Bolton suggests nuclear attack on Iran

By Daniel Luban

This Friday, the American Enterprise Institute will host an event addressing the question “Should Israel attack Iran?” The event includes, among others, Iran uberhawk Michael Rubin and infamous “torture lawyer” John Yoo, but the real star is likely to be John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador whose right-of-Attila views left him an outcast even within the second Bush administration. (Bolton was eventually forced out when it became clear that he would be unable to win Senate confirmation for the U.N. post.)

If Bolton’s recent rhetoric is any indication, his AEI appearance may accomplish the formidable feat of making Michael Rubin sound like a dove. Discussing Iran during a Tuesday speech at the University of Chicago, Bolton appeared to call for nothing less than an Israeli nuclear first strike against the Islamic Republic. (The speech, sponsored by the University Young Republicans and Chicago Friends of Israel, was titled, apparently without a trace of irony, “Ensuring Peace.”)

“Negotiations have failed, and so too have sanctions,” Bolton said, echoing his previously-stated belief that sanctions will prove ineffectual in changing Tehran’s behavior. “So we’re at a very unhappy point — a very unhappy point — where unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future.”

Bolton made clear that the latter option is unacceptable. “There are some people in the administration who think that it’s not really a problem, we can contain and deter Iran, as we did the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I think this is a great, great mistake and a dangerously weak approach…Whatever else you want to say about them, at least the Soviets believed that they only went around once in this world, and they weren’t real eager to give that up — as compared to a theological regime in Tehran which yearns for life in the hereafter more than life on earth…I don’t think [deterrence] works that way with a country like Iran.”

While Bolton coyly refused to spell out his conclusion, the implications of his argument were clear. If neither negotiations, nor sanctions, nor deterrence are options, then by his logic the only remaining option is for “Israel…to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program.”

Of course, it is nothing new for Bolton and his neoconservative allies to threaten an Israeli strike against Iran. But Bolton’s use of the “n-word” is, I believe, new for him, and marks a significant rhetorical escalation from the hawks. An Israeli strike, nuclear or otherwise, without U.S. permission remains unlikely. But as it often the case, I suspect that Bolton’s intention is less to give an accurate description of reality than it is to stake out positions extreme enough to shift the boundaries of debate as a whole to the right.

[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. It’s easy for people like Bolton to advocate the most extreme measures, since they know they have no influence over the people now in power. Even GWB vetoed an Israeli strike on Iran. The U.S. will never attack Iran, unless Sarah Palin becomes president. But S.P. will never be elected.

    What Israel may do in 2010 or 2011, I’m not sure. Once we pull out of Iraq completely at the end of 2011, they may very well try their luck. If Obama is weak in the polls and the Iranian program appears to be moving forward, with Russia and China indifferent, then the Israelis might have a go sooner. I worry about 2011 in particular.

  2. One of the chief provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is that nuke states will not threaten non-nuke states with the use of nukes. This call for use of nukes against Iran is not new. Cheney had argued for attacks on Iran previously.

    The only way to effectively attack the Iranian nuclear facilities would be to use low level nuke bunker buster bombs recently developed by the US. Again, this is not new.

    But, what has been missed is that these recurring threats of nuclear attacks against Iran VOIDS the very treaty that we are asserting Iran is violating. Why isn’t this fact being reported? Why isn’t the utter hypocrisy of our position being exposed more clearly?

  3. It’s also a useful way to find out who the real hawks are…as distinct from the weekend armchair type hawks.

  4. I suggest we kidnap Mr. Bolton and deposit him, armed with a vintage bolt action rifle (just like Lee Harvey Oswald) and one Schafly’s new “Conservative” bibles, outside a mosque in suburban Tehran. How much you wanna bet that he starts crying?

  5. I suggested the same thing when Norman Podhoretz called for an attack on Iran back in 2007. Give Norman and his son John rifles, I said, and parachute them into Iranian territory. They take it from there. Let’s give Bolton a gun and a ‘chute as well. I’ll pay the jet fuel bill if the Air Force will supply the aircraft and pilot!

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