Winning the Iran Debate

Bernard Finel argues that those of us arguing against war in Iran are doing it wrong. He's right.

Bernard Finel makes an excellent point about why the hawks have the upper hand in the “war with Iran” debate. While he’s specifically taking to task recent columns by Stephen Walt, the argument applies equally to those, like myself, who have been arguing the folly of military action against Iran’s nukes:

[T]he ship has sailed on this. It sailed in 1979, and has been sailing in the same direction for 30 years. If you are relying on convincing the public and decision-makers that Iran is not a threat, you are going to lose the debate. If you are arguing, in effect, that we should just ignore them and rely on deterrence, that is also going to lose the debate.

The reason the neocons won the debate on Iraq was precisely because they were proposing a solution to a widely recognized problem. It may have been the wrong solution, and the problem was not as severe as they claimed. But the reality is that in policy debates, those able to credibly argue for a “winning” strategy to a problem will always have the upper hand over those proposing muddling through or living with risk.

Like Walt, I think the risk of a nuclear Iran is vastly oversold. Given that Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-Il, and several successive Pakistan governments have managed to possess and not use nuclear weapons over the years, I see no reason why the Iranian mullahs would be any different. They’re no crazier than Kim, certainly; indeed, they’ve demonstrated constantly over the last three decades that they’re rational, calculating actors.

But Bernard’s right that this is a losing argument. Americans expect their leaders to take action to prevent risks and, while the probability of a nuclear Iran doing something foolish may be quite low, the cost of being wrong on that one is pretty high. (Indeed, that was ultimately what caused me to switch from vehement opposition to reluctant support for invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

Given this, Bernard proposes several “winning” alternatives that address these fears by means other than war–not necessarily because he thinks any of them are actually good policies but because they’ll avert war.  Absent that, he predicts,

If the debate turns into one where one side proposes war as a solution to the Iranian problem and the other simply denies there is a problem in the first place, the result will be war. Why? Because it will be too easy to paint the deniers as naive, particularly since the idea of an Iranian threat is so deeply embedded in American political culture.

I’ve already gone on record predicting that we’ll get through the year without going to war with Iran or, indeed, anyone else new. I think Iran will ratchet up the tensions just enough to satisfy their domestic audience without crossing a red line that would force us to ratchet things up beyond a token strike. I believe that, like President Bush before him, President Obama has no desire to get us into a shooting war with Iran that could evolve into a regional conflagration.

But Bernard’s road map is likely the best insurance against the heated rhetoric of the campaign from forcing his hand.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , ,
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. ponce says:

    the hawks have the upper hand in the “war with Iran” debate.

    If that were true, wouldn’t we have attacked Iran already?

  2. This rings depressingly true.

    Just as with Saddam, the American public is not inclined to be charitable when it comes to the mullahs in Iran. There is, as the linked article notes, a 30 year history to make sure of that.

    This sounds to me all too much like one of those situations where, rather than making a rational decision to go to war, we end up blundering into it, or being forced into it by outside forces (i.e., actions taken by the Iranians that are purely for domestic consumption and actions taken by Israel). Add to this the fact that it’s looking more and more likely that we’re going to be forced to increase the naval presence in the Persian Gulf do to stupid iranian blustering over the Straits of Hormuz and you’ve got yourself a perfect little accident waiting to happen.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Not necessarily. Remember, the drumbeat for regime change in Iraq started in the Clinton administration and didn’t culminate until 18 months after 9/11. Both parties have bought into the rhetoric that it’s “unacceptable” for Iraq to have nukes. That leads inexorably to one conclusion once they get close. The flawed NIE report from a few years back delayed the march to war, too.

  4. ponce says:

    Remember, the drumbeat for regime change in Iraq started in the Clinton administration

    Yes, and the drumbeat for regime change in Iran has been beating since 1979.

    A large number of Americans, perhaps a majority, are always in favor of going to war against anyone (as long as they don’t have to sacrifice anything), so there is no debate to win there.

    Going to war with Iran has always been up to the whim of the President.

    If George W. Bush figured out war with Iran was a bad idea, I doubt we’ll ever go to war with Iran.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    IMO the alternatives he proposes are terribly weak. For each one there’s an easy retort.

