The Iranian Threat

I found this Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation chart via Matthew Yglesias last night. As you can see, it uses a side by side comparison of U.S. and Iranian military capacity to effectively debunk the idea that Iran poses any kind of existential threat to the United States. Yglesias acknowledges the risk to regional stability represented by Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity, but says that’s “a far cry from saying that Iran is, as such, any kind of serious military threat.”

My first thought last night was that this line of argument is convincing because it blurs the distinction between existential threat and military threat. In particular, it ignores the fact that Iran is aggressively pursuing a ballistic missile capacity which will soon put it in the position of striking Israeli targets, and eventually put European capitals within range. My first thought this morning was that had I posted that thought last night, the news that Iran just test launched a Shahab 3 missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv would have made me look like a genius.

The fact is that for over twenty years now, Iran has been a hostile nation that has exercised a destabilizing influence in the region and demonstrated a willingness to use force — including terrorist attacks carried out by proxies and state agents — to further its interests. They are not the only nation that fits that description, but they are the most prominent among the group. The fact that American policy towards Iran over that time might not have been ideally formulated to modulate that posture is an exacerbating factor, but not a causal one, and it doesn’t make Iran’s posture any less real.

For a variety of reasons, it would be counterproductive to try to achieve our strategic objectives vis à vis Iran through military means. That means we need to engage them diplomatically, which entails allowing for a realistic recalculation of Iran’s regional status, to our detriment. But we need to do that clearsightedly, which means recognizing both the difficulties of negotiating with Tehran (the response to the P5+1’s latest offer on the nuclear dossier is an example), and also the threat a hostile Iranian state poses to our interests and those of our allies.

The case against a military approach to Iran can be made without minimizing or ignoring the military threat Iran poses. It is far from being existential, either to the U.S. or to our allies. But it exists.