Bad News: The U.S. and Iran

Joseph Cirincione in Foreign Policy on rising tensions with Iran.

Does this story line sound familiar? The vice president of the United States gives a major speech focused on the threat from an oil-rich nation in the Middle East. The U.S. secretary of state tells congress that the same nation is our most serious global challenge. The secretary of defense calls that nation the leading supporter of global terrorism. The president blames it for attacks on U.S. troops. The intelligence agencies say the nuclear threat from this nation is 10 years away, but the director of intelligence paints a more ominous picture. A new U.S. national security strategy trumpets preemptive attacks and highlights the country as a major threat. And neoconservatives beat the war drums, as the cable media banner their stories with words like “countdown” and “showdown.”

The nation making headlines today, of course, is Iran, not Iraq. But the parallels are striking. Three years after senior administration officials systematically misled the nation into a disastrous war, they could well be trying to do it again.

Nothing is clear, yet. For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.

Meanwhile, Philip Anderson (Physics Nobel Laureate), Michael Fisher (Wolf Laureate), David Gross (Nobel Laureate), Jorge Hirsch (Professor of Physics), Leo Kadanoff (National Medal of Science), Joel Lebowitz (Boltzmann Medalist), Anthony Leggett (Nobel Laureate), Eugen Merzbacher (President, American Physical Society, 1990), Douglas Osheroff (Nobel Laureate), Andrew Sessler (President, American Physical Society, 1998), George Trilling (President, American Physical Society, 2001), Frank Wilczek (Nobel Laureate), and Edward Witten (Fields Medalist) have sent a letter to President Bush. (Via Cosmic Variance.)

Dear Mr. President:

Recent articles in the New Yorker and Washington Post report that the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran is being actively considered by Pentagon planners and by the White House. As members of the profession that brought nuclear weapons into existence, we urge you to refrain from such an action that would have grave consequences for America and for the world.

1800 of our fellow physicists have joined in a petition opposing new US nuclear weapons policies that open the door to the use of nuclear weapons in situations such as Iran’s. These policies represent a “radical departure from the past”, in the words of Linton Brooks, National Nuclear Security Administration director. Indeed, since the end of World War II, US policy has considered nuclear weapons “weapons of last resort”, to be used only when the very survival of the nation or of an allied nation was at stake, or at most in cases of extreme military necessity.