    I think that the best argument against going to war with Iran to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is a variant of the cost argument: it is not politically possible in the U. S. to go to war with Iran in a way that will actually prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Actually, quite to the contrary. If we go to war with Iran to prevent their getting nuclear weapons, it will motivate the regime to get them. And use them, for that matter.

    Why go to war in pursuit of an objective you can’t accomplish? Espeically when it’s self-destructive to try?

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, if Rambobama’s poll numbers start sinking this summer we might attack Iran, North Korea and China.

    On a serious note, and putting aside the obvious problems with having pure academics like this Finel character instruct prospective flag officers, the major fallacies with the Chamberlain approach to Iran are twofold.

    First, the “conflagration” meme doesn’t fly for the simple reason there is no “Arab street” equivalent when it comes to Iran. Arabs hate Persians. Been that way for centuries. Iran is a lone wolf country. If we took out Iran’s nuke program not only would Israel thank us, so too would the Saudis, the Syrians, the Egyptians; hell, everyone except their suppliers would be lining up to high-five us.

    Second, the North Korea analogy doesn’t hold water because of the religious angle. Granted, the Kims were crazy, but not because of their religion. They were just a few cans short of six-packs. The Mullahs, on the other hand, are religion crazy. That’s crazy on 11. It’s a special sort of crazy. One that can’t be addressed with containment, a la the North Koreans. Granted, the Iranians haven’t overtly been manifesting their crazy towards us, but that’s only because they’ve seriously been preoccupied. They spent nearly the entire 1980’s fighting Saddam. They spent the 1990’s building up their capabilities. They spent much of the last decade fighting a proxy war against us in Iraq and attempting to destabalize that country.

    If Iran lobs a nuke at Tel Aviv it’ll be little solace for us to watch the academe sitting around the campfire, drinking Skyy and listening to the Carpenters, engaging in a circle jerk about what we could have done differently.

    Lastly, when “whatever, make something up” is one of your four arguments against using military force against the Iranians, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing that other people get to make those decisions.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    If Iran lobs a nuke at Tel Aviv it’ll be little solace for us to watch the academe sitting around the campfire, drinking Skyy and listening to the Carpenters, engaging in a circle jerk about what we could have done differently.

    If the argument is that we should go to war with Iran to give Israel security from a nuclear attack, shouldn’t we propose a U. S. nuclear umbrella over the entire Middle East, Israel and Iran alike, if both Iran and Israel abandon whatever nuclear weapons they have and prove they aren’t developing them? Wouldn’t that be better than war?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    How about the argument that, “Could we take a frakking break for a couple of years before the next war?”

  9. Michael,

    Why do you hate America? /sarcasm

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    How’s about just finishing the ones we already got?

  11. Dave Schuler says:


    We have always been at war with Eastasia.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    @Dave Schuler:


    The real fear here, as far as I can see, is that an Iranian nuke removes one of our beloved options for dealing with the, um, Iranian problem. And that’s precisely why the Iranian leadership wants ’em.

    The idea that they would seriously use a nuke on Israel (a nuclear power) is pretty insane. MAD applies in that instance. That’s w/o the USA even lifting a finger.

    The real worry is that it gives Iran some measure of immunity, and thus it might make them all the more willing to use their proxies (Hezbollah) to do nefarious things (to Israel). Which may well be the case, I don’t know. I, for one, think that theory makes for a crappy casus belli.

    Also, I think that an attack would *at best* delay them somewhat, while simultaneously hardening their resolve to get a nuke, strengthening the hand of hardliners, and generally amping up anti-American sentiment in the general population.

    I call bollox on this idea that one should argue against the war by accepting the warmongers’ frame of the terrible Iranian threat. For one thing, it’s intellectually dishonest. For another, the arguments will suck. Finally, if you concede there is a problem, Americans will probably want to go to war with it (see also: Drugs, Poverty, Terror…).

  13. steve says:

    There is no evidence for the “mad mullah” theory. Iran has followed the Cold War rules as well as anyone. Bombing Tel Aviv means risking the lives of thousand or millions of allies. I just dont see it happening. If the narrative has been building for 30 years, which country has the history of invading and starting wars with others? It is not Iran.


  14. Mr. Prosser says:

    If we get a war it will be because of some mistake made in the gulf or the strait. An Iranian destroyer getting too close to a carrier, fighters in mid-air collisions, someone with a heavy finger on a SAM battery. I only hope the fighting ends quickly and does not trigger a chain reaction escalation. Maybe, just maybe, there is already some back door communication going on.

