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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Laurence Housman, via Wikimedia.

Laurence Housman, via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

In a stunning story from Argentina, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization which seeks to locate the children of parents murdered during the country’s military dictatorship and raised by others, was recently reunited with her own grandson. This Agência Brasil piece (in Portuguese) includes the truly horrific detail that the now-grown child’s mother gave birth handcuffed and blindfolded in a concentration camp, and was murdered shortly afterwards.

Speaking of (though of course on a much larger scale than the Southern Cone), Rachel Strohm raises the interesting comparison between Cambodia and Vietnam — societies that experienced political violence forty years ago — and African countries which experienced violence roughly twenty years more recently.

After the recent war between Israel and Hamas that left well over a thousand Palestinians dead, Jeremy Pressman attribute’s Israel’s behavior to a desire to hold onto the West Bank and Martin Schmetz writes off the two-state solution. Emily L. Hauser asks whether Palestinians have  right to self-defense (via Daniel Larison).

Why does the United States intervene in some conflicts but not others?

Kevin Lees ominously calls the current ebola outbreak “west Africa’s most difficult governance  crisis since the end of its civil wars in the early 2000s.”

The challenges of managing food delivery business in African cities, where “everything is possible.”

Nuclear Weapons and the Brazilian Case

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.

Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.

However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.

All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ist. ital. d'arti grafiche, "Map of Italian possessions and zone of influence in Africa," 1896. Via Wikimedia.

Ist. ital. d’arti grafiche, “Map of Italian possessions and zone of influence in Africa,” 1896. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Nabeelah Jaffer has a thoughtful take on the debate over the acceptable limits of cultural appropriation.

In response to increased competition on routes to India — and perhaps indicative of the business-driven spread of Indian culture — Dubai’s Emirates Airlines ramps up Indian culinary offerings.

An extremely detailed reading list on Brazilian culture, protest, politics, and much more.

Could a BRICS bank, led by poorer countries and willing to pay less heed to humanitarian and environmental concerns, compete with the establishment World Bank?

Haleh Anvari on the outside world’s practice of using Iranian women’s clothes as their benchmark for superficial understanding of the country (via RezaAsadi).

And from Tuesday, a review of news and analysis focusing on ISIS’ advance in Iraq, at Political Violence at a Glance.

Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument – is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Codex Mendoza, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

Codex Mendoza, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The Chinese military’s role in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali; interesting note on the PLA’s lack of French speakers, which presumably will become an increasing problem as China’s presence in Africa grows.

Apropos of King Juan Carlos announcement that he will abdicate, the declining popularity of the Spanish monarchy.

Colin M. Snider on the ethics of “favela tours” in Brazil and “poverty tourism” more generally. Somewhat relatedly, are Argentina’s poor falling farther behind despite Kirchnerismo’s “winning decade”?

Polling shows that Brazilians are less confident that their country is already a world power or soon will be than they were four years ago, and overwhelmingly say that Brazil deserves more international respect (via Brazilian Character Lab). Josh Busby is in Brazil, and talks a bit about the country’s development.

Speaking of polls, public opinion surveys among Arab countries suggest that US military intervention in Syria would be unpopular, despite support for US action among many Arab governments.

No one is even pretending that there’s money available to pay Afghanistan’s army after US funding dries up in 2018 (via Milena Rodban).

The increasingly open debate over Iran’s nuclear program within the country, and why negotiators should focus on verification, not the number of Iranian centrifuges.

Graduation advice for aspiring humanitarians: don’t try to save the world, develop local knowledge, and be aware of your limited perspective (via šīrīn ✺ šəfīʿ).

And, from earlier in the week, further linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

Does Khamenei Believe Obama’s Threats?

By Taylor Marvin

Last week President Obama addressed West Point’s graduating class in what was widely acknowledged as the clearest explanation of his second term foreign policy yet. In a speech stressing that not every global problem requires American military action and celebrating the role of multilateral diplomacy, Obama’s comments on Iran were nothing new. While praising the coalition-building that has facilitated extremely harsh sanctions, Obama warned that despite ongoing negotiations “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” While welcoming the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis — “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force” — Obama implicitly reminded that if the Iranian regime does not cooperate it risks an American effort to violently put a stop to its nuclear ambitions.

