October 8, 2009
Iran: Why 'gaining time' is exactly what's neededBy James Lewis
Our top military officers have been doing what they should do: Sound the alarm when it's justified by strategic threats. They are being criticized for it in the media, but sounding the alarm is what they are trained for. The idea that generals should just shut up, snap their heels and salute is not an American idea; it's from someplace more dictatorial. If you're a sailor and see a passenger falling into the sea your duty is to yell, "Man overboard!" -- which has the effect of a captain's command, even though you're not the captain of the ship. Clear and imminent danger overrides command niceties.
SecDef Robert Gates is quoted as saying that striking Iran's nuclear facilities would not solve Khomeinist aggression forever. It only gains us a temporary respite.
A respite is exactly what we need right now.
Consider the huge strategic advantages if Iran's nuclear program can be set back "only" five or ten years, perhaps with EMP weapons exploded over Tehran, Bushehr, Natanz, and various missile bases. Remember that Israel's strike on Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant in 1981 set Iraq's nuclear development back for at least ten years. An EMP strike is technically easy for advanced nations. It would save lives, since EMP doesn't harm people directly. It's a heck of a lot better than having Khomeini Twelvers with nukes, intent on martyrdom for tens of thousands of people.
An Iranian nuclear capacity might bring down the Arab world, and perhaps Israel. Arab Sunni nations would be more vulnerable than Tel Aviv, having much less developed missile defenses.
In ten years we can have a sophisticated, working, world-wide anti-missile defense in place. Today we have the beginnings of an effective defense, but it has yet to be tested in practice. Those ten years are crucial. They could decisively change the strategic balance against the rogues, and in favor of civilized nations.
The last sixty years have been hugely anomaly from an historical point of view. Ever since Stalin's first nuclear weapon it has been easy for a thug state to destroy whole cities, and it has been impossible to mount an effective defense. That is why we have lived in an Age of Nuclear Anxiety: A huge offensive weapon with no defense.
But today we are seeing that defense emerging. That is why the next ten years are so crucial.
Slapping down Ahmadinejad right now is a powerful idea for the long run as well as the short term. In addition to giving civilized nations the years needed to perfect anti-missile defenses, a slap-down of the most evil regime in the world would have more benefits:
1. It would give domestic opposition to A'jad and his thugs new courage, and enough time to penetrate and undermine the regime from within. A generational change will take place in Iran in the next ten years. The Persian-speaking blogosphere is huge, and it is inevitably a modernizing force. There is much more; but it needs time to mature.
2. It would give the Arabs, Turks and Israelis a breathing space to stabilize their societies and military postures. It would also put a damper on the current spread of nukes and missiles among North Korea, Pakistan, Burma, Iran, and even Hugo Chavez' Venezuela. Right now nukes are becoming the new prestige ego symbol for leaders with small wee-wees: The world is filled with them. All kinds of nations have tentative plans to go nuclear if their neighbors do: Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. The spread of nukes could accelerate very fast, long before the world is ready. Ten years of safety would make a huge difference.
3. A ten-year delay in Iran's nuke weapons would allow the free flow of oil to world economies that cannot stand more shocks today. It would give China enough time to find alternative energy sources.
4. Ten years could allow Europe the time to finally take responsibility for its own defense. The European Union is now beginning to act like a European Empire. Well, in that case they don't need America to defend them anymore. That will force them to face reality, finally, in economics, and in military matters as well. Europe's long, sixty-year vacation on Uncle Sam's dime would be over. We could bring out troops home.
5. New alliances are emerging, and some of those favor the cause of civilization. India is traditionally tolerant, and it has picked up the habits of democracy better than much of Europe. It will emerge as a new world power, along with China. What better than to strengthen those nations that share our own values? India is a more serious nation than any of the Europeans when it comes to international relations. They don't have to be told about Islamic fascism and terrorism, having suffered terribly from that plague ever since the Partition of 1948, and indeed long before.
Indonesia conceivably might develop along similar lines. Democratic countries will be needed to counterbalance historically totalitarian ones like China and Russia. But there is much hope even in China for genuine democratization over time. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan provide wonderful models of just that kind of political maturation.
Time, time, time. All those good things can happen given time.
Best of all, Barack Obama will be out of office in ten years, and the United States, if it follows history, will swing in the direction of more conservative, hard-nosed, freedom-loving and prosperity-building leaders.
I would much rather see the world facing Iranian nukes ten years from now than today. We will have effective defenses. The Khomeiniacs might crumble from their internal contradictions. New energy supplies are being discovered, and if we encourage that we won't be so dependent upon Middle East oil supplies. New leaders will be in place in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, China, and elsewhere.
Yes, let's buy time by all means. We can find a permanent solution to nuclear proliferation by way of very good anti-missile defenses. It's happening now. Give it ten years to mature, and the world will be a much safer place.
Update from James Lewis:
Some commentators on today's article on the importance of gaining time withIran misunderstood my point about EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapons to disable crucial nuclear and missile centers to set back their dangerous programs.
EMP is often thought of as a high-altitude nuclear weapon.But there are dozens of ways of producing electromagnetic pulses using explosives to drive the pulse. EMPs occur when an explosion "pumps" an electrical pulse. In a sense your car battery is recharged constantly by the controlled explosions in its cylinders. In the 19th century road-builders and miners used to drive one-shot pulse generators by pushing down on a pump-like device, thereby converting muscle power into a small EMP and thereby exploding dynamite.
In any coherent attack by Israel and/or the US, with the tacit cooperation of the Saudis and Gulf States, EMP would only be part of the battle. But it could be essential.
Since nuclear EMPs were first discovered, there has been plenty of time to develop EMPs driven by conventional explosives. I would be very surprised if special ops troops around the world do not have small EMP devices that can be attached by hand to electrical power sources to pulse and burn out a huge cluster of circuits.
EMP devices could be dropped from airplanes, or they could be placed by hand.
Explosions to drive the electromagnetic pulse could vary from the equivalent of a single gunshot, to a hand grenade, to a bunker buster. In order to disable the electrical grid running the Bushehr nuclear plant, for example, several air-dropped bunker-busters using conventional explosives might work. There are ways to protect installations with circuit breakers, redundant backups, and so on, but explosively driven EMP are both intense and fast, exceeding the threshold of standard circuit breakers.
No doubt Iranians and North Koreans (who work together) have anticipated this kind of attack, which does not do direct harm to humans. I don't believe there is a foolproof way to protect against any size conventional EMP device. If there was, our own military would be better protected. But we cannot know for sure because it is obviously kept as secret as possible.
Our best protection is the vast scientific ignorance of the New York Times.