Iran Bomb Talk: Jaw-Jaw, Not War-War

Blake Hounshell argues that the renewed speculation by some on the left that the United States is about to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is misplaced.

By rattling some sabers, but doing so in a deniable way, the Bush administration is trying to stiffen the spines of its European partners and the IAEA. The current goal is to pass new sanctions via the U.N. Security Council, not go to war. Remember, we saw a very similar pattern of leaks and official statements in the run up to the second round of sanctions that were passed in March. That drumbeat "worked" precisely because it sounded so plausible. But the Iranians aren't fooled. Expect them to keep thumbing their noses at everyone, while offering just enough cooperation with the IAEA to sow dissension among the Western powers.

That’s almost certainly right on all counts. Winston Churchill famously said that “To jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war” and the Iranian nuclear standoff is almost a classic case of that axiom. There are no good military alternatives here and all sides know it. Still, creating a bit of fear, uncertainty and doubt on that score can help create incentive on the diplomatic front and that’s almost certainly all that’s going on here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The rest of praktike Blake’s observation is good, too: the Iranians aren’t planning on conceding anything on their nuclear development program, just doling out enough crumbs to raise hopes.

  2. legion says:

    Remember, we saw a very similar pattern of leaks and official statements in the run up to the second round of sanctions that were passed in March.

    Ummm… I hate to point out the supremely obvious, but we actually invaded Iraq awhile back. I wouldn’t mention it, except that there’s significant evidence that Bush planned to invade Iraq long before the second round of sanctions was even put in place, which would mean that the “leaks and official statements” were a bit more than just sabre-rattling…

    So, who do you think will be the first to recycle the old “smoking gun-mushroom cloud” thing for this war?

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    While it is open to debate, I can think of at least one instance that ‘jaw-jaw’ was inferior to ‘war-war’, namely the Nazi re-militarization of the Rhineland. A strong military response to Germany breaking the treaty would have likely seen the collapse Hitler’s government. On the other hand, while the collapse of Hitler’s government would have potentially averted tens of millions of deaths, it’s place may have been taken by a communist government which could have created even more troubles.

  4. Stormy70 says:

    Iraq was under sanctions for years, the sanctions referred to above were for those sanctions passed against Iran.

    Iraq deserved to get squished.

  5. Ugh says:

    Iraq deserved to get squished.

    Much like the U.S. “deserved” 9/11, eh?

  6. Andy says:

    Iraq deserved to get squished.

    Apologies to Eddie Murphy:
    But soon we killed the brown people. Ooh we gun make them hurt.
    Kill the brown people yea. But buy my record first.
    Ooh yea. Why don’t you buy my record?

  7. mannning says:

    The question is, are we going to let Iran build nuclear weapons or not? If the answer is yes, do we fully comprehend what that will mean for the Middle East? Do we fully comprehend what Israel will do if they believe Iran has the bomb and the US doesn’t act?

    If, however, we will not let Iran build a bomb, how are we going to stop them? Bush has been adamant about this, and his implied threat to attack is a very strong one.

    All of the previous years of negotiations by the Europeans were fruitless, and as the Iranians get every closer to the goal, they are becoming more and more cocky and less and less amenable to peaceful solutions. The US will not do any better at talk-talk.

    By February, 08, Bush will order a phased air attack that will last for months, after having built up our forces in the area, stockpiled bunker busters and other ordnance, and after having shored up our defenses at home and abroad to another level. The consequences of this attack will be felt here at home, and we will go on a real war-war footing.

    Electing Hillary in that event would be a joke.