American observers alternatively characterized the speech as an example of foreign policy realism or not realism, suggested that it provided little guidance on Syria and Iran, and warned that Obama’s reluctance for war would embolden America’s enemies. Has it? Via Lobe LogIranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Wednesday that the United States has indeed taken the threat of force off the table. As the New York Times reports:

Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

“They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

While defiance and harsh statements by Khamenei is not new, his apparent dismissal of US threats appears to be:

Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the past has repeatedly said the United States was intent on attacking Iran, but incapable of doing so, has apparently now concluded — at least in public — that military action from the United States should not be expected.

Arash Karami has more.

Does Khamenei, who is ultimately the final voice for major decision within the Iranian government, actually believe that the principles outlined in the president’s West Point speech indicates that the United States will not risk strikes on Iranian nuclear infrastructure or, in a broader option, government and military targets?

There are three broad possibilities. The first is that Khamenei’s statement is simply posturing. The Supreme Leader has an incentive to increase his own standing among audiences within the regime, Iranian society, and the world by making Iran appear strong and the United States weak. The Iranian government and Supreme Leader especially defines itself in opposition to the West, and especially the United States. Talk is cheap, and stating that the risks of striking Iran are so high that the US government will not back up its threats is a means of demonstrating Iranian strength to both Iranians and sympathetic Muslims around the world, and strengthens Iran’s position in its competition with Saudi Arabia for a leading position in the Middle East.*

But even if Khamenei believes that Obama would not follow through on threats against the Islamic Republic, Obama will only be in office for another two and a half years. While authoritarian leaders often appear to have problems internalizing the significance of democratic countries’ constraints on executive power and elections, Khamenei should realize that many of the potential Republican presidential candidates would be far more likely to attack Iran, meaning that in the longer-term the American ‘realization’ of airstrikes’ risks is not set in stone. If this is the case, then Khamenei’s statement is just another variety of the unconvincing posturing — “even more dangerous” seems a stretch – that some elements of the Iranian government appear so weirdly prone to.

A second possibility is that Khamenei does believe that Obama would not order airstrikes if Iran appeared to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon or negotiations somehow catastrophically broke down, but that he is wrong. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Khamenei seeks to avoid US strikes, this threat is sincere, and Khamenei has somehow come to believe that it is not credible, then a serious and dangerous miscommunication has occurred. An Iran that interprets a perceived American reluctance to attack as a green light for a nuclear weapon could easily stumble into a war that it did not foresee.

If this is the case then Obama must seriously reconsider his rhetoric, avoid admissions by the US government that strikes would be risky (in effect, lie), or somehow demonstrate his resolve. Critics have often argued that the Obama administration’s failure to follow up on its anti-weapons of mass destruction red line in Syria has weakened his credibility everywhere. While is a mistake to judge credibility in one crisis based on another — governments have priorities, after all — its plausible that Khamenei sees US inaction in Syria as a precedent.

However, it is important to note that striking Syria could just further decrease the president’s credibility with Iran if a disgruntled American public decisively turned against the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. If the Iranian leadership sees an unsuccessful American air campaign against the Syrian Assad regime as constraining the United States it could interpret threats as even less credible than before.

The third possibility is that Khamenei believes Obama will not strike Iran, and that he is right. As analyst Matt Duss remarked in a February 2012 conversation with Jamie Fly, there’s reason to think that privately the Obama administration is just “not interested” in war with Iran, though whether Obama could escape his rhetorical hands-tying when it came down to it is an open question. While President Obama has downplayed hopes of a lasting diplomatic end to the crisis and emphasized that no option is off the table, the rest of his foreign policy does suggest a reluctance to stumble into unnecessary wars. Despite the problems of linking American resolve on Syria and Iran too closely, they are somewhat related: The Obama administration ultimately elected to not to use force to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite a prior commitment to do so. And while rhetorical commitments and three decades of sometimes violent confrontation obviously make Iran a special case, commitments to block nuclear proliferation suffer from an inherent credibility problem when the United States did not use military action to prevent North Korean building a bomb.

