The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

April 13, 2006

Iran's Nuculear Program

Iran announced earlier this week that it has made a technological breakthrough in its nuclear program. Iran claims its intentions are to produce energy, but the Bush administration believes Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons. What, if anything, should the U.S. do in response?

To make the issue as stark as possible, assume the U.S. knows for certain that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons. And assume the U.S. knows for certain that, absent some action by the U.S., Iran will attain this goal within a few years. Under these assumptions, does it make sense to undertake economic sanctions, or air strikes, or any other intervention?

My answer is no. We do not know whether Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would harm the U.S. or its allies. Iran has little incentive to use such weapons, since it knows this would unleash an unprecedented response from the U.S. and others. Indeed, Iran’s main motivation is probably to deter potential aggressors in the Middle East, like Iraq or Pakistan.

In addition, any attempt to derail the Iranian nuclear program will be costly, unsuccessful, or both. Economic sanctions will have little impact; Iran has oil that the rest of the world wants, creating a huge incentive for cheating. Air strikes might precipitate regime change, but the new regime could be worse than what exists now. And outright invasion would be far more expensive than the invasion of Iraq given how thinly U.S. forces are stretched already.

That leaves one obvious option: do nothing. This approach is not without risks. But it seems preferable to the alternatives.


At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points. Iran surely knows that if it attacked the U.S. or one of our allies with a nuclear weapon that about thirty minutes later Iran would cease to exist as a nation.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

are we assuming both nations are rational actors?

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. We never thought that the Russians were rational, nor the Chinese. The North Koreans are proving to be rational....and good negotiators/bargainers. We didn't bomb Pakistan or India. Why should we think that Iran will be any less rational?

Right now, all our rhetoric is doing is empowering the hapless Iranian President who has nothing else to offer his people.

At 1:13 AM, Blogger Tomas Bradanovic said...

You said "Iran’s main motivation is probably to deter potential aggressors in the Middle East, like Iraq or Pakistan" but you failed to mention Israel, the most likely target for iranian goverment.

Maybe the most wise for America is to do nothing as you said, and Israel may do the job instead (with a little help of...)

Just remember the lack of initiative from Jimmy Carter and the further consequences.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The professor is absolutely right on this issue.

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Lab_FROG said...

Frog doubts that Israel will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Because of the greater negative reaction in Muslim populations and Israel’s lower capabilities, they are likely to ask the U.S. to use military force for them.

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