Re-Thinking the Iranian Nuclear Threat

Would it be a great disaster if Iran had nuclear weapons? As a habitual contrarian, I pose the question because almost everyone seems to believe that it would, and that it must be prevented at all costs. But is that true?

John Bolton, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, said in April that “if the choice is [Iran] continuing [towards a nuclear bomb] or the use of force, I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point.” Bush, too, has compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

But these so-called statesmen never consider what might have happened had Germany and Britain both had nuclear weapons in 1939. Would Hitler, wicked as he was, have gone to war had he faced an assured threat of total destruction? Have we forgotten all about the theory of deterrence?

Of course, the world would be safer if Iran did not have nuclear weapons, not because it is a “rogue” state, but because any spread of nuclear weapons is likely to make the world more dangerous. That is why it is worth continuing to make every effort to dissuade Iran from “going nuclear.”

Suppose, though, that it becomes clear that Iran is playing the West along, simply buying time to build a bomb and develop a delivery system to hit Israel. Would that justify a pre-emptive military strike, as certain circles in Israel and the US advocate?

Military intervention in Iran could go either way. Iran might lie down peacefully like Libya did when America bombed it, or turn into another Iraq. My own instinct is that it would unleash a train of uncontrollable events. It would ignite an already incendiary part of the world, with the added risk of global economic collapse if the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth to one-third of the world’s oil passes, is blocked. On this view, if America is determined to use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state, it would have to establish a quasi-permanent empire in the Middle East.

It is to avoid this imperialist logic that sensible Americans like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have revived the dream of a nuclear-free world. First proposed in the Baruch Plan of 1945, versions of it have surfaced ever since as the number of nuclear weapons states increased. The main idea of the Kissinger initiative is large reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles, backed by improved security arrangements for fissile materials, a more intrusive inspection regime for the nuclear powers, and assistance for civilian nuclear programs.

A better arms control system would undoubtedly make it more difficult for non-nuclear weapons states to acquire nuclear capability; but it is hard to see why reductions alone, however dramatic, in the huge number of American and Russian warheads should induce aspiring nuclear powers to give up their nuclear ambitions. Even if America and Russia agreed to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear warheads from 5,000-6,000 each to 1,000 each, why should that stop Iran from wanting to build 50-100 nuclear warheads and short-range delivery systems if it perceives this to be in its national interest?

The risk is that if Iran is allowed its bomb, uncontrollable nuclear proliferation would follow. However, since the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970, only three new nuclear states have emerged – India, Pakistan, and Israel. There are two reasons for this. First, the control system established by the NPT made it very hard for non-nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Second, most non-nuclear states were happy enough to live under the security umbrella provided by the superpower nuclear duopoly.

Given the huge obstacles – technological, economic, and political – to acquiring nuclear weapons, states must have quite specific reasons for wanting to go nuclear, such as the need for security against a regional threat or a perception that a superpower itself threatens the state’s political independence. Large barriers to nuclear proliferation thus exist independent of the NPT. There is no reason to believe that they would fall if Iran built its own weapon.

It seems that fear of the US rather than Israel has been the main reason for Iran’s nuclear ambition. That is why the attractive idea of a nuclear-free Middle East, in which Iran would renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for a similar move by Israel, appears unrealistic. It is the US, not Israel, that Iranian hardliners want to deter, using Israel as a hostage. They see going nuclear as a way of limiting US military and geopolitical involvement in the Middle East. They bank on eventual American acquiescence, as happened with India.

Where do we go from here? While voluntary Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons would be the best outcome for the West, there is no reason to believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a danger to the world. The floodgates to nuclear proliferation would not open; a more likely outcome would be a “balance of terror” between Israel and Iran, as exists between India and Pakistan.

However, if Iran were allowed to become a nuclear weapons state, it should be done by agreement with the five “legal” nuclear powers (the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China) – that is, by an officially sanctioned enlargement of the nuclear club, which would include India, Pakistan, and Israel. This would be the best way to bind Iran to acceptable rules of behavior. At the very least, we should be clear that military intervention is the third-best (that is, worst) option. We might be driven to it if the other two fail, but it would be utterly wrong to contemplate it now.