With Iran, the courage to do...nothing
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
April 13th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

With Iran, the courage to do...nothing


Editors Note: Art Keller is a former case officer in the CIA's Counter Proliferation Division. He currently is a writer on intelligence and national security issues and recently published his first novel,  "Hollow Strength."

By Art Keller, special to Security Clearance

As a new round of nuclear negotiations with Iran is set to begin this month, it brings up the question: In the not-unlikely event that this round of diplomacy collapses, as all previous rounds have, where would that leave the West? Is bombingIran's nuclear facilities the unavoidable final recourse?

Despite an abundance of saber-rattling, Western leaders have yet to convincingly explain why policy toward Iran should differ from policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Did we start bombing the Soviets because they acquired nuclear capability in 1949? Even though the Soviets regularly claimed their objective was the defeat of the West? Even though Soviets gave arms and money to proxies around the world, including direct support to terrorists? Even though they posed a far greater threat than Iran ever could? Are we doing that with North Korea? Even though the North Koreans have "the bomb" and have often used rhetoric that is even harsher than the Soviets?


Nuclear capability is no guarantee of intent to use that capability. Nor has harsh anti-Western rhetoric, or even support for terrorist organizations, been a reliable guide to deciphering such intent.

The Soviet Union of the 1960s was full of hope as Nikita Khrushchev came to power and proclaimed a new era. Khrushchev even managed to initiate some (wildly unsuccessful) reform policies. Yet less than 30 years later, the Soviet empire crashed under the weight of pervasive disaffection, despite President Mikhail Gorbachev's last-ditch reform attempts.

In contrast, Iran's reformers, like former President Mohammad Khatami, and the "Green Party," do not have one single major reform to their credit, successful or otherwise. Meanwhile, Iran's economy is in a steep nose-dive. Most Iranians alive today were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and have no personal stake in it. As they move into "middle management" over the next decade, that same rot of deep disaffection that destroyed the Soviet Union will spread with accelerating speed through Iran.

The Iranian regime's corruption and mismanagement, despite large oil revenues, make Iran's convoluted theocracy simply unsustainable in the long run, and as tight as the supreme leader's current grip on power may be, he and his cronies cannot stop the tectonic shifts undermining the Islamic Republic.

When contemplating airstrikes on Iran, our politicians should therefore first recall that sage military maxim:

"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

The one thing that can give the current regime a major "shot in the arm" is a military attack on Iran. In fact, as the regime's control deteriorates, Iran's leadership may engage in provocative action designed to lure the West into conflict, solely to garner the "rally round the flag" effect.

Despite Iran's claims to the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that the country wanted the know-how to build nuclear weapons and that its centrifuge program was constructed toward that end. That is most definitely NOT a good thing ... yet neither is it the end of the world.

With both the Soviet Union and North Korea, the West tried to implement a policy of "containment." Many Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, now decry "containment" as too passive a strategy for dealing with Iran (in the face of Israeli pressure to act).

In truth, the West's ever-tighter stranglehold on Iran's economy, access to sensitive technology and regional influence is already a de facto policy of "containment," whether the West is willing to admit to that label or not. Containment worked on the Soviet Union, and it will work on Iran, assuming we are not so impatient to see the last of the Islamic Republic that we shoot ourselves in the foot by an unnecessary armed intervention.

This is not to say there are no circumstances where strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities make sense. If Iran develops a bomb, and if the Western intelligence community develops credible information that Iran intends to use the bomb, or put it in the hands of some group that intends to use it, swift and disruptive strikes are called for.

But short of that kind of damning evidence, keeping up subtler pressure on Iran, while it may be confused for inaction, is probably the smartest way of dealing with the regime, and fortuitously, also the route that is both the cheapest and easiest to implement.

It is pointless to bomb Iran with the notion of forestalling Iranian understanding of how to build a bomb; most estimates say that Iran already knows, and some say that Iran knew how as far back as 2004. If the goal is to keep Iran from going the last step and actually making a bomb, there are still several unmistakable "redlines" that Iran would have to cross before that could happen.

First, Iran would need to quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then eject international inspectors, and then spend months enriching uranium, just to have enough for one bomb. There is plenty of time to target Iran's nuclear facilities, if and when Iran crosses those redlines.

The alternative - airstrikes on Iran before it withdraws from the treaty and kicks out inspectors (yet another preemptive war to guard against hypothetical weapons of mass destruction ... and look how well the last one worked out) - is a hugely risky strategy with potential costs that have yet to be honestly addressed by any Western leader.

The next president, prime minister or presidential candidate who dares to mention the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game will be the first. Millennium Challenge 2002 was the most comprehensive war game ever run, and it predicted the U.S. would suffer 10,000 casualties and lose a multibillion-dollar aircraft carrier battle group in a war with Iran, but few leaders have proved willing to even mention such losses as a plausible repercussion of war with Iran, let alone openly discuss them.

