Iran: Rhetoric And Reality

There’s been an increase in combative rhetoric from the Bush Administration regarding Iran over the past week or so. First, last week President Bush said that permitting Iran to obtain nuclear weapons would lead to World War III. Now, Vice-President Cheney has said that the United States will not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons:

LEESBURG, Virginia (AP) — The United States and other nations will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.

“Our country, and the entire international community, cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its grandest ambitions,” Cheney said in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

He said Iran’s efforts to pursue technology that would allow them to build a nuclear weapon are obvious and that “the regime continues to practice delay and deceit in an obvious effort to buy time.”

If Iran continues on its current course, Cheney said the U.S. and other nations are “prepared to impose serious consequences.” The vice president made no specific reference to military action.

“We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

In this week’s Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria sheds the light of reality on all the war talk:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.” For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

And, as Zakaria points out the heated rhetoric has spread to the frontrunner for the Republican nomination:

In a speech last week, Rudy Giuliani said that while the Soviet Union and China could be deterred during the cold war, Iran can’t be. The Soviet and Chinese regimes had a “residual rationality,” he explained. Hmm. Stalin and Mao—who casually ordered the deaths of millions of their own people, fomented insurgencies and revolutions, and starved whole regions that opposed them—were rational folk. But not Ahmadinejad, who has done what that compares? One of the bizarre twists of the current Iran hysteria is that conservatives have become surprisingly charitable about two of history’s greatest mass murderers.

Heh. An excellent point, actually, although there is a small nitpick — Stalin was dead by the time the nuclear race between the United States and Soviet Union really heated up, and China’s Mao never really had enough nuclear weapons to effectively threaten the United States. But the point is the same; if the nations that killed millions with impunity were rational enough to understand the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, if three successive President’s have been willing to negotiate with Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung — two of the most megalomanical leaders in history — then why not the Iranians ?

Because, apparently, they’re different:

The one time we seriously negotiated with Tehran was in the closing days of the war in Afghanistan, in order to create a new political order in the country. Bush’s representative to the Bonn conference, James Dobbins, says that “the Iranians were very professional, straightforward, reliable and helpful. They were also critical to our success. They persuaded the Northern Alliance to make the final concessions that we asked for.” Dobbins says the Iranians made overtures to have better relations with the United States through him and others in 2001 and later, but got no reply. Even after the Axis of Evil speech, he recalls, they offered to cooperate in Afghanistan. Dobbins took the proposal to a principals meeting in Washington only to have it met with dead silence. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he says, “looked down and rustled his papers.” No reply was ever sent back to the Iranians. Why bother? They’re mad.

This is the mindset that is guiding this country on what is likely to be an even bigger foreign policy engagement than Iraq ever was; and they don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

Maybe they do, maybe this is all bluffing. We’ll see. In the meantime, Niall Ferguson has one suggestion for those who want to really know what America’s intentions with regard to Iran are; watch the aircraft carriers:

In domestic politics, it’s always a good idea to follow the money. When it comes to grand strategy, however, you need to follow the navy — to be precise, the aircraft carriers that would be the launching platforms for any major air offensive against Iran’s nuclear facilities. To do this, you don’t need to be very skilled at espionage. The U.S. Navy makes the information freely available at in the “Around the Navy” column published each week in the Navy Times.

The U.S. has 11 active aircraft carriers. Of these, the Kitty Hawk is in port in Japan. The Nimitz and Reagan are in San Diego. The Washington is in Norfolk, Va. The Lincoln and Stennis are in Washington state. And the Eisenhower, Vinson, Roosevelt and Truman are undergoing various sorts of refitting and maintenance checks in the vicinity of “WestLant” (Navy-speak for the western Atlantic). Only one — the Enterprise — is in the Persian Gulf.

At present, then, talk of World War III seems to be mere saber-rattling, not serious strategy. U.S. aircraft carriers can move fast, it’s true. The Lincoln’s top speed is in excess of 30 knots (30 nautical miles per hour). And it, along with the Truman, Eisenhower and Nimitz, are said to be “surge ready.” But take a look at the map. It’s a very long way from San Diego to the Strait of Hormuz. Even from Norfolk, it takes 17.5 days for an aircraft carrier group to reach Bahrain. If you were Ahmadinejad, how worried would you be?

