Built on Facts


It’s Saturday, and it’s’ sort of tradition to set the topic to something not necessarily connected to science. At this point I think there’s not a whole lot in the world that’s of more immediate interest than what’s going on in Iran.

The summary, which you already know: Iran is a theocratic state run with absolute control centered on an Assembly of Experts headed by a Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. They’re unelected and above any system of checks and balances. But on the other hand, they’re not really a governing body as such either. The actual daily government is an elected office, chosen from a slate of candidates approved by the Assembly of Experts. While the country doesn’t exactly follow the bill of rights, in some respects there’s a degree of freedom at least by Middle Eastern standards. Criticism of the government usually doesn’t get you thrown into a wood chipper, though plenty of people have been jailed or worse for speaking freely. Nonetheless this produces an environment where it’s possible for widespread unrest such as we’re currently seeing. It’s fairly clear that any kind of victory by reformist protesters is very likely to be an improvement on the current government, and so the US ought to support the protesters where possible. In reality there’s not all that much that can be done other than helping keep internet access flowing and possibly providing intelligence and some funding to the anti-Ahmadinejad movement. It probably wouldn’t pay for support to be much more overt than that, as the US isn’t exactly so popular in Iran even among reformers.

But as I’ve heard it said, there’s very little point in trying to predict what will happen. Politics in our own country is blisteringly unpredictable; most pundits might as well be reading bird entrails when predicting possibilities in Iran.

It may not matter. I’ve not heard any reason to believe Mousavi has any less desire for Iran to be a nuclear weapons state than Ahmadinejad. He’s much less of a nut and less likely to want to see those weapons used aggressively, but there’s not much reason to hope he’d stop the projects which are developing those weapons. For that matter, in the absence of a full-scale revolution it will still be the Supreme Leader making the call either way.

As such, Iran will probably be a nuclear weapons state in a few years. They learned the lessons of Osirak, and have scattered and buried their nuclear program. As such the US probably couldn’t stop it. Air raids might slow the progress, but are unlikely to set it back very far. A full-scale ground invasion might theoretically do the job, but is absolutely out of the question for both political and practical reasons. Non-forceful means like sanctions and diplomacy are worth a shot, but if they work better than placebo I’ll eat my hat. Israel can’t do anything either – their air force would have trouble just reaching Iran, much less actually accomplishing anything once there.

So they’ll get the bomb. Iran’s leadership is probably not crazy enough to actually launch, but a nuclear arsenal would be one heck of a bargaining chip. Worse, Iran is not exactly so popular with its Middle Eastern neighbors. Other regional states will probably develop their own programs out of sheer self-preservation. Nukes will proliferate like rabbits in a region that’s already been a powder keg for millenia. Having a government not run by the Ahmadinejad might mitigate some of the risk, but as I said prediction is probably futile.

I’m not a geopolitical optimist. But hey, at least if I’m wrong it will be good news.

All that aside: for the sake of the Iranian people I’d much rather see them win a government that’s more free and more democratic. As a fellow human being I think it’s a great thing they’re trying to do for themselves and their fellow countrymen. Despite my pessimism I’m fully behind the brave men and women trying to change their nation for the better. I hope they succeed.


  1. #1 Thomas
    June 20, 2009

    Considering the title of your blog I assume you have plenty of facts proving that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.


  2. #2 Matt Springer
    June 20, 2009

    After the Iraq WMD debacle I don’t blame you in the slightest for being skeptical. At this point however it’s very difficult to explain known Iranian nuclear enrichment activities as required for peaceful nuclear energy.

    But in terms of world response it doesn’t really matter what Iran’s intentions are. Unlike Iraq, there is zero chance of any forceful intervention. If Iran wants a bomb, they’ll get one. If they don’t, they won’t.

  3. #3 dreikin
    June 20, 2009

    Unlike Iraq, there is zero chance of any forceful intervention.

    Why do you think that? This current situation seems like it might be a usable reason to do just that.
    Note: That is not to say one way or the other as to whether I’d support such an action

  4. #4 Alex Besogonov
    June 20, 2009

    “Unlike Iraq, there is zero chance of any forceful intervention.”

