrarian's remarks, which are good.
The question is whether Iran would provide its nuclear technology to those terrorists or militias. I suspect they would not if they thought the nukes could be traced back to them, due to nuclear retaliation. Also a nuclear weapon is a pretty expensive and politically valuable weapon, not like a katyusha rocket launcher.
What 'they'? Autocratic governments always have factions and rogues. I exepect this is particularly the case with religious ones. You (and david) want to argue for the rationality and dterability of the gov't as a whole; that is not enough.
I don't think outsiders could ever know enough to truly knock out the Iranian bomb program
Unclear. The worm seems to have forestalled it for a while. That was based on extraordinary insider knowledge. Delay is good. People die, regimes fall. Delay is worth a lot.
Iran will never attack Israel in a significant, direct fashion, because Iran will face nuclear retaliation from Israel.
Probably. Probably the North Koreans would never invade the South, their allies have nukes. It happened. The level of damage is important. As you say, a nuke and a katyusha are different. And Iran and Monaco are different too, and I'd believe you about Monaco's deterability, but I'd still not like to see even Monaco get the bomb.
Finch writes:

I dislike attempts to deem Iran "not a threat" based on mind-reading the regime.

When your neighbor points a gun at you and says "I'm going to kill you," is he a threat? Of course he is, no matter how confident you are that he's only joking or that he really just wants his lawnmower back.

What you should do is a different question. But for Israel, Iran is a huge and near-term threat. For the US, Iran will become a threat when they develop reliable long range ballistic missiles, and even that can be forestalled with BMD money. Insofar as you don't consider nuclear war in the Middle East as a threat to the US, which I admit is a stretch.

TDM writes:

The "Threat" is that the Mullahs in power in Iran will use absolutely everything they have in order to remain in power. So when there is a internal revolution they will blame "foreigners" and threaten them with nukes if they do not stop "interfering" with their absolute rule. The nearby cities of Baghdad and Basra of a country that is being blamed for interference are the most likely targets.

Will we go from Mullahs to liberty without nukes becoming mushroom clouds?

LAG writes:

The mullahs are telling you what they plan, and yet you still deny. Let's try a test: Do you believe Hitler meant what he said in Mein Kampf now?

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Ken B:

I would think that "for oil" here meant something closer to allowing politically-favored firms to get an advantage in the trade of oil over politically dis-favored firms.

@Jeremy N:

It's not necessarily irrational for Bush etc to turn down the talks. Realist theory emphasizes supremacy in the arena of war as the best guarantee of survival and the primary goal of states. In such a framework, negotiating with Iran is pointless since 1) Iran will eventually want and develop nuclear weapons anyways and 2) Iran can be deterred from striking with its nukes. In other words, any agreement between the US and Iran to not develop nuclear weapons would not be sub-game perfect.

Ken B writes:

@PrometheeFeu: That may be a more defensible position logically. It is not how the phrase is generally taken, and that meaning is NOT consistent with David's use of the term. The context I was repluing to was his 'do we need to fight a war for oil' posts. 'no blood for oil' or 'war for oil' is a rhetorical overreach. You don't see 'no blood for lower bargaining costs for Exxon.'

It is not much different from saying libertarians oppose equal rights for blacks for instance. "Of course I only meant they opposed using govt to mandate equal treatment." You find that convincing? When all the important stuff is in the disclaimer ...

Ken B writes:

A good piece from Cathy Young on the Paulines

http://www.thedaily.com/page/2012/02/07/020712-opinions-oped-paul-foreign-policy-young-1-2/#

There's an "I'm alright Jack" element to Paul's positions.

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