Peter Beinart’s Less Than Convincing Arguments on Iran

Adam Turner and Kyle Shideler

Peter Beinart has written a particularly disappointing column on the (non)danger of Iranian nukes.  His column is titled, “Experts Say Iran Attack Is Irrational, Yet Hawks Are Winning the Debate.”  Confusingly, it was also advertised by the Daily Beast website as “The Crazy Rush to Attack Iran.”

The latter is the title that initially attracted us to it, as we wondered how a decision making process can be “rushed” when it has been ongoing since the mid-90’s.  But it turns out that neither of these titles are representative of what Mr. Beinart is actually writing in his column.  (Of course, we realize that sometimes the title is chosen by the editors, and not by the author.)

In his piece, Mr. Beinart makes the following argument: 1) Iran’s government leadership is collectively a rational actor; 2) as a rational actor, they would not use nuclear weapons, or give them to irrational terrorist groups that might use them; 3) besides, Israel cannot actually bomb away the problem – but the U.S. could; 4) if either Israel or the U.S. did bomb, this would destabilize the region by starting a regional war and also “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon;” 5) therefore, neither the U.S. nor Israel should bomb Iran; 6) considering these facts, it is mystifying that Republicans and/or conservatives – who are the same people who rushed us into war in Iraq – are pushing for a strike and forcing GOP candidates to be hawks and President Obama to be more hawkish.

If Mr. Beinart’s thinking seems somewhat convoluted to you, you will be happy to know that you are not alone.

The major flaw in his op-ed involves his claim that the leaders of Iran are “rational.”  First of all, as many others argue, this is far from an uncontested fact.  Certainly, when one nation’s leadership routinely promises death to another nation as part of an End of Days scenario, people should be forgiven for believing the opposite.

Secondly, Mr. Beinart, and presumably his experts assume that if the Iranian government acts rationally, it cannot and will not use a nuclear bomb, or give the bomb to a terrorist group. For this reason, he seems to believe that it is sufficient to provide supporting evidence quoting “experts” describing the Iranian leadership as “rational.”

The problem is, of course, that it is possible for a “rational” Iranian leadership to decide to use a nuclear device in the Middle East.  As David Goldman has written, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a national basket case, with a corrupt government, a dangerously plunging birth rate, and a bankrupt economy.  Further, the Iranian leadership is certainly religious, and it has frequently voiced its beliefs that the End of Days is coming, that this is a good thing, and that they can and should act to hasten Armageddon if they can. Considering these facts, it may even be likely that to the Iranian leadership it would be entirely rational – as Goldman argues –to establish Iranian strategic power, and usher in the End of the World by starting a nuclear war with Israel (or the U.S., or with Saudi Arabia). To achieve their strategic and ideological goals the time may literally be now or never.

Another major problem in this column is that Mr. Beinart does not really compare alternative scenarios involving Iran.  Instead, he simply quotes his chosen experts as asserting that it is unwise for the U.S. or Israel to conduct a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities because it will “destabilize” the region, by starting a “regional war,” and thus “guarantee that … Iran … will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon,” but does not bother to compare this picture with what would happen if Iran is allowed to achieve its nuclear desires.  At best, thus, this column is half of the picture.  Mr. Beinart should have also spent time considering what would happen if Iran went on to develop nuclear weapons.  Would a nuclear Iran stabilize or destabilize the region?  Would a nuclear Iran lead to a regional war?  We, and others, believe it would.  (See here and here.) But he doesn’t bother to pursue these questions.

We also have to wonder about the expertise of the “experts” whom Beinart has chosen to quote. Many of them seem almost blissfully out of this world in their naivety.  After all, aren’t these experts implying that the Middle East is now stable? By what metric can the current situation in the Middle East be considered stability, considering the continuing after effects of the Arab Spring and the Iraq war?  By what evidence do these so-called “experts” suggest that Israel attacking Iran will result in a uniquely destructive regional war?  History does not support this conclusion. Most relevant are the two previous Israeli strikes against potential nuclear threats – against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 –neither of which resulted in the entire region erupting into a major war.