    Not true. Israel has enough nukes to turn Iran into a glowing glass parking lot.

  5. #5 Matt Springer
    June 20, 2009

    Israel does indeed have plenty of nukes, but it’s also true that Israel will never launch a nuclear first strike. They can hopefully deter Iran from the use of nukes once they’re developed (assuming they are being developed), but nukes can’t stop the development itself.

  6. #6 natural cynic
    June 20, 2009

    Other regional states will probably develop their own programs out of sheer self-preservation. Nukes will proliferate like rabbits…

    Like who?
    Iraq, no facilities and not while there is any American presence.
    Turkey, why bother if they’re in NATO
    Syria, no facilities, even if they did have one, Israel knocked it out
    Saudi Arabia, highly doubtful
    Egypt, not while the US is their cash cow
    Libya, no facilities and gave up their ambitions anyway
    Jordan, no ambitions or facilities and couldn’t hide it from the Israelis anyway
    Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Dubai etc. no facilities and too dependent on US
    Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, no way
    Kazakhstan, maybe and maybe they already have a deal with the Russians
    the other -stans, not a chance unless they have a deal with Moscow

    Israel has enough nukes to turn Iran into a glowing glass parking lot.

    900 miles shortest distance from Israel to Tehran, 500 miles to Iran Iraq border. If Israel’s F-15I strike fighters are carrying nukes, they are going to use Iraqi airspace, which means the US will give the OK. Is that likely if they’re packing? The whole world will know who is guilty of aiding and abetting.
    Much longer distance through Turkey and a need to refuel in air – will it be OK with them? Or Saudi Arabia?

  7. #7 Thomas
    June 21, 2009

    Matt, I think Iran’s nuclear program is as much about national prestige as about energy. They want nuclear power to prove they are a modern, industrialized country, not just a supplier of oil. Given how Iran has been targeted with sanctions before it is also somewhat understandable if they do not want to rely on import of enriched uranium but want to handle the whole chain at home to be less vulnerable.

    I don’t rule out that Iran is still working on nuclear weapons, or at least to keep the option open if it is needed, but as far as solid evidence goes they stopped the effort in 2003 because their real goal wasn’t to nuke Israel but to have a deterrent against Saddam, whom they were told by USA still had an active program to make WMD:s.

    In the censored part of the interview with Ahmadinejad on 60-minutes he explained that he want to see a referendum with both Palestinians and Jews deciding the future of Israel, but that part didn’t fit the image of him as a lunatic wanting to nuke Israel so it was cut out.

  8. #8 MPL
    June 21, 2009

    Probably nothing will stop the Iranian nuclear program at this point—it is apparently very popular with the citizens of Iran, so no matter which government ends up in power, it will probably want to make nukes. Frankly, as a regional power with regional enemies and trouble in its back yard, nukes are in Iran’s geopolitical best interests.

    Israel already has nukes, and Turkey has some on permanent loan from NATO. The Arab Persian Gulf States (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) are rumored to have a joint nuclear program, and good enough relations with Pakistan to buy some tech off of them. They would also be very interested in balancing the nuclear power of Israel and Iran.

    Frankly, I’m still more scared by Pakistan’s nukes—unlike Iran, the amount of internal dissent means that there is a serious possibility that it could collapse into chaos, and then anything could happen with the bombs. If I had to face someone with a gun, I’d rather he were a mugger than a lunatic.

    (P.S. I have no idea if any nuclear powers in the middle east currently have missiles for them, or still rely on bombers. But the missile it takes to throw your nukes merely from one side of the middle east to the other are probably realistic toys to own for anyone who can afford the nukes to put on them)

  9. #9 Anonymous
    June 21, 2009

    “Israel does indeed have plenty of nukes, but it’s also true that Israel will never launch a nuclear first strike.”

    HAHAHAHAHA! Best LOL of the morning. Israel is a paranoid and aggressive state. They have taken the words “never again” to mean “never again with THEY be doing it to US”.

    Damn straight the Iranians are buidling nukes. They’d be nuts not to.