And Western political leaders are equally remiss at the lack of discussion of the how the oil shocks arising from war with Iran could strangle the infant economic recoveries of the U.S. and Europe in their cribs.

Western nations can and should work to put as many obstacles into the path of Iranian nuclear weapon development as possible, but not because there is any long-term hope of success. The idea that such technology can be permanently dammed up is wishful thinking. The West's strategy should simply be to delay and degrade any capability Iran does develop until the Islamic Republic collapses and a government that will be transparent in its use of nuclear technology replaces it.

In the meantime, I'd like to see the political leader who, when pressed for military action on Iran, has the courage to stand up and say, "I think the threat has been overhyped, and that military action will get too many people killed and cost too much. I think bombing Iran is a stupid idea. I choose to do nothing instead."

Irony of ironies, getting Western leaders to do nothing while Iran slowly self-destructs, to stand with firm resolve in the face of accusations that they are "soft on Iran," may be the biggest challenge in solving the Iranian nuclear dilemma.



Filed under: IAEA • IAEA • Iran • Military • Nuclear • Opinion • Security Brief • weapons
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  8. Larry

    According to the author:

    "Despite Iran's claims to the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that the country wanted the know-how to build nuclear weapons and that its centrifuge program was constructed toward that end. That is most definitely NOT a good thing ... yet neither is it the end of the world."

    Well, I suppose that depends on where you happen to live. If you live in the ME, say Israel or Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Qatar etc, a nuclear weapon or three in the hands of the mad mullahs might very well represent the "end of the world" to you. If you are an American soldier stationed in the ME, I'm pretty sure you'd prefer that Iran not possess 'the Bomb'.

    The other problem with this reasoning, is that every single day, Iran is making moves to further fortify their nuke facilities, burying them under mountains, and when they are done, there will BE no opportunity to destroy them. Kind of like closing the barn door after the horse got out.

    Iran needs to be stopped now, there is no question that must be done. The only questions are how to do it, and who will do it. Israel will have to go it alone if necessary, in the interests of it's survival, but it would be much better if it had partners who also realize just what a threat a nuclear Iran would be–not to mention destabilizing to the entire world.

    April 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • F B M

      Wow! You truly do believe that 'sky-is-falling' bullshit, don't you?


      April 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
    • Bright

      Why was such actions/suggestions not taken against Soviet / N Korea?....no gain...no oil...Y do we ever go out based on faulty intelligence and invade/destroy countries (e.g. Iraq)?.....$$$...Oil...these double standards where in one place we go nuts and go all in and on the other we take careful steps just shows that personal gain is the only reason this country tries to become the world police.

      April 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  9. michael

    Turkey is more like the American wild bird, and while it appears as nomore than a plodding dumb huge chicken it isnt, and until one trys to pin it dowm does one find out how crafty they are. Long time a hidden US asset, for the twelve years of sanctions the Joint US Turk airbase war used by both to strike Saddams millitary and especialy the one Kurdish group that supported the Kurd separtist movement in Turkey. Like the US they had assets on Iraqs Kurd portion long before last invasion. Turkish millitary modern, well equiped and trained, national economy very strongand growing, and Borders Syria and soon to be used by NAtO as part of a containment force by them. Turkey alone is not possible ar they would kill to prove they should become a full partner in Euro economy and is a proven US Corporate and US State and millitary ass kisser, as long as there is a buck to be made. Afghanistan no lover of Iran but hell it is no more than a live fire training and a test bed for new weaponry.

    April 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  10. michael

    While Iran is fighting2, possibly 3, armed and, funded by US/Israel, sizeable groups from within Iran, the most troubling group is the one located in modern day Kurdistan. Financed by US but armed and trained by Israel and Elite Kurdish Peshmurgas?for Iran does have a sizable Kurdish minority. Since Obama took office it has been an almost total news blackout as even independent journalist are not interested in covering what no NATO member nations pdpers will write about even if they sneak it pdst US Censors so they write books that only the Proffessional* sic* Democracy Now followers read. No one is saying a damn thing about The Saudis massive build up with all the hi tech weaponry they can grab and has given Israel a flyover agreement, and in revrn Israel sells and trains the operators of US/Israel dbsignf air defence system. Do not dismiss a possible Iraq Iran border dispute as they almost came to blows a few years back over just that. TURKEY?

    April 14, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  11. Michael

    Another problem aroze for US Warmakers arose after the above US wargames mentioned vn artical. while watch Iranr gamer they observed that Irans millitarys command control structure ham completely been revised. There was no longer a recognizable central and instead of the old massed forces when their simulated attack by an agressor began there were seemingly hundreds of indivualy independent commands. And all the separates had individual air. anti air and ground rocket and missles along with anti armor capability. Talk about walking into a beehive this would be a hive of killer bees. They targeted every possible attack route and every energy rource within range. Iran has only one respoce to any attack, full bore, all out immediate to the death of all their millitary forces, and with so many independent commands its gonna take one hell of men and forces to get them all.