And even if an Israeli strike did lead to a particularly destructive war, how is this historically unusual for the Middle East?  Here is just a partial list of the Middle East’s many major conflicts: the four major Arab-Israeli wars, the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the two Lebanese wars (both Syria and Israel have invaded), the two American invasions of Iraq, and the war between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas.

There are some other flaws in the piece as well.  The title, “Experts Say Iran Attack Is Irrational, Yet Hawks Are Winning the Debate,” is simply not a title that can be supported by the facts. The experts he quotes never come close to saying that an attack on Iran is, itself, “irrational.”  For that matter, Mr. Beinart barely brings up the “Hawks,” let alone discussing why they are winning the debate.  The alternate title also makes no sense, as I mentioned before.

Further, Mr. Beinart spends a paragraph quibbling about the difference between what is an “existential” threat to Israel, what is a “serious” threat to Israel, and what is simply a threat to Israel.  According to his experts, Iran is the latter two, and not the former.  Mr. Beinart then makes the leap that a “serious threat” or a threat does not merit an Israeli, or U.S., strike against Iran.  Based on what evidence?  If Iran acquires a nuclear device, and it detonates said device in Israel (as Iranian leaders have explicitly said they seek Israel’s destruction, and would use nuclear weapons if available). What would the impact really be?

According to a 2009 Study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, if a 20 Kiloton (KT) nuclear device (slightly smaller than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945) exploded over Tel Aviv, one could expect 27,420 dead and 111,660 wounded within one week as a result of the blast and radiation. By the end of one year, that number could be expected to rise to 150,000 dead. That’s 2% of the Israeli population dead, not counting those who will almost certainly die from injuries and the lack of medical treatment, or future deaths from cancer and related illnesses. If the Iranians were able to detonate a 100 KT device, the most powerful weapon the Iranians are expected to possibly be able to produce, the number jumps to over 600,000 dead within a year, roughly 8% of all Israelis. These numbers are from a single nuclear weapon. As of September of 2011, the IAEA estimated that Iran had enough low-enriched uranium to produce three to four nuclear weapons. A similar report by the CSIS from 2007 estimated that in a general nuclear exchange, between 200,000 and 800,000 Israelis would die within the first 21 days.

While the CSIS report notes that the continuation of Israeli society is “theoretically” possible, one feels required to ask how many dead the Israelis should be expected to endure before Mr. Beinart will entitle them to term a threat “existential?”

Even if nuclear-armed Iran does not strike, how much bolder and more aggressive will Iran become? Consider that Iran already engages in the murder of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and plots terrorist attacks from Baku and Bangkok to Buenos Aires and from New Delhi to Washington D.C. That it imperils U.S. warships, and kidnaps British sailors. What will Iran do when protected by a nuclear deterrent? How much more aggressively will it destabilize the region?

Mr. Beinart also argues that Israel is unable to act to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, by citing such luminaries as Director of National Intelligence James “The Muslim Brotherhood is secular” Clapper, Air Force General David Deptula and former CIA director Michael Hayden, who were quoted in the New York Times as saying only the United States had the capability to set Iran back substantially. But what of Hans Ruhle, a German intelligence expert who published an analysis which suggests Israel could set Iran back “a decade.” Or Professor Austin Long, formerly of the Rand Corporation who agreed that an attack is difficult but feasible. Or Eli Lake who published last year in the same publication as Peter Beinart, pointing out that an Israeli attack would likely consist of a wide variety of non-conventional methods, including electronic jamming and cyber-warfare.

We understand that Peter Beinart has an agenda to push on Iran.  And we understand that he is paid for his opinions.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But we do expect a better final piece – more researched, more thoughtful, and better written – than what he has produced here.  The debate concerning Iranian nuclear weapons is too crucial to our country, and too crucial for our world, for anything less.

Let’s have this debate, let us do so with a full view of the facts, including the facts about what the Iranians themselves have said and evidentially believe, what they have done, and with a careful weighing of what the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran really are.

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