Paul Pillar: War With Iran Worse Than Nuclear Iran

The whole question of Iran’s nuclear program and its effect on relations with Israel and the U.S., and on the stability of the Middle East (and the global economy) is front-and-center today with Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and Barack Obama remarks yesterday at AIPAC. It’s a good time to take a fresh look at the subject, before it gets bogged down in the details of “red lines,” diplomatic manuevers, or mutual saber-rattling.

A fresh look is precisely what Georgetown University’s Paul Pillar (former chief analyst of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center) offers in an important new piece for the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly, “We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran,” made available today in a Sneak Preview. Pillar reviews the evidence and concludes that those urging confrontation with Iran are replaying the tapes of the runup to the Iraq War, articulating a worst-case scenario of the implications of a nuclear Iran along with a best-case scenario of what a military “solution” would actually entail:

Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.

Pillar dismisses one chief preemptive-war argument, made most notoriously by Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich–that a nuclear Iran is “undeterrable”–as contrary to everything we know about that country’s history of international behavior, and to the entire history of the nuclear era. He also examines and finds wanting the general accepted premise that Israelis regard a nuclear Iran as an “existential threat” that requires every sacrifice to prevent.

Given its status as the most important foreign policy issue in the 2012 elections, and the national security and economic risks involved in every course of action, every American should make an effort to become better informed about the facts behind the rhetoric. Paul Pillar’s essay is a very good place to start for anyone skeptical of another rush to war.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.