    April 14, 2012 at 2:26 am | Reply
  12. John Riegel

    Why not listen to someone like Art keller, who has in depth knowledge of how Iran functions, and how their economy is on "a nosedive". A mammoth aircraft carrier trying to deal with a swarm of armed fastboats is akin to a 250 lb. man having a hornet's nest fall on his head. We must monitor Iran as closely as we possibly can, and impose as many sanctions as prudent to avoid armed conflict, and if possible give Iran a little more time to collapse from within. They are definitely well on their way toward a political and economic collapse.

    April 13, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  13. Michael

    The comment about the generation coming of age in Iran werent born since the Iranian Revolution also applys to US. They, the youth, are not ignorant and damn well know more about the whys of their present situation and why they cannot find enough employment to fit their schooling abilitys. At different timds siece US Declared war on them were part of an economy that was growing at a faster rate than that of US. And every time they got over each barrier US through at them and they began omce more to grow another US.Israel made it hard once again. Lost count of how many times US stole all their worldwide Banking funds. The Cold Dead Fingered crowd will always want to go kill some anyone to prove?? and will always be using what seems an IQ level about the length of their inseam My country right or wrong to hide behind, and they have also in the main after the Iranian Revolution and heard only propaganda espncialy the Bush macho BS.

    April 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  14. Michael

    Once CIA. always cia!Why does Israel/US Think Iran wants a nuclear weapon? Because if they were in the positionIran was in and facing two such agressve foes who have been actively attempting to destroy you, That is what they would do. They cannot fathom any other reason, any red blooded patriotic American would not of put up with it and come out swinging long ago if anyone treated them that way! It is alot like US grunts being POd because they had no easy targets and the Enemy would stand and fight like a man. Hell no Iraq or Afghan wanted to go head to head when the US grunt in his armored vehicles, planes and their individual Body Armor were almost impossible to harm. Those with any brains did not want to commit suicide and neither do the leaders and the people of Iran. In the American Millitary mind, and those in the Intelligence Agencys whose whole reason for existance is that the rest of world is out to get us so we got to get them first.

    April 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  15. joan

    Wise article and my exact thoughts. Unfortunately, the Israeli's and US leaders don't see it that way. They are deluded into thinking a strike against Iran will NOT create many deaths nor will it spread beyond the immediate area.

    The war in Iraq was started due to supposed WMD. We all know there was none and look the mess Iraq is in now. Less secure than it was under Saddam. Afghanistan is another failure – should have learned from the Soviets and their defeat 10 years later.

    Striking Iran will only throw us into a global conflict, likely resulting in a nuclear war. I think these talks are doomed to failure. Even if they were signed, the US senate is putting changing their wording to make it even more difficult for Iran to ever comply to satisfaction.

    So be prepared to see American aircraft carriers destroyed and millions dead worldwide. Pure stupidity. We are being marched blindly towards war. No one in charge seems to see what the true consequences of this war really will be.

    April 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  16. Kolumn9

    Sounds like the logic of Chamberlain. If we do nothing eventually either they will become nice to us or they will crash. All we need to do is to maintain peace and the problem will solve itself. In the meantime the other side is building up its ability to wage war and expands its influence, and all with no real signs of the regime getting weaker or changing its tune. Sound familiar?

    April 13, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  17. Daimler

    USA, please go strike Iran or somebody in the middle east, so that you get tied down there. We don't want you messing around in the Asia Pacific area.

    April 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
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    April 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  19. Tom

    Yeah, well, doing nothing in international policy can be the solution as much as doing nothing in economy can be a solution. I agree that bombing Iran will not help in a long term. Iran will have a stronger grip on power, and will have more arguments to continue it's policy of hate.

    April 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Reply
  20. michaelfury


    April 13, 2012 at 7:31 am | Reply
  21. spin doctors at work

    this new approach by the obama camp to clearly come out and say it is more courageous to do nothing is a joke and truly will result in obama being defeated in the election.

    washington is broken and does not work , usa foreign policy is broken , the afghan thing is very broken and the only common factor in all of this is obama .
    well the hands off policy of obama is because the man is a good talker but he is truly over whelmed in the job of the pres , a simple thing like bringing the oil in from canada was also a do nothing approach by obama that resulted in china very quickly making a deal with canada to buy the oil.
    obama had the oil next door and said no and china is coming across the pacific ocean to get it .
    when obama leaned into the armpit of russia to ask putin for a favour in the off mic screw up in south korea was unbelievable , even some of the hard core dems that i know were truly shocked.

    April 13, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
    • F B M

      When Obama beats Mutt, try not to kill anyone other than yourself, ok?

      April 14, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • Marcus

      Whats Mitts stance on this? Do you even care, or is it our presidents skin color that really has all you tea baggers panties in a bunch. B4 you profess romney the winner you need to carefully consider why the gop had such a weak field this time around. Any repub with half a brain realized long ago Obama will do another term. Why do you think Palin is holding out until next time. Sheesh.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply

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