  15. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    re: “Too easy to retort”

    I would add to your case. It is very easy for the pro-war people to trot out military “experts” that will say it will be “easy” and “surgical”.

    All arguments that are true should be brought to bear, and the chips will fall where they may. I believe James has a great point, but it may be unwise to muck around trying to be too clever about the shaping of messages as well.

  16. War is not (was never) a binary decision. Time immemorial we’ve had border clashes, punitive raids, etc., etc.

    And actually, we’ve had demonstration specifically between the US and Iran. Didn’t Seals blow up some oil platforms 20 or 30 years back? (Not to mention unfortunate airline episodes.)

    I’d guess that a hawk’s “win” these days would be of similar scale.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    Ultimately the American people don’t care whether we’re at war because they don’t bear the burden of it. That’s the beauty of the All-Volunteer Force, and exactly why Nixon enacted it. As a nation we are all but insulated against the consequences of our actions in the world, and are arrogant enough to think that’s how it should be. We are a nation of lunatics.

    Until this changes the warmongers will usually win.

  18. Robert C. says:

    Tsar nicholas: “If we took out Iran’s nuke program not only would Israel thank us, so too would the Saudis, the Syrians, the Egyptians; hell, everyone except their suppliers would be lining up to high-five us. ”

    Straight from the Dick Cheney playbook: :”They’ll great us with flowers”…….what BS.


  19. mannning says:

    >@Doug Mataconis:

    This sounds to me all too much like one of those situations where, rather than making a rational decision to go to war, we end up blundering into it, or being forced into it by outside forces (i.e., actions taken by the Iranians that are purely for domestic consumption and actions taken by Israel). (emphasis added)

    Israeli action is the most likely scenario, and we will be drawn into the fray, so Doug you are quite right.

    It will not be anything like a surgical strike, either.That would merely delay the reckoning. The Israelis will go for a far more complete and permanent solution as a matter of their own survival. Their best chance is to employ their nuclear EMP weapons to paralize the Iranian military altogether, and then to destroy as much of their weaponry as possible from the air throughout Iran before attacking the nuclear sites with MOABs. The Israelis would repeat this scenario as needed until they were reasonably sure the job was done, and done well, and Iran would be no military threat to anyone for a long time.

  20. Rob in CT says:


  21. mannning says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Yes, it is, if you can’t see the reality of the situation.

  22. mannning says:

    Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions in Perspective

    1. The purpose of their nuclear program is several fold: 1) It provides them with protection against nuclear threats from without; 2) It provides them with the technology to generate electrical power; 3) It give them the ability to threaten the total existence of Israel; 4) it gives them the button to push to annihilate Israel or any enemy in range within a matter of minutes should they so desire; and 5) It allows them to give nuclear weapons away to terrorist groups that might use them against the US.

    2. Iran has a considerable armed force that is capable of overrunning any of their adjacent nations, and, coupled with Syria, they could conceivably conquer Iraq, and then attack Israel. Their forces have been augmented by Russian weapons systems for years. They are not far from having nuclear warheads for their long range missiles.

    3. Israel’s nuclear weapons capability deters Iran from a frontal assault on Israel, just as they hope to have a nuclear deterrent against an Israeli attack.

    4. Iran has considerable support from Syria, their strongest ally, and from both Hamas and Hezbollah in Palestine and Lebanon, as well as terrorist cells in strategic nations, including the US. Recent events in Egypt have raised the possibility of their support against Israel, the common enemy of all Islam. Even Turkey, which has been a NATO ally of ours for many years, now has an Islamic government that is hostile to Israel. All of Israel’s neighbors have been armed by Iran with very large numbers of missile systems that have been used often against Israel in random attacks.

    5. The President of Iran, Ahmadinejad, has bombastically threatened Israel with being wiped off the map with Iran’s nuclear weapons. From a practical standpoint, these threats can be laid to political posturing with no actual threat, or they can be considered to be real once Iran has the bombs to do it, either themselves, or by using a terrorist group to carry it out.

    6. At the moment, there would be a nuclear standoff should Iran succeed in making a nuclear weapon, since Israel has the warheads and missiles to retaliate effectively. This would mimic the MAD posture of the US and the USSR that lasted for 60 years.

