Last week, the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the UN, released its latest report on Iran. The conclusion? That Tehran has undertaken modelling and activities designed to develop its knowledge of nuclear explosions, including developing relevant detonators and using its intelligence network to gather nuclear information.
So far, so *yawn*, right? We mean, it’s not as if anyone actually believes energy-rich Iran is building nuclear reactors and centrifuges for peaceful purposes. (Or, if it is, it’s also maintaining nuclear ambiguity to provide the illusion of pursuing a nuclear weapon.) The lesson of Iraq and North Korea for its Iran was not ‘don’t build nukes or the US will invade’, but ‘build nukes quickly before the US can invade’.
But the IAEA report also came just over a week after it was revealed that Isael’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was trying to persuade cabinet colleagues to support a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The confluence of these two stories created the impression that we might be approaching crunch time: when Iran gets close enough to ‘breakout capacity’ (where it decides to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and surge towards developing sufficient weapons-grade nuclear material for a workable device) and Israel worries so much about it that it goes ballistic (or, in this case, aerial).
Cue the debate. Attack! say Israel’s supporters, right-wing hawks and ill-informed bloggers. Don’t attack! says the Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins.
The argument of the former is simple: a nuclear Iran will be a disaster for Israel, the Middle East and nuclear non-proliferation. The argument of the latter is that a military strike would bring about much worse consequences with Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere launching attacks (or, in Jenkins’ alarmist prose, ‘a Christian-Muslim armageddon engulfing the region’).
Steady on there, Simon. War isn’t a good idea, no, because it kills people. But let’s not confuse Iran’s bluster with capabilities. An aerial strike may encourage Iran to retaliate, which may involve significant escalation, including the use of proxies, which may involve Hizbullah and Iraqi Shias launching a wave of attacks in Israel and Southeast Iraq. But these are somewhat independent groups as well. So, not only do we need to believe that Tehran will unleash total war on itself by significant escalation, but also that its proxies will also put themselves in the firing line.
A strike on Iran is not a bad idea because it would lead to the mother of all wars; it’s a bad idea because military strikes are unpleasant, potentially destabilise situations, reinforce inequitable power relationships and could have exactly the reverse effect as intended. It may not even be possible for the Israelis: given the difficulties involved in bombing Natanz, Bushehr and other sites in Iran, it’s a much more challenging task than taking out Osiraq in 1981, although that’s unlikely to stop the Israelis from trying.
In our contrarian way, the DLR would like to put forward a totally alternative perspective, purely for the sake of argument: that to strike Iran and set back its nuclear programme would be detrimental to regional and international stability. Woah! Blowing your minds, right? Alright, maybe not, but the reasons are very different to Jenkins’. Essentially, we would like to suggest that a nuclear Iran is a good idea rather than bad.
Here, we draw on the well-read account by Kenneth Waltz about nuclear weapons: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better. Waltz’ argument was straightforward (if we may simplify and bastardise it): nuclear deterrence works. It worked during the Cold War when the superpowers didn’t go into direct conflict (think Cuban missile crisis), it worked with China when the third Taiwan Strait crisis was kicking off and it worked when the Kargil invasion and subsequent events brought India and Pakistan close to war.
A nuclear Iran would then balance the regional power structure in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran would be a balance to Israel, which could act to restrain some of Tel Aviv’s more aggressive tendencies. Moreover, a nuclear Iran would no longer need the forward-deployed deterrents of Hizbullah and other proxies; it would already have a deterrent of its own. That’s not to say it would stop supporting them, but it would have less need to continue the expensive habit.
Those who say a nuclear Iran is a bad thing often suggest it’s because the country is run by ‘mad mullahs’ and wants to wipe Israel off the map. Some ill-judged rhetoric aside, this seems condescending. It is essentially suggesting that countries such as Iran are not rational actors, which isn’t supported by their activity (it seems very rational to build nuclear weapons if you feel threatened by the US), and borders on racism when one considers that those countries usually labelled as irrational actors are non-white (was the invasion of Iraq a ‘rational act’?).
The idea that Western democracies would be more responsible with their nukes sits uneasily with the fact that only one country has used a nuclear weapon in anger and that various non-democratic states (Pakistan under Musharraf, India under Indira Ghandi, the Soviet Union and China) have maintained nuclear arsenals and not even thought about poking one off. Who are we, the US, UK or France, already sitting there with our nuclear arsenals and totally unwilling to cede them, to lecture other countries on being ‘responsible’ nuclear players?
We’re not saying that we should let Iran get the bomb. There is a case to be made for the idea that nuclear proliferation in any form is bad as it spreads the technology and makes it more feasible that non-state groups could gain access to it. That’s fair enough, and we support that. But the long-term solution to the dilemma of non-proliferation is to remove the motivation for nukes (the implicit threat of invasion).
Ultimately, though, what we, Jenkins or others say is totally irrelevant. A nuclear Iran is a red line for Israel and it will strike before it gets to that point. It did so in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. It will more than likely do it to Iran in *insert year within the next decade here* if it feels it needs to. And the US/UK and others will be there for logistical, moral and possibly direct support. How Iran reacts is the only unknown in the equation.