Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.
But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.
First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?
The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.
On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semitesÂ rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and Â the Mahdi Army and other Â Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to ShiiaÂ irredentismÂ in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.
It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at RiyadhÂ or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”
Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question. Â So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just thatÂ Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?
Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”