At present, not very worried at all.

  • UCrawford

    Whether the strikes on Iran are pending, or merely an empty threat, the fact remains that the President and VP shouldn’t be making those threats.

    When the president starts carelessly throwing around terms such as “World War III”, it creates panic and animosity, not only in our own citizenry but in the citizenry of every other country in the world (as well it should). When the president starts demanding that other nations give up their sovereign right to self-defense, it creates animosity towards us in the rest of the world. When the president makes empty threats, it undermines our credibility in the rest of the world.

    Basically, whenever the president of the United States speaks, by virtue of the nation he leads his words carry weight. And when he makes threats, the world takes notice and takes action (in ways not always to our benefit). This was an observation that Calvin Coolidge made, which is why he chose to be “Silent Cal” during his time in the White House, and it’s a lesson that Bush and Cheney would do well to heed. Bush’s constant diarrhea of the mouth and his fondness for inflammatory rhetoric over diplomacy, compounded with his refusal to acknowledge the realities around him, have been the key to his failure as a leader.

  • Chepe Noyon

    Bush’s threats are hollow, and the Iranians know it. If Mr. Bush were to attack Iran, it would cement the power of the conservatives running the country AND give them the best possible justification for getting a nuke — and the rest of the world would agree with the Iranians. The damage they could do is enormous. They could vastly increase weapons shipments to Iraqi Shias, they could close the Strait of Hormuz, they could take out the Saudi oil installations, they could sink tankers in the Persian Gulf. Just the threat of war would raise oil prices enough to seriously hurt the American economy. Moreover, the US military doesn’t have the power to take on Iran. Thus, Bush is bluffing and everybody knows he’s bluffing — which serves only to make him look all the more stupid.

  • UCrawford

    Everything Bush does has the opposite of the intended effect. He’s King Midas in reverse…he’s just too stupid to realize it.

    Not to go off on an anti-religious screed, but this is why I can’t stand a lot of born-again Christians. So many of them went that route because they were useless fuck-ups and they think that finding God somehow erases all their shortcomings…which it doesn’t, it just makes them feel better about themselves. Bush is the poster child for that syndrome.

  • Jeff Molby

    Bush’s threats are hollow

    Bush is bluffing

    How can you be so sure? I’m not sure he’s the bluffing type. Yes, it would a horrible move strategically, but that hasn’t stopped him in the past. I hope you’re right.

  • UCrawford

    We’ve got one carrier group sitting in the Gulf. Until Bush moves another in then the author Doug cited is correct, an attack is probably not imminent. However, a carrier group can be deployed to the Gulf relatively quickly and air support is available from other sources so that’s not to say it couldn’t happen…it’s just not a certainty at this point.

  • Doug Mataconis


    Even two carrier groups is probably just a threat, not evidence of an attack.

    During Iraq and Afghanistan there were at least three, and I think at one point for, carrier battle groups within striking range.

  • Jeff Molby

    Are the airbases in Iraq useful for launching attacks or are they primarily freight and short-range patrols?

  • Chepe Noyon

    Jeff, I admit that Bush is just stupid enough to try an attack on Iran. There’s no way we could pull off an invasion, so it would be some limited set of airstrikes. The problem is that even airstrikes have to be done carefully, where first you go in an take out the air force, then the missile defenses and the radars, and so forth. By the time we could start taking out infrastructure they would have had plenty of time to harden everything with simple AA guns, which are pretty difficult to take out. It would be long and bloody and wouldn’t in the end make much of a dent. Maybe Bush is dumb enough to try, but I would hope that our military would set him straight.

  • UCrawford


    The airbases in Iraq would be problematic because the Iraqi government would certainly be opposed (since most of the leadership has close ties to SCIRI). Iran would also likely consider it an act of war by Iraq, so it’s not going to happen…same with our airbases in Kuwait, the Kuwaitis don’t want to provoke a war with Iran when they’re so geographically close. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and pretty much every other nation in the Gulf would have to grant us flyover rights for us to attack from Europe. The airbases in Afghanistan and the central Asian republics would be similarly problematic (especially since Afghanistan has trade relations with Iran). The only way it would be feasible is by carrier group and you’d probably need two to pull it off (because of the probable Iranian counterstrike). So until the U.S. moves a second carrier group there, it’s probably unlikely that we’ll attack.