    7. The strategic breakthrough that the development of nuclear EMP weapons brings to the situation is the possibility of immobilizing the armed forces of any nation by one or more air bursts that send high power pulses to the ground that disable electrical and electronics devices and vehicles, all types of missiles and communications of the nation attacked. It is fairly certain that Israel has such weaponry in their arsenal now, and probable that Iran is well on the way to having them. The advantage of such EMP weapons is that they do little or no harm to people but devastating harm to military equipment of all sorts.

    8. The threat to Israel is therefore twofold: 1) an EMP attack by Iran that immobilizes their armed forces, thus negating the threat of nuclear or air force retaliation by Israel, followed by; 2) a nuclear bomb attack that destroys their centers of population and industry.

    9. The situation from an Israeli point of view then, is that they face total annihilation once Iran acquires the nuclear weaponry suitable to the job, and their own retaliatory capability would be useless, thus completely negating the MAD posture.

    10. Israel, then, is preparing to attack Iran once they determine that the “red line” they have established has been crossed by Iran. They must get the first blow in, in order to execute their plan to destroy Iran’s military systems and equipment before Iran does it to them. The Israeli Army, Air Force and Navy are fully capable of destroying Iran’s forces, once they have achieved the shutdown of literally all of Iran’s military hardware, especially their air defenses and missiles that heavily depend upon electronics to operate, including the long range missies of Iran’s developing nuclear retaliatory force. This shutdown can be repeated if needed, as some military equipment may survive or be reactivated after the first attack. The rate of repair is not easy to predict but it would likely be many days of downtime.

    11. It cannot be stressed often enough that Israelis are totally fearful of Iran if they acquire the bomb, and they see it as a matter of Israel’s national survival. It is all the more acute when all of the facts about EMP attack are laid out in detail. Thus, resorting to their nuclear EMP capabilities is both logical and necessary for their survival.

    12 From this brief summary, it is not hard to predict that Israel will attack Iran soon, perhaps in a matter of months from now in 2012, or almost certainly in 2013.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    Iran is a mess right now. Syria, their key ally, is on the verge of collapse. They are not going to conquer Iraq.

    MAD applies. You do not just get to hand-wave it away by staying EMP. Even if they pulled off this EMP + nuke attack you keep talking about, they would still be staring down USian nukes. They’re toast if they nuke Israel. If Israel was incapable of responding, we would.

    Your whole scenario is predicated on the idea that Iran’s leadership is totally insane. Not just a little kooky, not just nasty, but utterly insane to the point where they literally do not care if they destroy themselves.

    It also assumes Israel’s leadership is crazier than I think is the case.

  24. tyndon clusters says:

    I will be willing to bet NO ONE commenting here has ever been to Israel.

    I guess Manning in his heated, way over the top lunacy believes that Iran has developed the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s neutron bombs…you know, the kind of bomb which will only kill Israelis and not the Palestinian that stands 3 feet away from them.

    For you see, if you have ever stepped foot in Israel, you will notice that, lo and behold there are a whole bunch of Arabs that live there and they intermingle with the Israelis everyday.

    The only difference is the neighborhoods that they return to at night are segregated and separated by walls, but during the day, the society relies on Palestinian labor and the towns bustle with both jew and arab working side by side.

    Also, Manning, Tel Aviv is about 25 clicks (15 miles) west of the West Bank….at last check radiation fallout would poison and kill many thousands downwind of the blast and those folks happen to be Palestinian. So unless the Iranians wish to be responsible for the murder and maiming of tens of thousands of Palestinians, there is no way they detonate a nuclear bomb over Israeli soil.

    In short the insane idea that Iran with a few bombs would risk its own annihilation by attacking Israel with 200 – 300 bombs strains credulity.

    Its dolts like Manning with their brand of total bullshit which got us into the strategic disaster of Iraq, and now, from the safety and comfort of his keyboard, he rattles the sabers again to commit yet another folly.

    Go fuc#k yourself as$hole, but before you do, if you have the balls, go visit a VA hospital and see the missing limbs on the soldiers who bear the brunt of the stupidity and callous indifference of the $hithead generals and politicians and feckless cheerleaders (like manning) who are only too eager to evade their responsibility and guilt in getting us into war to begin with.