7 dissident theses about the Iran situation

Last Friday, a launch event was held for The Secular Monastery. My remarks at the event were as follows:

Thanks to the civil conflict course I am teaching this semester, I have been conveniently reminded that several historical insurgencies now considered to have been successful began with a smaller number of far less distinguished people that are in this room at the moment. Since I see The Secular Monastery as an insurgent project, I take heart in that thought.

I have taken a bit of ridicule and also a bit of flack for the insurgent idea, but so far those comments have only served to remind me of what I suspect is everyone’s favorite quip from Mahatma Gandhi: first they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they attack you; then you win.  Admittedly that can take a long time and ultimate victory is never assured, but I do like the comment.

I would like to let the novel speak for itself as best it can, but I realize it is impractical simply to read it to you. So in initiating our discussion this evening I will make a few comments about what I think it is about.

There are some cosmic thoughts in the background. I cannot help feeling that our society and all others as well are being impelled into historic transformation against the fierce resistance of traditional attitudes. The driving force is the process we have come to term globalization. The principal imperative will be managing the consequences of global warming. The principal danger arises from the interaction of belligerent politics and the extremely consequential technology embedded in the globalization process.

I am among many who have written on these broad subjects. Our collective voices do not yet register in the daily consciousness of most people, but to complain about that is to misconstrue the problem. Fundamental redirection is a lengthy and difficult task. It is the work of generations, and those who initiate it should not count on being remembered when the process is completed.

The Secular Monastery is an attempt to bring these cosmic issues down to the scale of individual lives. It depicts people who see the forces of circumstance to the extent that it is currently feasible to see them and who attempt to promote constructive response. It introduces a hypothetical organization that is an embryo of the yet more capable organizations that will have to be created if transformation is to occur.

The plot of the novel revolves around the issue of jurisdiction over an inherently dangerous line of biological research. The experiment in question was hypothetical at the time the novel was published, but only a few weeks later the H5N1 experiments were revealed. They are what was imagined and in fact anticipated. In the immediate aftermath of those experiments, official reaction has featured the laudable efforts of researchers and public health professions to defend transparency and the primacy of public health interest. Nonetheless they have not yet faced the ultimate necessity of devising oversight procedures that make judgments about social consequence in advance, control access to the resulting information to those qualified to have it, and hold them accountable for how they use it. Without those provisions, the scientific and public health community is vulnerable to security bureaucrats who are reportedly contemplating the imposition of their authority. The surface battle in the novel is waged over public health and national security jurisdiction, and we are in for some public discussion along those lines.

But there is deeper resonance to the story engaging the American security relationships with Iran and China. In both cases the central issue is whether the relationship is to remain confrontational indefinitely, and that is a central question of transformation. The primary dangers of biotechnology arise from potential entanglement in antagonistic security relationships.

Since Iran is the most immediately active instance of this question, let me confine my remarks to that situation and summarize underlying thoughts reflected in the story but not directly discussed. I will do so by listing a set of summary assertions about the current situation. And lest any of you be inclined to think that the insurgency idea is a bit grandiose, let me note that Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing  ninety-five assertions – he called them theses – to the door of the Wittenberg church. I offer a paltry seven. We now have much more expansive means of communication, but even so I am not imaging anything like the same effect.

So, seven dissident theses about the Iran situation:

1.    Iran does not have and cannot acquire the capacity to present an existential threat to Israel or to any other country.

2.    Mastery of enrichment technology does not present an existential threat to anyone and will not be understood as such in most of the world. An attack justified on that basis will not be considered legitimate self-defense.

3.    The entire concept of an existential threat is morally and strategically irresponsible.

4.    The military actions that might realistically be undertaken against Iran are far more likely to generate an Iranian nuclear weapons program that they are to prevent it.

5.    Iran does have reason to fear military assault from the United States, and because of that fact credible reassurance will be a necessary feature of any diplomatic resolution.

6.    The evident formula for diplomatic resolution has been accepted in principle by Iran but so far not by the United States. It involves restraint on enrichment activity below the threshold of weapons capability in exchange for normalization of relations and credible reassurance.

7.    Imposing severe sanctions without opening serious negotiations on the compromise formula conveys the impression that regime change is the operative American policy and that in turn virtually compels Iranian resistance.

The net of the situation is that a morally unjustified and strategically disastrous war appears to be far more likely than it ought to be. There is evident pathology in the American political process reminiscent of what we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. I do not imagine that The Secular Monastery could turn that tide, but it is a small effort to issue pertinent warning.

Reality intrudes

The fictional story presented in The Secular Monastery revolves around jurisdiction over research on the transmissibility of the influenza virus. That was a hypothetical question at the time the novel was written, but it is no longer. Researchers in Rotterdam and Wisconsin supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health have recently manipulated the highly virulent H5N1 strain of avian influenza to render it more contagious. They did so by inducing two genetic mutations and then passing the altered strain through ten generations of ferrets, thereby generating additional variations. The resulting virus transmits between the animals through aerosol droplets expelled by a cough or a sneeze. The ferrets are considered a good model for humans as far as the dynamics of infection are concerned.

The significance is that up to this point the H5N1 strain has not been readily transmissible between humans. The case fatality rate has been roughly 50% but only about 500 people worldwide are known to have contracted the disease. If the Rotterdam variation allows the virus to approximate the remarkable transmissibility of milder influenza strains while retaining anything like its current virulence, hundreds of millions and even billions of people would be at grave risk and the global economy would be vulnerable to yet another devastating blow.

The research scientists will presumably be very careful to contain the altered virus within their laboratories, but they are not infallible and certainly not omniscient. Even if the specific pathogen they produced they produced is never released into nature, the knowledge of their experiment will certainly circulate. The propriety of publication is currently being debated, but the results of the experiment will be widely known whatever the ultimate ruling proves to be. The consequences of that knowledge can either be beneficial or destructive depending on how it is used, and that is generally true of advanced biotechnology.

It is natural to hope but unrealistic to believe that the danger revealed by Rotterdam experiment will immediately inspire significant official initiative. Major governments are already beleaguered by obviously defective regulatory practices involving more widely recognized sources of danger – financial transactions and nuclear explosives among them. They will predictably focus on natural evolution of the H5N1 strain and might marginally improve disease surveillance and epidemiological response measures already developed. They are not likely to confront the deeper problem of inadvertent or deliberately induced catastrophe.

But that is not a valid excuse for complacency. Everyone alive has reason for concern, and scientists are especially vulnerable. A sudden public sensation could trigger vindictive, indiscriminate and ill-considered regulatory reaction that does more harm than good.

For other matters of very large consequence independent oversight is the first and most critical line of defense. Those who handle large sums of money are subjected to audit. No single individual is ever allowed exclusive control of a nuclear weapon. Some prudential oversight of highly consequential biological research is currently practiced, but prevailing procedures are largely voluntary in character, are not consistently or comprehensively applied and do not have global scope.

The basic features of a more effective arrangement are evident. Established procedures for peer review of scientific merit would be extended to questions of social consequence and made mandatory. A record of judgment would be recorded in each instance. For lines of research of moderate concern a process would be created for comparing judgments across local and national jurisdiction in order to encourage harmonization. For lines of research of extraordinary danger, such as the Rotterdam experiment, the review process would be globally representative and access to the results would be restricted to globally vetted public health professionals whose use of the results would be globally monitored. That degree of enforced transparency would require advanced legal and procedural specification to prevent misuse, but less that 1% of current biomedical research efforts would be affected.

The impediments to such an arrangement are largely matters of attitude, but they are formidable indeed. A few of the leading research scientists see the situation and understand the implications, but most are categorically opposed to any mandatory intrusion into basic research. Their resistance is reinforced by broadly pervasive anti-regulation ideology. Presumptions of antagonistic interest make any international coordination difficult to accomplish and pose a danger of competitive national weapons development programs, so far largely unrealized but not reliably prevented. The historical record is inherently discouraging: failures of prevention are widely noted and elaborately documented; successes are speculative and not widely credited if they are recognized at all. There is good reason to fear that nothing will be done until some massive misfortune belatedly compels attention.

But it is also prudent to assume that protective regulation will ultimately be imposed. Survival of the species is too much at stake for the impediments to prevail indefinitely. Whether comprehension evolves naturally or is forced by disaster, mandatory oversight will eventually be indispensable. The sooner and the more gracefully that is realized the better off we all will be.

Questions about the backstory

Here are some questions that I received about the previous post and some responses.

Q:  What do you mean by warning?

A:  Actually I hope to inspire as well as to warn, but I accept that the latter is a more realistic aspiration.

The specific focus of warning has to do with the imperatives of managing fundamental biotechnology that has at once extremely beneficial and extremely threatening implications. The scenario described has not occurred and neither has the perverse politics associated with it, at least not in the detail presented in the story. But we are susceptible to dangers of the sort the story presents, and if we are to avoid them we need to be far more aware than we currently are.

But the intended warning has much broader scope. It reflects an underlying fear I suspect I share with many others that the United States is headed for serious internal upheaval. The core problem is that we cannot muster the wit or the will to mitigate the economic stress that has been eroding the life conditions of a majority of the American population over several decades. Our political system, still burdened by the residual vestiges of slavery, disproportionately empowers the disproportionately wealthy who do not comprehend the stake they have in tolerable social equity. Those with the leverage that money provides defend entrenched privilege and manipulate populist resentment to fend off any meaningful reform.
And the victims are complicit in their fate. The dominant morality of our culture is excessively confined to life at the individual and family level. Anyone expressing any concern for the state of our own society let alone for any other is quickly labeled a socialist and thereby largely excluded from any prominent discussion. Those inclined to defend the role of government in promoting social equity do not know how to argue their case. We have not even developed contemporary language to engage our most fundamental problem.

Q:  But those are not the principal themes of the book.

A: They are reflected in the early passages that describe the purposes of Hayden Hall, but admittedly not in the details of the story. The central themes of the story have to do with our relationships to other societies and to the general process of globalization in which all societies have become entangled. We have to think about ourselves in that broader context.

Q: Are you describing the decline of an empire?

A: For all of our considerable faults, we have never been an empire in the historical sense of that term, and I am personally not willing to concede decline. To me the entire concept is obsolete, as are the presumptions that surround it.

It is important and relevant, however, that we wield history’s most capable military establishment – the traditional instrument of empire — and it is vital that we understand the implications much better than we currently do. In particular we need to understand that our fate and everyone’s depends more on moral justification than on destructive power. There are brief passages in The Secular Monastery suggesting that moral justification must have global validity, and that implies greater understanding and greater respect of other cultures than we currently have. The details of the story apply those themes to Iran and China but they have broader implications as well. The empires of history declined because they lost legitimacy and could not substitute coercive power. That is a lesson we need to absorb.

The backstory of The Secular Monastery

In looking back at the roots of the manuscript, I realize they extend to my original training in cognitive psychology at Stanford, where I majored in an honors program designed to produce research scientists. I learned there two enduring lessons: first, that most of the extensive mental processing that produces both abstract thoughts and immediate physical perceptions is not directly available to consciousness; and second, that the leading edge of science is very far from understanding how that process actually works. In retrospect, I now believe that listening to President Kennedy’s address announcing the Cuban missile crisis literally at the moment I was conducting an experiment on basic perception was a catalytic experience propelling me out of psychology and into public policy.

I went to graduate school in political science at MIT and encountered there a professor who was intimately involved in the effort to impose civilian control and reasonable restraint on the very large deployment of nuclear weapons that had occurred in the 1950s. In due course I myself became intimately involved in a detailed Pentagon study of the history of nuclear weapons deployment up to 1972. That experience conveyed two additional lessons: first, that the central deterrence doctrine used to justify nuclear weapons deployment seriously misconstrues the way in which human decisions are actually made; and second, that institutionalized fear of surprise attack and visceral distrust of the Russians seriously distorted comprehension of what the Soviet Union actually did and of the legacy implications. I came to understand that the resulting nuclear weapons operations create dangers that are strategically unjustified and inadequately recognized.

Beginning in 1981, I participated through the National Academy of Sciences in an arms control direct dialogue with Soviet physicists who were involved in their nuclear weapons program. In 1986 that process produced a separate working group on biological weapons. It was led on the American side by Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, and it included on the Soviet side some of those involved in what was later revealed to be a large biological weapons development effort in conscious violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). We discussed the extraordinary potential consequences of molecular biology, recognizing that the same basic science was simultaneously enabling both compellingly beneficial and extremely dangerous applications. We discussed the overriding importance of reassuring transparency in that situation.

When the existence of the Soviet program was revealed and official efforts at reconciliation broke down, I participated in a U.S. government initiative to extend financial assistance to Russian laboratories that had been involved in the program in exchange for assurance of their compliance with the basic provision of the BWC. The core idea was to initiate a systematic process of mutual transparency through demonstration projects. I came to realize, however, that there was at least as much resistance to systematic transparency in the United States as there was in Russia. The apparent but unspoken reason was that under the rationale of “threat assessment,” the United States was conducting research it would consider illegal if the Russians or anyone else were doing it.

In January of 2001 I asked Josh Lederberg if he was concerned about U.S. threat assessment activities. We were all alone in the reading room of the National Medical Library at the time. After at least two minutes of silence – a long time in a personal conversation – he said that he thought he would know if something truly dangerous was being done but he was not entirely sure. He reconvened the working group and initiated a process that ultimately resulted in what is now known as the Fink Committee report. The recommendation to form the committee was made before the 2001 anthrax letters incident, but it was implemented in reaction to that event. The report identified seven types of experiments that require more organized oversight than was then being practiced (National Research Council, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, National Academies Press, 2004).

In response to the anthrax incident and to the report, the United States and many other governments have initiated processes to develop oversight procedures for potentially dangerous biomedical research, but classified threat assessment activities, now justified as anticipation of what terrorists might do, have generally been exempted from those efforts. The possibility that mutual suspicion might drive perverse competition between the threat assessment efforts of major governments has been subordinated to the perceived threat of terrorism, despite widespread recognition that terrorists are very unlikely to be able operate at the leading edge of science where the greatest danger lies. Governments can and do.

In principle, advanced information technology would support organized transparency and continuous monitoring measures that could make both nuclear weapons operations and highly consequential lines of biomedical research much safer than they currently are. Those techniques are intensely controversial, however, precisely because they are potentially very powerful. Fear of unjustifiably intrusive oversight inspires emotional resistance. The underlying dangers that mandate protective oversight are beyond the conceptual horizons of most people. That virtually assures that the institutionalized security bureaucracies will not develop oversight techniques to anything like the extent required.

Hence the ingredients of potential tragedy are all too evident: an immobilized political system unable to respond to relentless threats it does not comprehend until it is too late.

As the epic tale of Cassandra reminds us, the art of constructive warning is extremely difficult to master. Fear is an emotional explosive normally contained by denial, but once ignited, it regularly overwhelms reason. The Secular Monastery attempts to practice the art while respecting the difficulties. The warning element is muted. The plot revolves around a political battle over research jurisdiction rather than the outbreak of disease. Blood flows but not much of it spills. The story puts the underlying dangers in immediate human context. It traces the characters and actions of an organization dedicated to using information technology for constructive purposes. It subjects the characters to contemporary forms of threat – assaults on character and credibility rather than direct violence. But violence does lurk in the background, and the characters must work out issues of decency and trust under the pressure of personal danger.