The City Club International Affairs lunch on the pending crisis over Iranian nuclear weapons was an exercise in information and logic. First, a simple explanation of how to build a nuclear bomb from Dr. Jerry Petersen at the University of Colorado focused on what is hard (refining fuel) and what is not (putting fuel in a bomb). Then, a disciplined presentation of the various policy options, the possible Iranian counter-moves, Israeli involvement, more counter-moves, and at some point I was lost in a mesh of thoughts.
At which point, I had to leave and catch a flight to Phoenix. Which in Boulder in late February wins me no sympathy. What I hoped the discussion turned to in its closing moments was an impassioned debate about whether the United States has a vital interest in Iranian nuclear weapons, whether diplomacy, economic warfare, military intervention, or containment, can advance that vital interest.
Over the course of high school and college I took four years of science, including ten hard science courses in college. During those years I saw two presentations on the building of nuclear weapons. But in none of them did I realize that once a reactor was functional it was immune from attack. In essence the existing operating Iranian reactor, if bombed by any force, would spew radioactivity throughout the Persian Gulf and beyond at rates far exceeding any civilian nuclear crisis. And although I had heard the physical explanation of how a gaseous centrifuge distilled Uranium 235 into first civilian nuclear fuel then weapons grade fuel, what struck me this time was the inevitable uncertainty inherent in any intelligence based on monitoring such a program.
I was listening to a string of facts as if I was watching Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003. Our intelligence had determined that Iraq had retained the ability to build nuclear weapons. Our policy goals were simple – the destruction of the weapons of mass destruction and regime change. Costs in lives and money were predictable and containable as in the 1992 Gulf War.
No matter how you parse the policy tree through a logical sequence of information and analysis, the basic questions remain. Why is it in US national interests to start a third war in the Middle East? Why is it our intelligence understands this Middle Eastern country’s intent better than the last one?
This would be the second major war without UN Security Counsel sanction. Vietnam and the Iraq War were both fought without an internationally recognized mandate to at best mixed results. Why would the US win victory this time?
War has failed as a method in Iraq and Afghanistan to produce peace. Why is it that suddenly war would produce peace in this Middle Eastern country? It is not enough to say Iran cannot have nuclear weapons. Would military action actually prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons?
The facts and decision trees can drag the analysis down from a guiding strategic level. For me the proponents of intervention have not answered the fundamental strategic questions necessary to intervene militarily. And without credible answers I would prefer a strategy that sells arms to Israel, engages in diplomacy, then focuses on jobs and the economy.