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Friday, March 12, 2010

Chomsky on Iranian deterrent [weblog Op-Ed entry]

Noam Chomsky spoke at Harvard Memorial Church on March 6. His analysis, largely supported by the public record, is that the constant threat of force by the U.S. is driving the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapons deterrent. Paraphrasing, "They'd be crazy not to."

There is very good historical parallels with North Korea to support Chomsky's analysis. The U.S. "talked tough" on N. Korea and marginalized its leadership, keeping "all options on the table" through the last 60 years of administrations. They offered unilateral talks continually to address the threat the U.S. posed to their sovereignty, all summarily denied. They offered to sign non-proliferation treaties, which the U.S. ignored.

Now they have a burgeoning weapons program.

Contrast the situation with Iraq who had no substantive nuclear weapons program at any point in their history. The U.S. has decimated that country with violence.

What's the lesson?


  1. The Gnome says that 'the US nuclear missile submarines, stationed in the Persian Gulf region, would leave Iran no chance to use a future nuclear weapon for offensive purposes.' This strikes me as either disingenuous or naive - the United States' concern over an Iranian nuclear capability is based on the fear that (1) Iran might one day supply a bomb to a group like Hezbollah, which could then ship it into a major US city in a barrel of olive oil, or (2) that, as a country ultimately ruled by crazy fundamentalists (redundant, I know), Iran might not always be concerned with rational notions like deterrent.

  2. Hi wormcast -- Thanks for your comment.

    Without getting into Chomsky's motivation for saying what he did about Iranian opportunity to use a nuclear device as a first-strike weapon (who cares why he said it?), we should consider the statement on the basis of what we know to be true.

    Let's consider a scenario in which Iran developed a weapon. (I think the most cautious observer would say this is not within Iran's purview for 5-10 years, but a more likely estimate is probably double that.) I've argued a few times here that enriching uranium takes the resources of thousands of people, thousands of acres of land, and billions of dollars. So I'm going to make my first assumption for the purposes of this argument: the gross details of the development of an Iranian nuclear device would be well known by U.S. and European intelligence agencies and, most likely, the general information would be available to the public.

    We need only go back to the recent history with North Korea's weapons program about a decade for a relevant parallel scenario. They detonated a small device (less than 1 kiloton, perhaps flawed) in 2006. Four years earlier, U.S. intelligence revealed to N. Korean diplomats that they knew about their weapons program. See

    If we grant this assumption -- that the design and implementation of the weapon would be known -- then we enter the realm of "attribution." Attribution is the science of detecting a nuclear devices origins by looking at the signature of the blast: size, duration, radiative signatures, etc. Basically, each explosion is a fingerprint and attribution is a methodology for identifying the manner in which the device that made the explosion was developed.

    If we can attribute the device correctly -- and keep in mind that the perpetrator of the nuclear crime knows this capability exists -- then a retaliation aimed at the originator of the device is a real possibility.

    How good is current attribution? This is a lively and active debate, at present. Even detractors, I think, would call the science "robust." Suffice it to say that the science is likely sufficient to detect the origin of any detonation that happened today. A bill (see was proposed last March -- and signed into law by Obama last month to strengthen this technology.

    Good attribution therefore makes your scenario (1) very unlikely. How likely are you to supply a firearm to a suspected criminal with the serial number and ballistics report attached?

    I don't entertain scenario (2) seriously. Why is it that people equate fundamentalism with an unmitigated suicidal tendency? It's ludicrous. And you might take this occasion to question why you believe this.

    Finally, I'll note that these two lines of "argument" are often pursued in the media and by government officials. And if you agree that we've essentially proven that the likelihood of their being rational or true is pretty small we might ask ourselves why these arguments are made and why some/many of us accept them so readily. There are many responses to this inquiry, so I'll just leave it as a question left for personal introspection.

  3. "Why is it that people equate fundamentalism with an unmitigated suicidal tendency? It's ludicrous."

    Well, there does seem to be a rather lengthy list of Islamic fundamentalists that have demonstrated an unmitigated suicidal tendency ... by blowing themselves up in the name of jihad. I think that such actions are far more ludicrous to people who think of this world as all there is than they are to people who sincerely and deeply believe that there is an eternal afterlife - and one that is more likely to be reached if you are a martyr.

    There is also a lengthy list of countries and empires that have grievously wounded or even destroyed themselves through deeply irrational actions. Often, this is the result of a deeply irrational person with more or less absolute power. I have seen no convincing evidence that the Ayatollah is not such a mad dictator, just waiting to get an apocalyptic revelation. Frankly, having the born-again Bush anywhere the nuclear football was bad enough.

    As to the technical case you make for nuclear attribution, I defer to your expertise. This is a somewhat comforting development with respect to assuredly rational, nuclear-armed actors. However, with respect to concerns that the Iranian leadership may at some point act in a deeply irrational and self-destrictive way, I do not at all accept your claim it has been "essentially proven that the likelihood of their being rational or true is pretty small." I have seen no proof of this at all. To the contrary, I think that you and Chomsky, as fundamentally secular, rational people, are irrationally assuming that everyone else is fundamentally rational too; you are thus led to the irrational attribution of rationality to a very irrational regime.

  4. Hi wormcast -- thanks for continuing this interesting discussion with your comment. I apologize for the lack of a timely reply.

    Of course, your point is well voiced and often expounded upon in the papers of record and policy circles in the U.S. The fact that "they're mad" is taken as self-evident. As you correctly point out, I'm questioning this assertion. I'd like to make a few points.

    You say that you've seen no proof that the Iranian regime in general, and the Ayatollah Khamenei, in particular, isn't irrational. It seems like a difficult way to approach the world -- requiring proof from folks with different views, even if extremely so from your own, of their sanity.

    Leaving that aside -- since it seems like we'd just get into a battle of speculating on what motivates people not to be vaporized by the US in a retaliatory attack the likes of which we have never been seen before -- I think your point, and that of the policy establishment that, paraphrasing, "they blow themselves up in the name of jihad" is comparing apples to satchel charges. You seem to equate the fairly common scenario of financially poor and typically chronically abused youth being coerced into blowing themselves up in what they perceive as an act of warfare to the scenario wherein populations of people in the millions, and the likely end of nation, ensues in a retaliation by the US and possibly other nuclear armed nations by use of some number of nuclear devices. (I don't think we have to waste any space arguing about whether the US and others would retaliate in kind if they were the target of an attributable attack by Iran.)

    These scenarios, simply by their scale and the nature of the consequences, can certainly not be compared.

    That the Ayatollah may be insane is not even the issue. In the real world, including the effect of extreme idealism, religious or otherwise, orders must be carried out through a chain of command. And if the Ayatollah said one day in a fit of national suicide, "That's it, we're launching on the US," we can predict with certainty that there would be a coup and he would be removed. Your contention that "the afterlife" makes the nearly instantaneous immolation of the entire city of Tehran and other significant parts of that nation a tenable concept for the religious leadership of Iran, effectively ending a rule that they obviously cling to fiercely, simply unbelievable. One can cite in this connection the recent repressive measures taken by the religious leadership to support their straw man in Ahmedinejad. But there is a long history of struggle in Iran, even before the ejection of Shah Pahlavi in 1980, by Shiite fundamentalists to wrest power from more progressive, popular forces. The great irony here (to those yet in the dark) is that it took the US fomentation of a coup to install a despised dictator to give way to the current religious fundamentalist regime which is interested in 'playing ball' with the US in no way whatsoever.

    Chalk up another one to that Great Mind, Kissinger.