In a series of articles I’ve discussed the reasons that preemption against Iran may be necessary. They can be summed up as:
- Iran is a major supporter of terrorism.
- Iran is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them
- Iran is controlled by religious fanatics who give every indication they believe nuclear martyrdom to further jihad is acceptable.
- Even if the Iranian leaders are coldly rational, they act as though they believe a nuclear war is winnable.
- Iran, therefore, cannot be deterred from using nuclear weapons.
Given the above, is the logic arguing in favor of preemption ineluctable? My answer is, “Almost.” However, intellectual rigor demands that one examine all reasonable counterarguments and that’s what I’m going to do in this article.
All of the arguments in favor of preemption are contingent upon Iranian development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, along with the evidence that Iranian leaders believe (or act as though they believe) they can further their goals by using nuclear weapons once they have them. If the Iranians were to agree to dismantle their weapons program, there would no longer be a justification for preemption. There is a second possibility: if the Iranian nuclear weapons are rendered ineffective then the U.S. can follow a policy of containment and allow the theocracy to collapse of its own weight. “Rendered ineffective” means that Iranian nukes can’t be delivered to targets in the U.S. or elsewhere (that would include our European and mid-Eastern allies).
The delivery systems that must be thwarted are: ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, aircraft, naval (surface and subsurface), and unconventional or proxy. Several of these systems can be eliminated from consideration. The Iranian air force has no capability of conducting a nuclear attack and is unlikely to possess such a capability any time in the foreseeable future. The same is largely true of Iranian naval assets. Iranian cruise missile technology is still in its infancy and U.S. defenses against such threats are very advanced. That leaves ballistic missiles and unconventional systems available to the Iranians.
I’ve posted here and here that the Iranians have an active ballistic missile program and are producing improved solid fuel designs with longer ranges. An estimate of 10 years for the development of an ICBM delivery system is very conservative. An estimate of around 5 is quite reasonable. The Iranian Shahab 4 is reputed to have a range of at least 900 miles, which brings all of the mid-East and part of the Balkans within range of an Iranian strike. Longer range missiles will likely be in the inventory by the time Iranian nukes are available and weaponized (sometime in 2007 or 2008), which could put much of Western Europe within strike range.
Ballistic missiles + nukes are extremely useful in games of international brinksmanship or ”Chicken” because they have always been unstoppable. Since the Reagan administration began work on ballistic missile defense over 20 years ago, there have been a number of developments that may challenge that assumption (for a good overview of the history and recent developments in missile defense go to Heritage Foundation research on missile defense and read “Missile Defense for the 21st Century”, by Gregory H. Canavan). Despite these developments, there is remaining skepticism that ballistic missile defense technology is capable of dealing with the emerging “rogue state” (that is, countries like Iran) threat. Is this skepticism still warranted?
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