    There’s always the nuclear first-strike option, of course, but I’d like to think that the Joint Chiefs would threaten to resign if it came to that…and I don’t think Gates would approve either. He’s from the realist school of foreign relations and he’s never been reported to have a good repoir with Bush, Jr. Plus, the Soviet Union has already explicitly told the U.S. not to consider a war with Iran. I think that Bush and Cheney would love to do it, but I don’t think the repercussions are going to allow them to. So it’s all about watching the carrier groups.

  • UCrawford


    During Iraq our position was not yet solidified in western Afghanistan. Ismail Khan still controlled Herat, he had the largest army in the country, he didn’t like us and he kept us out of his region. That changed in 2004 and we now have a sizeable military presence directly on Iran’s eastern border, so we don’t necessarily need three carrier groups. So if we see a second (or third) carrier group steam into the Persian Gulf it’s probably time to get nervous. But not until then…I just don’t see it happening at this point unless Bush has just gone completely off the rails mentally.

  • Jeff Molby

    Any idea where we’re at in the rotation? I imagine there’s another group scheduled to replace the current one at some point in the next year, right?

    I’m just not very comfortable. I don’t want a parliamentary system, but this is one of those times where I would like to vote “no confidence” and be done with it. He was so unbelievably wrong on the biggest decisions he faced. I just can’t trust him on anything. 15 months is a long f@#$ing time.

  • UCrawford


    I just see it as something we can’t do much about at this point. We can write about it and express our unhappiness, but ultimately Bush doesn’t pay much attention to dissenting viewpoints (particularly on blogs) and he’s going to do whatever he wants to do…same as he generally has since he became president. He bothers me too, but all we can really do is wait out the storm.

  •'%20defer='defer' defer='defer js290

    In domestic politics, it’s always a good idea to follow the money.

    That’s right… follow the money… Iran is a terrorist threat to the US Dollar for accepting other currencies for their oil, just like Saddam…′ defer=’defer

    Remember, War is a Racket…

  • Thomas

    I still can’t believe the hypocrisy in the way we treat Iran and North Korea. NK is a totalitarian state led by a nutcase dictator who was self-appointed and will lead for life and most likely appoint his son when he dies. Yet our President is handing over millions of tons of oil to him in exchange for shutting down of nuclear reactors. Then Mr. Bush stands up in front of an audience and has the gall say Iran should be acting more like North Korea? Yet the Bush tactic with Iran seems to be… shut down your reactors OR ELSE! Pure hipocrisy.

  • js290

    There’s no hypocrisy. Dubya has been pretty consisent on how he treats countries that threaten the US Dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, especially those that have oil. If you don’t have oil and can’t threaten the US Dollar, he’ll talk to you all day long.

  • Chepe Noyon

    Actually, Mr. Bush’s policies have been instrumental in bringing about the long-term decline of the dollar. It has been in a slow, steady freefall for some years now, and that fall is likely to continue now for the foreseeable future. It’s really hard to say just where it will stabilize, but it still has some distance to go before it does stabilize. It will take years of fiscal discipline to clean up the economic mess that Mr. Bush has made.

  • UCrawford

    Actually, the really pathetic thing is that Bush’s treaty with North Korea is actually weaker than the Agreed Framework Clinton set up with them in the 1990s (the one that we reneged on by not providing the lightwater reactors). So after all that bluster and all the threats, Bush ended up putting us in a worse position than the one we were in prior to him taking office. He is such a pathetic failure.

    And it’s not like he even needed to negotiate the settlement with the North Koreans. The nuke they set off was so weak we could barely confirm it as a nuclear explosion. After that Kim Jong-il almost immediately sent out his negotiators, indicating that the test was a massive failure, and considering the state of North Korea’s economy it’s unlikely he had the capability to improve his program or build more. Basically, we could have just sat back, kept our mouths shut and let his society collapse on its own. Now we’re propping them up with foreign aid because Bush thinks Kim Jong-il might someday be a threat to us. Utterly ridiculous.

  • js290

    It has been in a slow, steady freefall for some years now, and that fall is likely to continue now for the foreseeable future.

    The “enforcers” have been deployed to help slow the free fall… I wonder how much weaker the dollar would be if it wasn’t the world’s reserve currency?

  • js290