The Osirak Fallacy

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Every now and again, the dinner-table conversation will turn to Iran (well, not my dinner table, but some…). And then on to Iran’s nuclear program. And then on to how we must not let Iran go nuclear. And then perhaps on to how Israel did pretty well for itself by bombing Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor—and setting back Iraq’s nuclear program for years—back in 1981. You see where this is going.

Well, before the conversation ever does reach that point, read Richard K. Betts’ piece in the National Interest, which notes that the Osirak bombing didn’t really set back the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1980s, as everyone thinks. In fact, it may have even accelerated Iraq’s nuclear program by making Saddam Hussein extra-determined to get the bomb, and in any case, Betts notes, attacking Iran isn’t really a good thing to do. That doesn’t mean the Bush administration won’t try it—common sense hasn’t stopped this crew yet—but Betts at least lays out the argument in one nice, neat place.

Now Betts says that Iran’s going to get the bomb no matter what, and so deterrence and containment are the United States’ least bad options. Maybe. I still don’t see why we can’t try to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the first place. But if that’s our goal, it’s actually the best argument against bombing Iran. Because: Say we bomb. That sets Iran’s nuclear program back by a number of years. Say, four. Well, in four years time, we’re right back at square one. What do we do? Bomb again? Bomb again. Then another four-year wait. And bomb. Then so on until infinity. Quadrennial air raids may sound fun to some people, but it’s no way to conduct a sane foreign policy.

Short of attacking from now until eternity, then, the only hope of ensuring that Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons is for the latter to agree to some sort of arms-control and nonproliferation treaties. And the only way to get that to happen is for the United States to start talking directly to Iran and exploring the possibility of some sort of bargain. Maybe it won’t be the best bargain the world has ever seen. Maybe the United States won’t like all aspects of any future treaty with Iran. But it’s the only way to go. So why not at least try? That’s never really been answered.

UPDATE: I should add that the upcoming, and groundbreaking, talks between Iran and the United States — not over the nuclear program, but over Iraq — are a seriously good start.

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