Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lowther's linkages; or, could a nuclear Iran be good for the U.S. and the Middle East?

In a recent New York Times op-ed ("Iran's Two-Edged Bomb," Feb.9), Adam Lowther argues that a nuclear Iran might be a blessing in disguise for the U.S. and the Middle East. He should have settled for making the point that a nuclear Iran would pose less of a threat than is generally supposed. Instead Lowther produces an intricate and implausible linkage scenario that makes the most convoluted aspects of Bismarck's diplomacy look like tiddlywinks by comparison.

Here's the gist of his argument: (1) a nuclear Iran threatens countries in its region, including, e.g., Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states; (2) the U.S. could offer security guarantees to these countries mainly in the form of "a Middle East nuclear umbrella" and in return (3) the U.S. would demand: (a) wide-ranging democratic and other reforms in Arab autocracies that would drain some of the major breeding grounds of Islamist militancy; (b) higher oil production and lower oil prices from the oil-producing countries and (c) cost-sharing by those under the 'umbrella' for the expense of maintaining it. The result of all this, says Lowther, could be defeat of al-Qaeda and other similar groups; "a victory in the war on terrorism"; lower oil prices; a "needed shot in the arm" for the U.S. defense industry as weapons systems are exported to U.S. allies (read: client states), etc.

Now I happen to think that Western governments and foreign policy establishments exaggerate the potential bad consequences of Iran's getting nuclear weapons. But Lowther's scenario rests on some weird assumptions. First is the notion that trading a U.S. nuclear umbrella for fundamental reforms in Saudi Arabia and other allies is something these allies would go for; if they felt as threatened by a nuclear Iran as Lowther says they would, why couldn't they turn to China or Russia for security guarantees instead of the U.S.? Unlike the U.S., China and Russia would not demand those pesky domestic reforms; instead they would probably be content with economic rewards and concessions. Secondly, Lowther seems to think it would be a wonderful thing to create a Cold War-style regional balance in the Middle East, with a nuclear Iran playing the role of the USSR and Saudi Arabia et al. playing the role of Western Europe under a U.S. nuclear umbrella. How this arrangement, even if it did lead to domestic reforms in the Arab autocracies, would result in the demise of Islamist militancy is something of a mystery. Doesn't Lowther recall that one of al-Qaeda's main complaints was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia -- i.e., in proximity to some of Islam's holiest sites -- during and after the Gulf War? The notion that the extension of a U.S. nuclear umbrella over Saudi Arabia would persuade al-Qaeda and similar groups that they should give up the struggle, because the price of said umbrella would be a fundamental transformation of the Saudi polity, doesn't really compute. Where is the evidence for the argument that autocracy breeds discontent which breeds terrorism; therefore get rid of autocracy and you are on the road to getting rid of terrorism? Are those attracted to the jihadist worldview really interested in seeing a parliamentary democracy in Saudi Arabia? To be sure, they want to remove the current Saudi regime, but I was under the impression that it was that regime's links to the U.S. that is one of their prime grievances.

The main argument of Lowther's column has the feeling of a fantasy, of a Rube Goldberg contraption dreamed up at a desk. Instead of arguing that a nuclear Iran could lead to all good things from "victory" in the "war on terror" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Lowther should have written a column about why in fact a nuclear Iran poses less of a threat than is widely thought, how states that acquire nuclear weapons generally do not become irrational or insane in their foreign policy behavior, and why the West should therefore not be getting its knickers into such a twist over the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Now Lowther does make the point at the end of the piece that "unless the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and his Guardian Council chart a course that no other nuclear power has ever taken, Iran should become more responsible once it acquires nuclear weapons rather than less." But this sensible sentence has been preceded, unfortunately, by so many non-sensible sentences that I doubt many people will still be reading.

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