Why Shouldn’t Iran Seek Nuclear Weapons?

Various versions of this essay appeared between June 18th and June 30th, 2004 in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,www.commondreams.org, and www.inthenationalinterest.com

It now seems difficult to dispute that the Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons, lying about it, and intent on continuing both come hell or high water. Why? Because the temptation for Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal of its own — driven by the contradictions of George Bush’s foreign and nuclear policies — is simply too seductive to resist.

On Friday, June 18th, the IAEA strongly rebuked Tehran, saying: “Iran’s cooperation has not been as full, timely, and proactive as it should have been.” The next day Iran’s top nuclear official, Hassan Rowhani, objected bitterly to the IAEA’s statement, reiterated his insistence that Tehran’s nuclear program is intended to generate electricity rather than warheads, and said that Tehran now would resume some of the nuclear activities it had previously suspended.

In addition, the chair of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Ala’eddin Borujerdi, said the same day that the Majlis might now reject the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which allows unannounced and unfettered inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. Under both international and Iranian law, the Additional Protocol cannot take effect without Majlis approval.

Then, on Monday, June 21st, in a development difficult to believe wholly unrelated, Iran seized 3 British naval vessels and 8 British sailors — after Britain, along with France and Germany, had spearheaded the IAEA censure.

Consider the outside world as viewed from Tehran. George Bush delivers his 2002 State of the Union address, and of all the countries in the world he singles out three as constituting an “axis of evil.” He announces his intent to instigate unilateral preemptive war against any nation that his Administration subjectively determines to be a potential threat. Defying almost universal world opinion, he actually commences such a war against one of those three — decapitating its regime, killing the supreme leader’s sons, and driving that leader himself into a pathetic hole in the ground. And he surrounds Iran on all four sides with bristling American military power — Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east, sprawling new American bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to the north, and the unchallengeable U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south.

Iran, of course, cannot hope to take on the United States in any kind of direct military confrontation. But it can aspire to deter what must seem to them to be a quite real threat, someday, of American military aggression. How? By developing the capability to inflict unacceptable catastrophic damage on American interests or military forces abroad, on the American fleet in the Persian Gulf, or even on the American homeland itself. And by holding out even the mere possibility that it would respond to any American assault by employing that capability immediately, before it became too late, following the traditional military maxim of “use ’em or lose ’em.”

There is, of course, only one thing that can provide Iran with that kind of deterrent capability. Hint: it’s not nuclear electricity.

It is probably the case that for Tehran the perceived danger of a U.S. invasion is lower today than it might have been in 2002 or 2003. It is difficult to envision any U.S. president in the foreseeable future launching another unilateral preemptive first strike in the wake of the fiasco in Iraq. Imagine the political firestorm — even after a Bush reelection — if the Administration began contemplating another preemptive war, this time on Iran.

But Tehran has no reason to believe that that shift in geostrategic dynamics has become permanent. It has resulted, after all, from external circumstances rather than from an internal American change of heart (or regime). On the contrary, it probably provides the mullahs with all the more reason to press ahead, in order to obtain the Great Deterrent before the Great Satan has a chance to regroup and refocus.

Looming over Iran’s immediate perception of American threat is the nuclear double standard that so many other nations so resent. George Bush insists that selected other countries have no right to possess nuclear weapons, while at the same time making abundantly clear that we intend to retain thousands in perpetuity. To the rest of the world this is sanctimonious and self-righteous, suggesting that in our view we can be “trusted” with these weapons while others cannot. Such a position is factually questionable. It is morally indefensible. And it is utterly politically unsustainable.

On Monday, June 21st, IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei delivered a blistering speech blaming this posture for much of his difficulty stemming nuclear proliferation in Iran and elsewhere. The time has come, he said, to “abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them.”

This is especially true when the original Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is understood in its original context. The NPT was not just a framework to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It was, instead, a grand bargain — where the great many “nuclear have-nots” agreed to forego nuclear weapons while the few “nuclear haves” agreed eventually to get rid of theirs. Moreover, the United States recommitted itself to this covenant at the 30-year NPT Review Conference in spring 2000, where the NPT’s nuclear signatories pledged “an unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

But the Bush Administration, rather than moving toward total elimination, is instead pursuing perpetual possession. Its Strangelovian nuclear war fighting posture contains plans for bunker busting “mini-nukes” — an oxymoron if there ever was one. (Just this June 15th the U.S. Senate — in a move probably not unnoticed in Tehran — endorsed new funding to study the development of such weapons.) It broadens the scope of military scenarios in which the U.S. might actually initiate a nuclear first-strike. It envisions new generations of strategic nuclear missiles in 2020, 2030, and 2040! Yet it says not one word about any “unequivocal undertaking” toward abolition.

