The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
The verdict is in: an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon would be disastrous for the Middle East and the world. Last month, President Barack Obama described this prospect as "profoundly destabilizing" and "extraordinarily dangerous." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, agreed, arguing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a nuclear Iran would generate "neighbors who feel exposed, deficient and then [would] develop or buy the capability for themselves."
This view is not new, however: the Obama administration's rhetoric is almost identical to that of the Bush administration. Alarmists inside the U.S. government, among U.S. allies, and throughout the nonproliferation community argue that the messianic nature of the Islamic Republic and the extremely provocative rhetoric emanating from its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, make Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capability too grave a danger to condone.
In addition, Iran has a long record of assisting terrorist groups and even using them to do its bidding -- most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon -- raising concerns about the support Tehran might provide such groups after acquiring a weapons capability.
A final oft-repeated worry is the possibility that Iran might feel emboldened by possession of a bomb. A nuclear Iran, this argument goes, would change the balance of power in the region and allow it to increase its training and material support to Hamas, Hezbollah, and various militias in Iraq. Some fear Iran would even seek to strengthen Shiite groups in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
It would be irresponsible to be apathetic about the ramifications of a nuclear Iran. However, twentieth-century history, the character and limitations of nuclear weapons, and the Iranian regime's behavior should temper concerns that an Iranian bomb undoubtedly would, in the words of Admiral Mullen, have "tragic and drastic" consequences.
Since the advent of the nuclear age, scientists, activists, academics, and politicians have feared that the spread of atomic weapons would prove unstoppable. The rhetoric one hears today regarding the probable reaction of Middle Eastern countries to a nuclear Iran echoes concerns put forth by experts when the Soviet Union, China, and even France got the bomb. Yet the worst-case scenarios rarely came to pass -- Germany and Japan, for instance, remained nonnuclear despite expectations -- and there is no reason to suspect that the Middle East will buck this historical trend.
Analysts are particularly concerned about the reactions of countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to an Iranian nuclear program. What they seem to forget is that the Arab world already has been living with a nuclear neighbor, Israel -- a state against which many Arab countries have fought wars and still do not recognize. Still, the Arab world has been unable or unwilling to respond in kind. An Iranian nuclear capability would not threaten these states more, or even as much as, an Israeli weapon. And in terms of prestige and influence, a Persian bomb should not be any more significant to these states than a Jewish one.
Furthermore, developing a nuclear weapon is not as simple as flipping a switch. Libya spent close to two decades trying to acquire a nuclear weapon before giving up its program in 2003. Technology has never been the region's strong suit, and even with A. Q. Khan-supplied centrifuge drawings readily available, it would be foolish to expect a rash of nuclear successes in the near future.
Fears that Iran actually plans to use nuclear weapons in an attempt to spread its Islamic revolution or to support fellow Muslims in Palestine are also exaggerated. Iran's governing elite is just as preoccupied with self-preservation as any other regime. Leaders in Tehran understand that Israel would react to a nuclear attack -- or the genuine threat of one -- with devastating force. By most media accounts, Israel has upward of 200 nuclear weapons deployable via aircraft, ballistic missiles, and submarine, ensuring it the ability to respond quickly and decisively to any Iranian provocation. A credible threat to use a nuclear bomb would mean the end of a theocratically ruled Iran because of Israel's formidable preemptive capability.
Ahmadinejad's hyperbole aside, Iran's actions in the past and recent public commentary by its clerics suggest that Iran would not risk facing such a devastating response. Iran's foreign policy has been fairly risk-averse since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, peppers his speeches with the usual condemnation of the United States and Israel, but he has also stressed that "Islam condemns the massacre of defenseless people, whether Muslim or Christian or others, anywhere and by any means." It might be safe to conclude that he is less concerned with the fate of the "others," but it is, of course, a fact that a nuclear attack against Israel would kill thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Muslims.
The prospect of Iran deciding to give Hezbollah nuclear material is extremely remote, as it is hard to think of a scenario in which Iran would benefit from a terrorist client possessing a bomb. Unlike Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets, nuclear weapons are not malfunctioning devices that travel less than ten miles and rarely kill anyone. Israel would certainly know where to retaliate if Hezbollah brandished a nuclear weapon, and Tehran would be reckless to cede control of such a prized asset to an ally such as Hezbollah, thereby tying its own fate to that group's decision-making.
The most worrisome concern regarding an Iranian nuclear capability is that nuclear weapons would give it a free hand to pursue its regional ambitions, whether taking a more dominant role in Iraq's internal politics or increasing material and logistical support to groups such as Hezbollah. But a nuclear weapon would not change Iran's basic calculation of what it can pull off without incurring an unacceptable response. A crude nuclear capability would not necessarily preclude either the United States or Israel from responding to an Iranian act of aggression -- and Iran would have the most to lose from an escalating crisis.
In fact, once Iran is known to have the bomb, it would become imperative for the regime to avoid actions that could lead to escalation. If anything, Iran might find that possession of a nuclear weapon actually diminishes its options in the Middle East and forces it to act with greater restraint. Actions against superior powers that in the past might have been viewed as simple irritants -- such as assenting to Katyusha launches against Israel and providing rudimentary explosives to groups challenging U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan -- suddenly would seem, even with a limited nuclear capability, far more ominous and almost invite an overwhelming response.
This, then, begs the question: If Iran does not plan on using a nuclear weapon, if the regime would never give a bomb to a terrorist group, and if a nuclear capability would not provide Iran cover to pursue its interests more aggressively, why are the mullahs challenging the West and enduring sanctions in order to acquire one?
Iran might feel that a nuclear weapon, with all of its inherent risk, would at least rule out any serious talk of regime change. Certain hard-line elements within Iran may view a small weapons capability necessary to prevent Washington from considering any operation designed to topple the regime. That said, it is not entirely clear that the regime is seeking an actual weapon. Enriching uranium to fuel nuclear power plants that do not yet exist might not make sense economically or otherwise, but that has never stopped seemingly rational countries from making similar decisions in the past. Moreover, Iran might be content to stop short of producing an actual weapon and settle for a latent capability. The regime may believe the ability to produce fissile material alone is enough of a deterrent, making the pain and cost of producing an actual bomb unnecessary. As noted above, U.S. policymakers have shown no hesitation in giving the impression that a nuclear Iran would change the region irrevocably. It is certainly not lost on Iran that Washington talks as if it already has been deterred by a country that has done nothing more than enrich a small amount of uranium and launch missiles that could hit the United States only after catching a 4,000-mile-per-hour tailwind.
This is not to say that a nuclear-armed Iran poses no threat to the region or to the world. Deterrence at first glance worked well in the last century, but Tehran could miscalculate and take action that invites preemption, causing devastation to its population. Groups with disparate agendas in Iran could succeed in providing nuclear technology to a terrorist group for financial or ideological reasons; Iran, like every other state in the world, is far from unitary. In this sense, the international community should oppose Iran going nuclear as much as it should any other country doing so.
But the tenor of today's debate has lost all sense of proportion. A nuclear-armed Iran would increase risk, but ironically it is Iranian civilians and the Islamic Republic's own leaders who would bear the brunt of it.