I've noticed something about people. When provided an out in a sticky situation, people tend to take it, regardless of future consequences. This is known as a dynamic inconsistency, a situation where people's preferences change over time. A great example is the high school kid who drops out. His present self is thrilled with the decision to sleep late and watch daytime TV as opposed to buckling down in class, but his future self likely won't be nearly as happy with the reduced ability to earn as life goes on. Generally speaking, it's much better to consider your future self, and not the immediate happiness of the present self, when making long range decisions.
Dynamic inconsistency has been on full display here in New York this week with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the UN as well as Columbia University to lay out his platform for his nuclear program and the impacts this has on global policy. The first shot across the bow of the USS What’s Best For America was fired last week when Retired Army General John Abizaid commented that the US could abide by a nuclear Iran. Following this, Ahmadinejad was provided with multiple platforms including the aforementioned university in order to sound byte his softened message to the masses.
Far be it for me to differ with an experienced and partial leader of the military, especially someone as esteemed as General Abizaid. And I don't think the essence of what he said was wrong. Certainly the US could manage with just one more nuclear state.
However, I think the General misses the bigger point, and perhaps he made his comments with only his present self in mind. For example, Iran isn't just another country. Iran has designs to be the super power of the Middle East (and eventually the world). Such aspirations are not necessarily appreciated by its neighbors. Following the development of Iranian nuclear capability, there is a distinct possibility that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey or other countries might engage in a Middle East version of a nuclear arms race in order to create a balance of power. Certainly, such an arms race is not something that the US or any country could or should abide, but at that stage, we'd be in a difficult position to stop it. Alternatively, Iran could simply use its new found nuclear power to lord over all of the other Middle East and neighboring nations, as they attempt to do currently without nukes. Either scenario is extremely destablizing for the Middle East, and the world considering our dependence on oil.
Other arguments have been made to further calm concerns of Iran becoming nuclear. One argument says that the US has it all wrong, Iran's quest is for peaceful nuclear energy for the Iranian people. Another says that the nuclear goal is really to help Iran gain more respect on the world stage (as stated by their own UN Ambassador). These points are at odds with each other – if the goal is peaceful energy, how would that give Iran any more respect as a country? Alternatively, Iran is already one of the most feared nations in the region, and they have plenty of trading partners among UN members (as evidenced by the UN's lack of willingness to support sanctions). So what kinds of additional respect are they trying garner exactly?
The fact is that if Iran really wanted to expand its energy resources and independence, they could build oil refineries to process all of the oil resources that are abundant naturally within Iranian borders into petroleum. Right now, Iran runs the (unlikely) risk being cut off from gas by UN sanctions. Some postulate that the Iranians are not interested in this idea as oil is not a clean technology. However, I've not heard any plans from Iran to stop drilling for oil once nuclear energy generation has been achieved, so clearly the concern for the environment isn't a driver in their quest to split the atom.
Bear in mind that a byproduct of even peaceful nuclear energy generation is plutonium. Over time it produces substantial amounts of Plutonium. Unlike Uranium, even non-weapons grade plutonium can be used to make a nuclear bomb – weapons grade Plutonium just makes a bomb more powerful. The technology needed to create a plutonium based bomb is well within the capacity of a country that can generate nuclear energy. So let's be clear, nuclear weapons capability is an unfortunate byproduct of allowing a country to develop peaceful nuclear energy. If Iran can develop nuclear reactors, they can in very short order create a nuclear bomb.
There will be those who will cast me as a Neocon or some such label and suggest that I am advocating war with Iran. Interestingly, this logic belies their own fear of war as a driver for accepting something that our future selves might regret. And it's worth noting that I am not in favor of any war, unless as a last resort. However, I do see the value in keeping such options as well as all others, available.
It's also worth noting the history of the subject, namely Ahmadinejad himself. Much has been made about his appearance at Columbia, ranging from slight criticism to a debate on DailyKos as to whether he is hot or not. Seriously. However, no matter the extent of the delusion indulged by my liberal friends, the fact is that Ahmadinejad, has previously threatened to "wipe Israel off the map" and even this week raised his own questions as to whether the Holocaust ever happened ("it needs more study"). This is the president of a country whose military is actively killing Americans in Iraq right now. Shame on Columbia for giving this man any platform, which has served not to open any "dialogue" but instead made him more accessible and appear more human to the more presently-focused, dynamically inconsistent among us here in the US. It's too bad confusion can't be burned like oil, because right now there is no shortage of it here in the US.
Some will point out the supposed hypocrisy of my position, as I am a citizen of the single most nuclear capable country in the world. Moral relativism abounds. Bush isn't the despot that Ahmadinejad and his Mullaharchy are, despite the impassioned claims to the contrary by my friends on the left. For all our ills, the U.S. has managed to keep our finger off that button for over 60 years. Can we, more importantly, should we, entrust this same capability to the Iranians?
It's true that Iran isn't a "suicide country," and the Iranian people are not all of the jihadist ilk. But Iran's leaders have sent plenty of signals, by their words and actions, that they are sympathetic with the Islamic terrorist 'struggle' against the US. War within Iran's borders would be very tough for the US to engage in, even with unlikely multilateral support. (Incidentally, it's worth noting that UN support is unlikely mainly because of the greed of various UN Security Counsel members, not because of a lack of agreement regarding the seriousness of the issue). So what are we to do?
We need to engage Iran, but not in terms of appeasement or pleading with them to cooperate. The U.S. can offer security guarantees with the full backing of the US military and guarantee petrol, provided Iran completely drops any nuclear aspirations. We also need to fix the problems in the UN that keep the security counsel from doing its job (namely applying sanction-based pressure). Without sanction based pressure looming over Iran, any attempt to engage Iran by the US or by the UN will be futile – any deal must be backed with the threat of intense economic and other sanctions.
The US can and should continue to foment unrest within Iran. The people of Iran don't agree with the platform of the mullahs and there is a substantial populace there that would love an end to the current government rule. This type of thinking is and needs to continue to be encouraged.
Finally, we need to have a military strategy as well. This is where the war in Iraq becomes crucial – if we can't beat Iranian forces currently fighting our troops in Iraq, Iran won't take us and our demands that they stop nuclear research seriously. Far from withdrawal or redeployment, we must continue to presevere in Iraq, and we must beat back any Iranian forces that we encounter there with our full military might. Further, we cannot leave Iraq in chaos, as that will be yet another testament to our weakness, and will be a written invitation for Iran to continue it's nuclear quest.
If Iran is unwilling to work with us for their security and energy needs, and if the UN is unwilling to police itself serving members and apply real sanctions to stop Iran, then there aren't too many other options left aside from the military one. And while this might not make our present and possibly near future selves very happy, it may very well be necessary to ensure our children’s future selves a stable world, akin to the one we've been able to flourish in. A world without Iran as a nuclear power.