It is not just Tehran that, in all likelihood, is violating the NPT by pursuing a nuclear weapon capability. It is also Washington that is violating the NPT — by insisting on retaining our own nuclear weapon capability apparently for time everlasting.

Earlier this month the Bush Administration announced plans to reduce our active nuclear inventory to no more than 2200 by 2012 (though thousands more would still be maintained “in reserve”). This would place us in compliance with the Moscow Treaty of 2002. But it would do almost nothing to reduce the actual dangers posed by nuclear weapons today. How does simple bean counting reduce the risk of nuclear terror, or a fatal nuclear miscalculation in a hot political crisis, or accidental atomic apocalypse? (Nuclear weapons, after all, are the prototypical example of the adage: “it only takes just one.”) Why don’t the Moscow Treaty or the latest plan say anywhere that these reductions are part of a larger vision, to be followed by further steps toward zero? How does an intention to reduce our nuclear inventory to 2200 by 2012 make Iran feel safer today (or, for that matter, in 2012)?

Sadly for both the principles of the Democratic Party and the prospects for nuclear non-proliferation, Senator John Kerry has also conspicuously failed to question the nuclear status quo. He did release a plan to safeguard nuclear materials and reduce the risk of nuclear terror on June 1st, calling it his “number one security goal.” But while his plan said a great deal about nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in the hands of “shadowy figures,” it said very little about those in the hands of ourselves.

Kerry did condemn Bush’s mini-nuke initiative. But it is one thing to oppose the development of new types of nuclear weapons, another to put the thousands we already possess on the table. Candidate Kerry may have grand plans to reduce the threat of nuclear terror. But he apparently has no plans to confront what can only be called America’s nuclear hypocrisy.

The paradox of such an American nuclear posture is that the one country most insistent about retaining its nuclear weapons is the one country that needs them the least. The paramount geostrategic reality of the early 21st Century is America’s unchallengeable conventional military superiority over any conceivable combination of adversaries. Iran needs nuclear weapons to be able to inflict unacceptable catastrophic damage on a potential aggressor — and thereby hopefully deter any potential aggression. But Washington, unlike anyone else, can inflict unacceptable catastrophic damage on any country in the world with our conventional capabilities alone. If any country can deter any attack and repel any enemy without resorting to an atomic arsenal, it is us.

Our nuclear weapons, in fact, are worse than useless for the real threats to Americans at the dawn of the 21st Century. Our armies and air forces didn’t protect us on 9/11. Our 13 aircraft carrier battle groups (no other country has even one) didn’t protect us on 9/11. And the thing that protected us the least on 9/11 was our bloated nuclear stockpile, our arsenal of the apocalypse. What could a single nuclear warhead have done to stop Mohammed Atta, or to have apprehended him, or even to have deterred him? How can all our nuclear bombers and missiles and submarines put together prevent some odious creature from smuggling a single nuclear warhead into an American city, and committing the greatest act of mass murder in all of human history?

Nuclear weapons pollute the psyche with the arrogance of insuperable power. They create delusions of domination. With their calculations of mass casualties, they dehumanize our adversaries … and consequently ourselves. And in the age of American hyperpower, they provide American decisionmakers with very few additional policy options or political/military benefits. Yet their costs and risks approach the infinite.

As Jonathan Schell has persuasively argued, the great irony of the Bush era is that both the Iraq war specifically and the preemption doctrine generally were supposed to be directed at curtailing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Instead, in all likelihood, they have exacerbated — in both frequency and intensity — the quest by others to acquire them. Isaac Newton’s laws of action and reaction do not apply solely to billiard balls. George Bush’s greatest historical legacy may be the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is difficult not to conclude that the foreign policies and nuclear weapons policies of the Bush Administration, far from reducing the WMD danger, are instead leading us on a downward spiral toward immediate nuclear proliferation and eventual nuclear disaster. The only long-term choice is between a world of many dozen nuclear weapon states — where the detonation of a nuclear warhead in some great city of the world will become only a matter of time — or a world of zero nuclear weapon states. The United States can state unambiguously that we intend to walk down an irreversible path toward the light of a nuclear weapon free world. Or we can expect Iran and many others to join us on the road to a darker destination.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons