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What Can Professors Tell President Obama About the Iranian Nuclear Problem?

What Can Professors Tell President Obama About the Iranian Nuclear Problem?

A hardy perennial among academic security specialists is the "gap" between the world of policy and the world of academia. I have a foot in camps on either side of the divide, and have some sympathy for the complaints each tribe registers against the other.

I have opined on the gap for Shadow Government readers before, and my general stance is that the gap is neither as wide nor as pernicious as people claim. However, it is wider than it needs to be — for instance, I remember when an email list serve popular with the group of academic security specialists most worried about the gap and most angry at policymakers ignoring their insights decided to drop someone from the distribution list because that person was leaving academia to take up a policy post in the administration. At precisely the moment when their discussions might reach the inner circle, the group decided to cut themselves off from the surest path of influence available to them.

Yet for every self-defeating move like that, academics do a couple of other things that help narrow the gap. And one of my favorite bridge-making ventures is the Monkey Cage blog on the Washington Post, a place where social scientists of various stripes discuss the policy implications of their research.

I have recently contributed a piece myself, and so I direct Shadow Government readers to some new installments in the debate about the policy implications of academic research over on Monkey Cage.

The occasion is a lengthy session of academic navel gazing, with distinguished academics commenting on the work of other distinguished academics, and then commenting on the comments, and responding to those comments, and then responding to the responses, and then commenting on the responses, and so on. While that sounds very academic, in the pejorative sense of that term, it is actually on a topic that could not be of greater policy import: What are the consequences of nuclear proliferation?

It is not hyperbole to say that uncertainty over the prospects for and consequences of nuclear proliferation — more specifically uncertainty over the prospects for and consequences of Iran developing a nuclear arsenal — is the most urgent policy problem facing the Obama administration. The importance might be temporarily obscured by all the other catastrophes we have witnessed in the region in the last couple years, but most policymakers working this issue would agree that, as bad as things are now, they could be even worse if the decades long effort to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold finally fails. And we may be putting that question to the test in the coming weeks.

But are policymakers unduly worried about Iranian nuclear ambitions? There is actually a lively debate among academic security specialists on this topic, and the Monkey Cage blog posts are a good introduction to that debate. There are a number of dimensions to the debate, but two important ones are: (a) the possibility that Iran might stay just shy of crossing the nuclear threshold, content to have the minimalist coercive capacity that a near-proliferator enjoys; and (b) the possibility that Iran, once armed with nuclear weapons would be more (or less — it turns out the academic research is inconclusive on the matter) belligerent once it possessed a nuclear arsenal.

As the Monkey Cage exchanges make clear, enough policymakers know about the academic debate for the bridge between the two to be crossed, but as I argue in my own piece there are good reasons why the influence of the academic on the policymaker on this issue will be limited in ways that might frustrate academics.