Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Potent Portables

Matt Yglesias is right that Chris Matthews really does a fine job of pressing Iran war advocate Joshua Muravchik on the urgency (and ultimate wisdom) of going to war with Iran in the next year. In particular, Matthews raises a point that I have not seen get the coverage it deserves regarding the possibility - and likelihood - of Iran passing on a nuclear weapon to terrorists: In order for such a transfer to be truly effective against the United States, Iran would not only need to develop a crude nuclear weapon, but would need to create a highly sophistacated device that could be easily portable, such that terrorists could deliver and detonate it in the United States.

A suitcase bomb type apparatus if you will. But when you factor in the difficulty and expertise necessary to perfect such a delivery system, that would tack on several more years to the Iranian bomb timeline. On the other hand, a terrorist group pressing for such a device would be better served by scouring the former Soviet Union (where such portable nukes are believed to reside) for a potential weak link in the chain of scientists/security officials in charge of their safe keeping. Of note: the Bush administration (and the legion of Iraq war mongers) have shown far less interest in securing loose nuclear materials, and bolstering nuclear security measures in Russia and the ex-Soviet Republics.

Of course, even that discussion elides some of the larger conceptual flaws in the presumption that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists in order to strike at the United States. For one, Iran would be doing so with the knowledge that there would be a very good chance that the return address on the nuke would eventually be traced back to Tehran. If those dots were connected, the ruling regime (and Iran in general) would cease to exist. That's an awfully big risk, no?

And then there's the question of why a country like Iran would spend so many billions, dedicate so many decades and withstand the hardships of sanctions and the like in order to finally attain a nuclear weapon...only to give it a way at the first opportunity. To a group like al-Qaeda, whose allegiance to the Shiite-dominated Iran is near non-existent (also a point made in the Matthews video by MIT's Jim Walsh).

After all, even many of the Iran war boosters like Muravchik concede that Iran's main purposes for acquiring the nuke in the first place would be to press for regional hegemony and brandish the prestige that comes with entry into the nuclear club (augmented by the prospect of becoming a leading light of Muslim resistance to the United States). Those advantages would disappear if Iran gave away their weapon. Even if they developed many (a possibility that, again, pushes the timeline back several years) and thus were capable of parting with one or two, what good would regional hegemony be if the United States responded to an Iran-enabled terrorist nuclear strike with the utter obliteration of Iran?

Kind of a fleeting victory, no?

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