Alternatively, Khamenei may be correct without Obama — or anyone else outside his inner circle, really — knowing it. Neoconservative urging aside, the Obama administration is unlikely to actually make the serious decision to attack Iran unless it feels that it has no other choice. If the Iranian regime would like to avoid strikes it may have made the conscious decision to pursue a nuclear program popular with ordinary Iranians while refraining from baiting American strikes. Of course this is a difficult balance to strike, but Iran has successfully done so for the last decade by simply not giving any concrete indication that it is rushing towards an actual bomb, rather than meandering towards nuclear capability. If this is the case then Khamenei might be saying that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions” not because Obama’s threats are not credible but because he plans for Iran not to give Obama reason to follow through on them.

Which of these possibilities are the most likely? I have no idea, and you’ll have to ask a Persian-speaking Iran specialist.

*For an excellent, if dated, account of this competition see Vali Nasr’s 2006 book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

What Is the Western Gaze?

By Taylor Marvin

Comics writer and critic Sean T. Collins and artist Colin Panetta have an eleven-panel comic based on Max Fisher’s May Vox explainer “9 questions about Nigeria you were too embarrassed to ask.”* Fisher’s piece was published in response to the mid-April Chibok mass kidnapping by the militant group referred to as Boko Haram (which rose to international prominence in May in part due to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag) and attempts to answer basic questions about Nigeria and the Boko Haram insurrection.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 5.05.28 PM

Vox’s style of ‘explainer journalism,’ which was pioneered by both Vox founder Ezra Klein and its foreign affairs writer Max Fisher, is frequently criticized as simplistic or condescending. As a non-area specialist Fisher’s writing has been criticized by experts as misleading. Worse, Vox’s nominally non-ideological simplification of complex world events is often political, because simplification involves the politicized choice of what to leave out. A clear example of this problematic simplification is Yousef Munayyer’s convincing dissection of Fisher’s May post “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East,” which Munayyer writes presents a biased view of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or, from Arab perspectives, catastrophic Nakba.

While I am not a comics critic or Nigeria expert, my read of Collins and Panetta’s comic suggests a similar critique. The comic focuses on the first entry in Fisher’s question-and-answer article, superimposing the question “What is Nigeria?” over a hashtagged placecard, Western news show, American currency, oil tanker, US Air Force drone, and bloody concrete room; notably, the images read as increasing in lethality. “What is Nigeria,” in Collins and Panetta’s artistic paraphrasing of Fisher, is a question answered through a Western lens, centered around Western concerns, and reduced to Western cultural, economic, and military power. The final panel — the question “I skipped to the bottom. What happens next?” — brings this view back to Vox and Fisher’s perspective, reducing Nigeria the country to the West’s impingement on its 170 million inhabitants.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 4.14.37 PM

Assuming that I am reading Collins and Panetta’s critique correctly, the comic calls to mind a February piece by Sarah Kendzior which characterized coverage of the then-ongoing Maidan protests in Ukraine by BuzzFeed and other outlets as “disaster porn.” Kendzior was writing about the Western view of Ukraine, but her comments are very applicable to the Nigeria coverage Collins and Panetta examine: “Violence never exists in a vacuum, it is only perceived that way—and when you are on the losing end of the perception, you are at risk, as anyone who lives in a place written off as ‘one of those places’ can tell you.”

While not mentioned in her piece, on Twitter Fisher sarcastically commented that Kendzior was demanding that audiences “pass a test” before caring about Ukraine. My response fell somewhere in between Kendzior and Fisher (who was then at the Washington Post). ‘Caring’ about foreign suffering is not a value-neutral act, because concerned voters can drive policy. But it is also true that the vast majority of foreign affairs watchers consume news as an entertainment good; the average BuzzFeed reader or cable news watcher consumes it even more casually. News outlets are expected to cater to this audience, and so does Fisher’s breezy, 101-level explainers produced for an audience only willing to learn as long as learning is centered around them and their morning coffee.