    As to the Iranian political situation: nothing makes sense until you realise that the country is overwhelmingly young (<30), and governed by a clique of old men. That quote by Max Planck comes to mind.

  10. #10 Matt Springer
    June 21, 2009

    Thomas: I have my doubts, but I hope you’re right! What’s problematic about our dear Ahmadinejad is not so much what he says in English, but what he says in Farsi. I don’t outright reject the idea that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful; I’d be thrilled if that turns out to be the case. But I’m not terribly optimistic about it.

    MPL: Excellent points, especially about Pakistan. The problem there is that it’s wholly possible for a revolution inverse to the one that might be happening in Iran – ie, a Taliban takeover. Bad doesn’t even begin to describe that scenario. India in particular would be in a truly dire situation.

    Anonymous: Go take a long walk off a short pier.

  11. #11 Thomas
    June 21, 2009

    Matt, Ahmadinejad doesn’t run Iran. He is not entirely powerless but the real power is with Khamenei. (Or, well, at least that was the case until last week. Next week, who knows?) Nor should you take everything he says too seriously, especially not the short pieces handed over by MEMRI and similar propaganda organizations. Everyone has heard how Ahmadinejad “threatened to wipe Israel off the map”, but how many bothered to read enough of the speech to find that he made an analogy to how the Soviet Union was dissolved and now only existed in history books? That’s hardly a call for a nuclear attack, is it?

    While civil disorder in Pakistan would be bad there is little risk of any Taliban takeover. The radical islamists in Pakistan live in the least populated and poorest parts of the country. The wealthier and more populous regions have no such interests.

    MPL, Israel’s new Jericho III missiles can reach not only the Middle East but Europe, Africa and North America as well. In addition Israel has German built submarines that can probably carry nuclear armed cruise missiles. Pakistan has nuclear capable missiles as well, although not quite as good.

  12. #12 Thomas
    June 21, 2009

    By the way, what do you think of American politicians wanting to wipe Iran off the map:
    “The Persian population in Iran is not a majority, it is a plurality. There are many different, diverse, and disagreeing populations inside Iran and an obvious strategy, which I believe is a good strategy, is to separate those populations.” – Rep. Jane Harman (May 3, 2009)

  13. #13 Matt Springer
    June 22, 2009

    I’d say regional secession is another kettle of fish entirely. Quebec separatists can hardly be accused of wanting to wipe Canada off the map, after all. The worry isn’t about literal lines on a map, it’s about nuclear fission happening a few miles above a major city.

    In any case a pretty large fraction of the problems in the Middle East (though not really in Iran) is that its post-colonial national borders were drawn so ineptly and illogically. Nonetheless assuming there’s no context I’m missing, Harman’s comment is badly misinformed even as theory for the Iranian government to act on itself. As a policy the US might attempt to impose, it’s simultaneously a hilariously impossible and alarmingly totalitarian suggestion. But hey, it’s congress. That sort of thing is pretty much par for the course.

  14. #14 Thomas
    June 22, 2009

    Matt, since Ahmadinejad has made it clear that it is exactly redrawing the lines on a map he wants, why do you worry about him? The idea is to liberate the Palestinians which you hardly to by incinerating the whole country? If you are willing to brush off Harman’s comments, why not Ahmadinejad’s?

    To take another example, the current foreign minister of Israel stated:
    “We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II,” Lieberman added. “Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary.”
    Did he refer to nuclear bombs or just conventional area bombing?

  15. #15 CCPhysicist
    June 24, 2009

    I’d suspect Iran’s Arab neighbors are more worried about a revival of the Persian Empire with nuclear weapons than Israel is. As noted, Israel (despite being an undeclared nuclear state) is well armed. Once the US leaves the region and the oil runs out, Iran wants to be in charge.

    Too many people are looking at the next month rather than the next century. I count among those the people who want to use up what is left of American oil before using up the last of Arab, Russian, and Persian oil.

  16. #16 Donalbain
    June 27, 2009

    In a global market, it doesnt really matter where the oil actually comes from. If oil supplies from one region dries up, that will reduce the supply and increase the price. The fact that your oil is in America would not really make a huge difference to the price.

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