Thursday, March 15, 2012

Deterrence is a lie! (if it is Iran)

Fareed Zakaria joins a chorus of intellectuals urging President Barack Obama to lay off “all options on the table” talk with respect to Iran as he smells a troubling trend driving up to a war similar to 2003  Iraq war campaign.

His column in The Washington Post aims to assure the conservative wing who has already started to beat the drums of war that deterrence usually works, even if it concerns Iran. He says when he was in college in the early 1980s, he invited Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to give a speech on campus. He recalls that U.S. colleges were hotbeds of opposition to the Reagan administration and a series of students stood up and started chanting a single line as he spoke: “Deterrence is a lie!”

These leftist groups were then opposed to Reagan administration’s policy of containment with the Soviet Union, unaware of the fact the president’s containment would lead to chaotic collapse of the Soviets in a couple of years.

Zakaria says it used to be those on the right who would patiently explain the practical virtues of deterrence in 1980s but today they reject this scenario regarding Iran.

He notes that conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and others denounce containment and deterrence and claim that it would lead us instead to a policy that culminates in a preventive war.

People on both sides understand the dangerous consequences of pointed strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities but they definitely consider these “collateral damages” less scary than Iran with nuclear bomb.

According to Zakaria, the prospect of destruction produces peace and its record is remarkable. History is a great guide: “Great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 — the longest period of peace between great powers in history.”

But why deterrence cannot work in Iran’s case? It is simply because scaremongers regularly attempt to portray Iranian leadership as morally corrupt, irrational and suicidal. But history again suggests otherwise. Iran has never fought a war with any Western powers. Its insurgency against Russian and British occupation in first and second world wars was minimal. There is hardly any piece of news in the Western media speaking about “Iranian suicide bomber” or “Iranian terrorist” in the past few decades.

A recent survey by Reuters/Ipsos showed that 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran and 39 percent of Americans opposed military strikes if there were evidence that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. 53 percent of Americans say they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, while 42 percent said they would not.   

Iranian regime is a successful survivor in an increasingly hostile neighborhood of self-help. It faces little domestic opposition that could affect its foreign policy decision-making in an irrational way and it clearly understands its red lines. An attempt to frame Iranian regime and its rulers as “irrational” is not helpful and even counterproductive. Soviets’ Stalin and North Korea’s late dictator were way more brutal and merciless than the current Iranian leadership. But they could be easily and successfully deterred -- without any war talk.

Constant portrayal of Iran's leadership as irrational helps conservative narrative that nuclear weapons are dangerous toys at the hands of Iranian rulers. And that’s the main reason why Americans believe that Iran with nuclear weapons must be stopped – even if it significantly hurts their daily lives.

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