Even to a non-expert like myself there are many problems with Fisher’s Nigeria explainer: it is flattering to audiences who know nothing, is focused on conflict, reduces the country to a north-south religious divide that many experts deny, and tends to cite Western experts and journalists. But I’m not convinced it deserves the critique Collins and Panetta raise. Many of Vox’s readers cannot find Nigeria on a map, and it’s not wrong for Fisher and other explainer journalists to try and answer basic questions about the country when conflict make it relevant to Western readers. And far from reducing Nigeria to dollars, drones, and oil — not that these things are irrelevant; Nigerian government revenue is heavily dependent on oil and US military contributions to the hunt for the kidnapped schoolgirls has included ISR aircraft — Fisher does offer a reasonably broad look at Nigeria’s recent history, social conflicts, and the tangled roots of the Boko Haram insurrection.

All of this may be written through a Western lens for Western audiences, but that is overtly what Fisher aims to do. Fisher’s habit of featuring music from the countries he is profiling may be trivial and arguably a bit condescending, but it also pushes back against the tendency to reduce countries and peoples to only conflicts and hashtags, a tendency the comic appears to criticize.

If a mildly-interested reader wants to learn more about the country the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and its arguable Western appropriation, thrust into the news cycle, I’m not sure what Collins and Panetta would prefer. Sure, if you actually want to seriously study Nigeria Vox is not the place to start, but there are many, many people who don’t want to invest hours or a career examining the country but still read the news. How this indifference affects US policy is another question, but I’m not sure Fisher’s writing is the best way to frame it.

*Fisher’s piece cites a piece by Will Moore at Political Violence at a Glancewhich I edit.

Update: Collins has a comment explaining his criticism of Fisher in greater detail, which focuses on Fisher’s tone, lack of empathy, and othering of Nigerians than the Western-centric simplification my piece addresses.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Hungarian stamp with a jinni from the One Thousand and One Nights, 1965. Via Wikimedia.

Hungarian stamp with a jinni from the One Thousand and One Nights, 1965. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Endorsing the so-called Asia Pivot, Peter Beinart argues that American foreign policy must discriminate between core interests and conflicts the US should avoid investing itself in.

Four decades after its democratic revolution, reflecting on a Portugal, and by extension, southern Europe, that to many feels less sovereign than before.

The risks of the long lag time required to host mega sport events — years after it was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup, today’s Brazil is a different place.

The choice to translate Frozen – Disney’s most translated film — into Modern Standard Arabic, rather than more accessible dialects (via Marc Lynch).

Why dismissing all criticism of Turkey’s prime minister as “anti-Erdoganism” is effective, and is Turkey regressing towards the mean of failed democracy?

Why have CIA drone strikes in Pakistan been on hold for the last half year?

The structural roots of Nigeria’s violent instability.

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Isaak Brodsky, "Lenin in Smolniy in 1917," 1930. Via Wikimedia.

Isaak Brodsky, “Lenin in Smolniy in 1917,” 1930. Via Wikimedia.

Apologies for the recent lack of posting. What I read this week:

If Swiss bank Credit Suisse knowingly assisted in tax evasion, why is it even allowed to do business in the US at all?

After legalizing the cultivation and sale of marijuana Uruguay announces that it will sell the drug virtually tax-free to avoid being undercut by illegal traffickers.

On the subject of contraband trafficking, fossil poaching and the black market in dinosaur bones.

The varying success of Europe’s political fringe: France’s Marine Le Pen benefits from the unpopularity of beleaguered François Hollande, and a look at Europe’s Euroskeptic parties.

The Middle East’s water crisis. Check out the stunning orbital image in the linked piece, as well.

The troubles of Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, an early leader of southwest Mexico’s communal self-defense groups.

From yesterday, more linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

Update: Title altered because I somehow got my “Weekly Links” and “Friday’s Reading List” wires crossed.

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