Some of us have been avid readers of political apocalypse fiction for a long time, and so the idea of the demise of our species (and perhaps our planet) because of a nuclear holocaust has been done to death, so to speak. We tend now to dismiss the idea as passÚ or at least improbable, although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which publishes the "doomsday clock" does not agree. Among us, those old enough to remember "duck and cover" exercises in public schools ... my high school was (and still is) 3.2 miles from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia ... remember the awful epiphany that our parents and the rest of the adults in our society were into the nuclear era way over their heads and completely useless to us as protectors and guiding lights into the future they were creating. It took us decades to wrest the government from their trembling hands, from their incompetent judgments about good and evil on our planet, from the mindset that "it would be better to be dead than Red."
"Godless Communism" was the threat then. It was understood as a two pronged attack on basic American values, (1) on God, who obviously favored us as a subgroup of the species, having given us the opportunity to appropriate the majestic plains and purple mountains from the heathen aborigines who already dwelt here (sans horses and smallpox), and (2) on property, which we had been crafting since the first days of our arrival, but had recently shown some proficiency in creating industrially, manufacturing along with our products a comfortable (if self-righteously ignorant) existence as a nation of middle class believers in the American manifest destiny. Godless Communism entailed, in addition, a betrayal of federal principles in favor of centrist planning and an utter rejection of corporate profits and visions in favor of social and economic justice. But primarily, to Americans it was the godlessness of Communism that posed the most palpable and bone-chilling threat.
Americans understand religion intuitively. They understand from their European experience that religion is not so much about one's own salvation, for that, it goes without saying, is assured by the doctrine of repentance ... however late and tardy one might choose it. No, religion is less about one's own immortal soul than about the guy next door or the guy in the next car whose behaviors must be controlled according to some predictable system to be as little threatening as possible. Religions exact this performance more or less equitably, so a pretense of adherence is nearly as good as a vocation in it. Remarkably, when a society takes up a religion more or less universally, the sense of security should rise. Historians know the truth of the matter, but then real history is strewn with the baggage of many competing religions, a situation which seems to confound the human brain.
Before the Protestant Reformation Roman Catholicism waxed the unruly Europeans into a form of behavior that provided a modicum of predictability in society. Eventually this led to sufficient leisure and communications among Europeans that a Pandora's box of criticism erupted and the Church broke into several large and contentious pieces. The great bogey of the middle ages, Islam, meanwhile, had peaked both militarily and intellectually, and on the edges of Europe receded into the gloom of ignorance as more exciting European wars of succession, religion, and ego embroiled Europeans for at least the last half millennium.
Now though, with a global industrial and commercial transformation in progress due to the penetration of Europeans and their wars into nearly every village and valley of the planet, the Islamic nations are now turning out to be serious threats, chief among them the ancient race of Persians, now in the thrall of a great awakening of their religion's militant spirit. In a fundamental sense the problem that comes from dealing with a foreign religion with values that are not shared is that the predictability of behaviors is greatly diminished. And, of course, these modern day Iranians now vociferously threaten to equip themselves with the nuclear weapons developed by the Christian nations, bringing into clear focus a new form of doomsday for our species and planet.
If Iran achieves "the bomb," it will at the same time upset the balance of civilization in several ways. Being militant, Iranians may decide that middle eastern politics needs a new direction and "wipe modern Israel from the map" as recently promised. Then, Iran is a petroleum exporting country, so its effect on the petroleum-addicted economies of the West could be decisive in an epoch in which the West is unprepared to adjust its economies to other forms of energy. It seems to some, perhaps Dick Cheney and his friends, that the only thing that will forestall a descent into the nightmare of an Iranian dictated world order is the elimination of Iran's ability to dictate.
This is a notion fraught with deceptions and ignorance, however, for the ability to dictate depends not so much on having a nuclear warfare capability as the ability to mobilize annoying resources of any kind to a constant purpose. In other words, the nature of the regime determines the ability to mobilize resources, so the question is about the nature of the regime in Iran, not whether it has certain kinds of weapons or not. Pakistan, btw, is an Islamic state with Christian nuclear weapons, and we tolerate them.
Conceivably, Iran could declare conventional war on Israel tomorrow and inflict grievous (perhaps fatal) damage on Israel in return for which, however, Iran would probably expect to have certain national assets around the country nuked into oblivion, but Iran itself (being much, much larger than Israel) would not be destroyed. In fact, Israel acting alone could not actually count on achieving regime change in Iran, but it could weld the indifferent and the moderate Iranians into a terrible wounded-dog of a country that wreaks havoc for decades in the region and outside of it.
We have to ask the question: Is Iranian regime change the essential difference between war and peace in the Middle East? And, if so, could the United States with the other western powers and Israel achieve lasting regime change in Iran? The answers to these questions have to be answered before the first bomb goes off. But that may be the rub. With the fortunes of the regime in the United States plummeting, with speculation rife that Cheney will be forced to resign, the possibility that the regime in Washington will tip toward the nuclear option against the Iranian regime multiply rapidly and may soon be very difficult to control. It all the more precarious since at times Iran has its hands on the steering wheel and we have the brakes ... and then vice versa!
It seems clear to me that a Cheney-Rumsfeld "surgical nuclear strike" against several dozen Iranian nuclear installations (some of which may be hardened to withstand multiple megaton nukes) would not necessarily endear the surviving Iranian population to American ways and policies. Few, indeed, would convert to Christianity, and most I suspect would dedicate themselves permanently to a violent disruption and destruction of the Great American Satan. Surgery, although it will certainly disrupt the Iranian nuclear effort is unlikely to be the answer to the "Iranian Problem." Then, what if Cheney and Rumsfeld unleashed a total nuclear war against Iran with the objective of removing Iran and Iranians from the world stage more or less permanently, sending them back to the 10th or 9th century, as the saying goes? Would this solve the problem? It surely would remove Iranian petroleum from the world market. It would cause a plume of radioactivity to encircle the globe for years, causing cancer and other unforeseen problems in countries wholly innocent of the Iranian Problem. It would, by the way, murder millions of innocent Iranians and their children for which even the Christian god might not be very willing to forgive and forget.
Okay, if surgical strikes are unlikely to break the will of the regime and if utter destruction of the country is an unacceptable policy, what use are nuclear weapons against a country that has none?
None. They are useless.
For Iran nuclear weapons could eliminate Israel, but they would soon find that making the Holy Land radioactive for decades to come would be unacceptable not only to Israel's allies but to millions of Muslims in the region. No, this is not what these feisty Iranians are up to. I think that Iran is hoping to get into a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario with Israel and the U.S. and believes that such a policy will work to their advantage much better than the asymmetric situation that prevails today. As Cheney and his confreres believe that more war (or at least sabre rattling) will solidify their hold on the levers of power in the United States, so do the mullahs in Iran. The solution then is obvious. We should seek regime change in both Washington and in Teheran, and we should not go to war with Iran!
James Richard Brett