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The Glaring Contradiction in Anti-Iran Policy

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President Barack Obama, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have at least one thing in common when it comes to Iran. All are guilty of flagrant self-contradiction.

Each says that a nuclear-armed Iran could not be effectively contained the way the U.S. government contained the nuclear-armed Soviet Union and Communist China. Yet each also says that Iran can be prevented from acquiring a nuclear capability or weapon if the United States and Israel draw a “red line” and threaten Iran militarily if it crosses the line.

Both assertions cannot be true.

In his speech before the United Nations, Netanyahu, holding a poster of a cartoon bomb, said,

There are those who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred like the Soviet Union. That’s a very dangerous assumption.… Militant Jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists.… Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.

There’s a great scholar of the Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.

In Obama’s UN speech, he said,

Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained.… And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Romney has said similar things. In his speech in Jerusalem last August he said that Iran “gives us no reason to trust them with nuclear material” and that “preventing [their developing a nuclear capability] must be our highest national security priority.”

All three men portray the Iranian regime as consisting of suicidal fanatics who, once having acquired even one nuclear weapon, would use it against Israel. Obama, Romney, and Netanyahu seem to believe the Iranians would use the bomb regardless of Israel’s powerful military and its nuclear arsenal of at least 200 warheads, some of which are mounted on submarines, permitting a devastating second-strike capability.

In other words, if the Iranian regime were to acquire a nuclear bomb (a very big “if”), there would be no reasoning with it. Threats of massive retaliation — the essence of containment and deterrence — would likely have no effect whatsoever.

But if that is true, why would Obama, Romney, and Netanyahu expect that setting red lines backed by military threats would have the desired effect of deterring Iran from developing a nuclear capability or a weapon itself? How can Obama and Romney hope that harsh sanctions will dissuade Iran’s “apocalyptic leaders” from developing a nuclear capability?

Why is deterrence expected to fail in one case but succeed in the other? The same allegedly suicidal fanatics would be making the decision.

I have yet to hear the mainstream media ask any of them these questions. Instead, the national “reporters” — stenographers, really — supinely pack Obama, Romney, and Netanyahu’s fallacious premises into softball questions designed simply to let these men enunciate their talking points. You’d never know from their “coverage” that top military and intelligence figures in the United States and Israel say that Iran’s leaders are “rational actors,” that is, open to reason and not suicidal. The mainstream media have shamefully ill-served the American public, whose interests would be gravely harmed by a war with Iran.

The media accept another of these men’s premises rather than putting it to the test. This is the assertion, as Netanyahu would have it, that Iran is racing toward acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Both the Israeli and the U.S. intelligence communities say that Iran has not decided to acquire a weapon. Contrary to Netanyahu’s hysterical warnings of a pending existential threat (warnings that go back decades), Iran has been turning its enriched uranium into a form that, while suitable for producing medical isotopes, is unsuitable for making weapons. Twice America’s intelligence agencies have concluded that Iran scrapped its suspected nuclear program in 2003, after the U.S. military ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Moreover, Iran, unlike Israel, has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is subject to inspections by permanently stationed International Atomic Energy Agency personnel.

The Iranian “threat” is another manufactured crisis.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.