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War with Iran Would Be Madness

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Barack Obama’s refusal to rule out military action against Iran, and several Republican presidential candidates’ pledge to launch a war if elected, should appall anyone who believes, with the free-market liberal Ludwig von Mises, that “not war, but peace, is the father of all things.”

If the U.S. government or Israel were to attack Iran, all hell would break loose. Thousands of Iranians would die. Its infrastructure would be destroyed, bringing more death, disease, and misery. And the democratic Iranian Green Movement, which is against foreign intervention, would be destroyed. Iran’s government would retaliate by closing down the Strait of Hormuz, the entry and exit from the Persian Gulf through which much oil passes, and by launching attacks against American ground and naval forces in the region.

In short, disaster would follow a U.S. attack or an Israeli attack, which would be seen, quite ration-ally, as a U.S.-backed operation.

What would prompt the military assault? The powers that be, in maneuvers reminiscent of the buildup to the Iraq War, are trying to frighten the world into believing that Iran is hell-bent on building a nuclear weapon. Recent headlines in the stenographic news media would have us believe that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that the Iranians are working apace to build a bomb. We are left with the suggestion that once they succeed, a nuclear attack will promptly follow.

That makes little sense. Even if Iran were building a nuclear weapon, why would it launch an attack on, say, Israel, that would mean certain oblivion for itself? The U.S. government can destroy the world with its nukes, and Israel, a nuclear power since the 1960s, has a couple of hundred warheads ready to go. Unlike Iran, Israel does not submit to IAEA inspections or even admit it has nukes. Its officials speak cagily of its “alleged” nuclear arsenal.

If Iran were developing a nuclear weapon, it would more reasonably be interpreted as a way for that country to deter a U.S.-led assault for the purpose of regime change, such as those which occurred in Iraq and Libya. The difference between how the U.S. government treated those countries and how it treats North Korea, which has a nuclear weapon, is hard to miss. U.S. presidents have been threatening Iran for many years and often have placed warships ostentatiously in its vicinity. A nuclear capability would be the only sure way to prevent an attack by U.S. forces.

Many countries have nuclear weapons. The United States managed not to have a nuclear war with the Soviet Union or China, so war with a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly not be inevitable. Moreover it is hypocritical for nuclear powers — especially the United States, the only country to have dropped atomic bombs on people — to declare an Iranian weapon “unacceptable.”

What evidence?

But here’s the bigger problem for those ginning up war fever: there is no evidence Iran is developing a nuclear weapon! Iran is being threatened because it can’t prove it’s not doing so. The similarity to what happened with Iraq and Saddam Hussein is unmistakable. Obama has won toughened sanctions on Iran that ostensibly would be lifted only if its rulers proved that negative. But one cannot prove a negative, so the Obama policy looks like it’s intended to produce a war, which is favored by neoconservatives, macho Republican presidential candidates, Israel and its American lobby. Meanwhile sanctions primarily harm the innocent population. Rulers are rarely affected.

What’s usually overlooked is that two U.S. National Intelligence Estimates, one in 2007 and one in 2011, determined that Iran shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, the year the U.S. military overthrew Iran’s nemesis, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. NIEs represent the judgment of America’s dozen and a half intelligence agencies. As the latest NIE was being prepared, the agencies were under intense pressure to change its earlier analysis, but they refused to do so. Since the 2011 NIE would blunt the move toward war, it’s gotten little attention in the mass media.

But what about the most recent IAEA report? According to the Washington Post, “Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.”

Yet if one digs below the surface one finds that the IAEA certified that Iran has not diverted nuclear materials from peaceful to weapons purposes. (Uranium appropriate for medical or power-generating purposes is unsuitable for bomb-making. It must be enriched to a far greater degree.) While the report darkly alludes to “undeclared nuclear materials,” it provides no evidence that they exist. There’s the negative: Iran, prove that you do not have undeclared nuclear materials somewhere. How would it do that? Because Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (unlike Israel), it is already subject to inspection, which is how the IAEA can certify that Iran’s uranium has not been diverted to bomb-making.

Many experts have ridiculed the politicized report as essentially recycling old dubious allegations. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two Middle East experts who spent time on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, wrote:

[The] report … does not in any way demonstrate that Iran is “developing a nuclear weapon.” Rather, it once again affirms, as the IAEA has for decades, Iran’s “non-diversion” of nuclear material. In other words, even if the Islamic Republic wanted to build nuclear weapons (and Tehran continues to deny, at the highest levels of authority, that it wishes to do so) it does not have the weapons-grade material essential to the task.

[The] report [focused] on unsubstantiated intelligence reports, provided almost entirely by the United States, Israel, and other Western governments…. In fact, no one has ever produced a shred of evidence that Iran has ever actually tried to build a nuclear weapon or taken a decision to do so.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who’s been covering this story for years, found similar skepticism in other experts. “But how definitive, or transformative, were the findings? The I.A.E.A. said it had continued in recent years ‘to receive, collect and evaluate information relevant to possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program’ and, as a result, it has been able ‘to refine its analysis.’ The net effect has been to create ‘more concern,’” Hersh writes on The New Yorker website,

But Robert Kelley, a retired I.A.E.A. director and nuclear engineer who previously spent more than thirty years with the Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons program, told me that he could find very little new information in the I.A.E.A. report. He noted that hundreds of pages of material appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established. Those materials, and others, “were old news,” Kelley said, and known to many journalists. “I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information’ by the same reporters.”

Policy for war

That infamous and suspicious laptop, which the IAEA report doesn’t specifically mention, has been talked about for years. While the U.S. government claims it was taken from Iranian authorities and contains top-secret information about a weapons program, others have grave doubts about its origins. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter writes,

But those documents have long been regarded with great suspicion by US and foreign analysts. German officials have identified the source of the laptop documents in November 2004 as the Mujahideen e Khalq (MEK), which along with its political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), is listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization.

There are some indications, moreover, that the MEK obtained the documents not from an Iranian source but from Israel’s Mossad.

The MEK and NCRI have been working with neoconservatives to build support for war with Iran. (MEK is a Marxist cult that was involved in the taking of American hostages in Tehran in 1979, after the Islamic revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. It has since turned against the Iranian regime and seeks regime change with U.S. help.)

Porter has also debunked the IAEA’s recycled claim that (Porter’s words) “a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist had helped Iran construct a detonation system that could be used for a nuclear weapon.” Writes Porter, “But it turns out that the foreign expert, who is not named in the IAEA report but was identified in news reports as Vyacheslav Danilenko, is not a nuclear-weapons scientist but one of the top specialists in the world in the production of nanodiamonds by explosives.

“In fact, Danilenko, a Ukrainian, has worked solely on nano-diamonds from the beginning of his research career and is considered one of the pioneers in the development of nanodiamond technology, as published scientific papers confirm.”

Summing up the IAEA report, Iranian exile, regime critic, and University of Southern California chemical-engineering professor Mohammad Sahimi, writes,

[As] I see it, the allegations are nothing new and are all based on the aforementioned laptop. New evidence is mentioned, but without any documentation, source, or date. There are only a couple of issues that require serious explanation by Iran. The conclusion: The report was deliberately hyped to make a case for much harsher sanctions, or war.

The Obama administration says it prefers sanctions and diplomacy, but as long as impossible demands are made on Iran, the chance of war is real. Many retired military officers oppose it — Iran would make Iraq look like a schoolyard — yet Obama and other prominent political figures irresponsibly rattle their sabers. It is sheer madness.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).

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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.