Jeffrey Lewis on Japan and Nuclear Weapons

I’ve just gotten around to reading Jeffrey Lewis’ most recent FP piece on Japan and the periodic worries about Japan’s potential interest in, and capability to build, a nuclear weapons arsenal of its own.

I don’t have any particular problem with his analysis in the piece. I suspect he’s right in his conclusion that Japan will not decide to build their own nuclear weapons arsenal anytime soon, for the cultural and political reasons on which he mostly relies. He observes that most of the pro-NW rhetoric in Japan is politically marginal, that public sentiment in Japan is not in favor of nuclear weaponization, given particularly Japan’s terrible history as a victim of nuclear weapons use. And he gives Japan the benefit of the doubt that if they ever do decide to build nuclear weapons, they’ll do so in an open and transparent way. (Just like they did at Pearl Harbor.)

I just wanted to comment quickly on how different this holistic and circumspect analysis is from Lewis’ own analysis, and from that of many of his buddies in the US nonproliferation “expert” establishment (e.g. David Albright), on the potential for other countries to decide to construct their own nuclear weapons arsenals, and in particular Iran. See, for example, Lewis’ other recent FP piece on why we shouldn’t focus on “breakout time” on the basis of known centrifuge capability in Iran, as a meaningful indication of whether and when Iran might “go nuclear.” With regard to Iran’s potential future decision to build a nuclear weapons arsenal Lewis says:

What Khamenei is more likely to do, if he decides that nuclear weapons are no longer un-Islamic, is to order the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to build a covert facility with technology from the civil program. You know, like Iran did at Natanz before 2002, and near Qom before 2010. A covert facility would provide Iran with a significant and steady supply of highly enriched uranium. With a little luck for the Iranians, this approach would present the United States and its partners with a fait accompli — one where we don’t know how much highly enriched uranium they have or where it’s made. That’s what the North Koreans are doing now, having wised up about the limited value of a plutonium production infrastructure housed in very large reactors and a reprocessing building that are easily identified and targeted.

Let me put this simply: Even if the Iranians build a bomb, they are likely to pretend for a prolonged time that they haven’t. Imposing limits on the number, capability, or operation of Iran’s centrifuges is a fool’s errand. It is far more important to win concessions on verification and access to Iran’s nuclear program.

Do you see a difference in tone and assumptions here? No holistic analysis of Iran’s history as a victim of WMD use itself, or of its relations with the West and its neighbors, and why it did not disclose the Natanz and Qom facilities. No consideration of internal Iranian politics in a circumspect way. No thoughtful analysis of the international relations calculus that Iran will likely rationally make.

The analysis is superficial and suspicious. The assumption is that Iran wants nuclear weapons, and will likely be devious in obtaining them.

This double standard of analysis and assumption just really stood out to me in this instance. But it’s a thread running through most of the rhetoric concerning Iran’s nuclear program in Washington DC, and through the writings of the US nonproliferation expert community. It’s so ingrained by now, I’m not sure they even see it anymore.


6 Comments on “Jeffrey Lewis on Japan and Nuclear Weapons”

  1. yousaf says:

    Well, Jeffrey has admitted that the Iran issue is a political not technical issue:

    “A note from the founding publisher: Jeffrey here. I wonder about the time we spend on such proposals. Don’t get me wrong — the ideas are completely sensible. But I sometimes think they are efforts to find technical solutions to an ultimately political problem.”

    Put simply: the US politics with Japan are better than the US politics with Iran.

    Were the IAEA not over-reaching, biased, at times technically incompetent & politically compromised, and with a weak understanding of the law and its own mandate, this would remain a US-Japan or US-Iran political issue. But because of the nature of the funding streams to the IAEA, the IAEA is also politically active on the US+Japan+allies side:

    So the problem is not so much that the US-Iran politics are bad but that these bad politics have leached over (thoroughly) to the IAEA, and UNSC.

  2. Nick says:

    Another important difference is Israel. Japan has never said anything about Israel’s existence or the Palestinian occupied territories mistreatment by the Jewish state.

    Keeping a more quiet position on Israel may have reduced (but not fully eliminated) wrath of the Lobby headed by AIPAC, think thanks headed by WINEP, and the editorial pages of the main street media.

    To some extent Iran is responsible for not playing their cards right, from USG’s point of view.

  3. Johnboy says:

    The difference in tone is easily explained: in both cases Lewis has already made his conclusion, and so he starts working backwards from there.

    As in: he has *faith* that Japan isn’t planning on manufacturing nukes, ergo, he is willing to cut them more than enough slack in order to make their current actions fit his perceived end-game.

    By way of comparison: Lewis has *faith* that Iran really is planning on pumping out nukes, ergo, he sees suspicious behaviour everywhere, and he finds something sinister and not-to-be-trusted in every pronouncement.

    He is the caricature of a scientist: he knows his theory is correct because, well, he knows that it is. The facts therefore exist merely to be massaged to fit the theory.

    Bad enough, I suppose, but he is also so monumentally egotistic that he belittles anyone who dares to suggest that he has a rather, ahem, closed mind.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      All I can say to that is Amen, Johnboy. And he’s a real Jerk on Twitter and in other interactions with people who in any way challenge him. If anyone wants they can see an exchange between him and me on Twitter last week. I try to live by Polonios’ advice to Laertes: “Beware entrance to a quarrel, but being in bear it, that the opposed may beware of thee.” When tones get nasty I don’t back down, but try to give as good as I get.

      • Johnboy says:

        Hmm, I did take the time to look over those Twitter feeds, and his comments regarding the RAND memo is a classic example of a closed mind: Lewis simply dismisses it as an “obvious fake”.

        OK, Jeffrey, but how did you come to that conclusion?

        After all he doesn’t actually explain how their “fakery” is so “obvious” (not surprising on Twitter, I guess, but he has other venues).

        Apparently they are fake because his world-view would be shaken if they were real, and so they must be fake i.e. they are “obviously fake” because he has faith that nobody in RAND would think that way.

        Faith-based analysis is, apparently, his main tool of the trade. That and youtube. Oh, yeah, that and an insulting manner.

        I guess too much champagne and too many canapés during all those all-expenses-paid non-proliferation junkets gives one a bad temper.

        I see that it’s Washington’s turn to feed Jeffrey this week.

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