Spencer Ackerman Responds to Robert Farley on the Significance of an Iranian Nuke

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The following is in response to an op-ed by Dr. Robert Farley

I understand what my friend, Rob Farley, is trying to do in his piece about the non-impact of an Iranian nuke. He’s trying to get everyone to calm down, think clearly and, above all, prevent a war. These are laudable efforts. Yet, he fails to accomplish them.

He fails for two interlocking reasons. First, Farley takes too narrow a view of who in the Middle East will be affected by an Iranian bomb. More fundamentally, his argument about a nuclear Iran being inconsequential only makes sense on the presumption that Arabs and Israelis will act rationally in the face of a viscerally impactful security development nearby.
“Nuclear states cannot use nukes to force non-nuclear states to comply with their demands,” Farley says. I sought clarification from Farley on this via Twitter,  and his position is: Iranian nukes will have a net-zero impact on regional power dynamics.

Farley might try to explain this view to Shiite protesters in Bahrain, a Gulf state and American client that uses fear of an Iranian fifth column to brutally suppress its dissidents. Does anyone think that Bahrain’s leadership will become more rational or less cynical if Iran goes nuclear? Does anyone think that the United States will grow more attentive to human rights abuses in Gulf states when it feels the need to entrench a Gulf coalition to contain a nuclear Iran? For that matter, does anyone think that the United States will be more inclined to restrain Israel, either on challenging Iran unconventionally (as with Stuxnet, considered by many to be a joint US-Israeli cyberweapon; or with its alleged assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists) or on its intransigence with the Palestinians?

Farley seems to think he has an answer:

Concerns about international hysteria are well founded, but separating the hysteria from the effects of the actual weapon — and noting that the former has little foundation in the latter — is a worthwhile effort. Regional leaders would be best advised to explain to their people the actual dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon, rather than feeding the hysteria.

I submit that Farley gives up the game here. Once you concede that hysteria over an Iranian bomb is a “well founded” concern, you’re forced to confront one of two alternatives. You can either believe that regional and international decision-makers (governments, security apparatuses, terrorist groups, dissidents, the media, etc.) will react in unpredictable ways, with geostrategic implications. If you do that, then you refute Farley. Or you can believe that regional and international decision-makers will become more rational then they already are in the face of an Iranian nuke.

That is a debater’s rhetorical tact, not a serious policy option. When Farley hectors regional leaders that they are “best advised to explain to their people the actual dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon, rather than feeding the hysteria,” it’s hard to imagine which real-world Mideast leaders he actually expects to take his advice. The fact that Farley feels the need to offer it suggests that he doubts actors in the region will be as nonchalant about a nuclear Iran as he is.

Recall the way you felt when you watched two airplanes annihilate the Twin Towers. Imagine if someone said to you, “Remember that America is vastly more powerful than a terrorist group. Don’t feed the hysteria.” It’s good advice. It is also very difficult advice to take, even ten years after 9/11 when the strategic consequences of America’s numerous miscalculations have accumulated. This is because the world is populated with people and not automatons, the international relations constructs necessary for Farley’s scenario to accurately describe the aftermath of a nuclear Iran.

Spencer Ackerman is a national security reporter for
WIRED. He blogs at Attackerman.


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12 thoughts on “Spencer Ackerman Responds to Robert Farley on the Significance of an Iranian Nuke

  1. Sir Mixxalot says:

    well the NDU looked into this — WHEN WE THOUGHT IRAN HAD A NUCLEAR PROGRAM in 2005:


    NDU conclusion: Robert is right and you are wrong.

    Plus, our DNI says there is no nuke weapons program in Iran now.

  2. susanjacobsen1 says:

    Nice invoking the image of 9/11 Spencer to raise a level of fear in people.

  3. Craig Burley says:

    Sir Mixxalot,

    That is one of the most lucid and succinct blog comments I have seen in ever.

    Thanks for the link, which is very interesting.

    I do note that Yaphe and Lutes are far from sanguine about Israel’s options and its likely course of action. I think Farley makes strong points in this regard but I’m not yet convinced.

  4. Sir Mixxalot says:

    thanks. On Iran see this article, written by an actual nuclear physicist not a talking or blogging head:


  5. hass says:

    Sorry but while you guys debate a non-existent nuclear weapons program in Iran, the rest of the world is laughing out loud at the latest iAEA report and its obvious bias.

  6. Seedee Vee says:

    I agree that the “Recall the way you felt when you watched two airplanes annihilate the Twin Towers” statement is about as low as you can go in having an intelligent conversation.

    But it does seem to be just a game for Ackerman and not a study in intellectual honesty.

  7. Alby says:

    If you’re going to be intellectually honest about it, shouldn’t you acknowledge that a pre-emptive attack will also trigger hard-to-predict irrationality by others in the region? It’s not as if a bombing raid would just be shrugged off, either.

  8. gman says:

    “Recall the way you felt when you watched two airplanes annihilate the Twin Towers”

    Remember the way you felt about not finding the “WMD” in Iraq?

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