A Nuclear Iran: Just Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

President Obama recently made overtures to the Iranian government proposing talks on a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program.  The US intelligence community believes that Iran’s nuclear program is not intended for peaceful purposes, as the Iranians claim, but a clandestine attempt to build nuclear weapons (http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf).


It is understandable why Iran wants to join the atomic club.  Scott Sagan argues that states are motivated to acquire nuclear weapons for three main reasons: security, domestic politics and norms (these three factors are not mutually exclusive; a combination of the three might motivate a state to acquire atomic bombs).  States living within striking distance of hostile powers might want to acquire nuclear weapons to deter the hostile power from attacking them (i.e, they might be motivated by security concerns).  States in which influential political groups favor the acquisition of nuclear weapons might pursue nuclear armament in order for the government to satisfy those groups (i.e., they might be motivated by domestic politics).  States whose leaders believe that acquiring nuclear weapons will give their country greater international status or prestige might pursue nuclear weapons (i.e., they might be motivated by norms).


The Iranian government is probably motivated by all three.  In the aftermath of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq, it would be understandable for Iran to feel threatened by the US.  The Obama Administration will probably be more conciliatory than the Bush Administration, but four or eight years from now a more hawkish US president might be sitting in the Oval Office, so Iran will likely continue on with their nuclear program even if Obama opens up a dialogue and eases up on sanctions.


When it comes to domestic politics, the Revolutionary Guard has a lot of influence in Tehran.  Being hardcore militants and hardliners, one would assume that they would like for Iran to have nuclear weapons.  Placating them would be a wise thing to do for any Iranian President who wants to retain power.


In terms of norms or international prestige, Iran would clearly gain by developing atomic weapons if history is any indicator.  India and Pakistan both became more important in the eyes of the US and the rest of the world immediately after they tested nukes in 1998.  And if North Korea did not have a nuclear weapons program would anyone pay attention to Kim Jong-Il?  Iran fancies itself a superpower, and a country cannot be a superpower without going nuclear.  If the world were a high school cafeteria, the atomic club would be the cool kids’ table.


Given that Iran seems to want to develop nuclear weapons, what can the US do to prevent that from happening?  Not much.  Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have not worked so far, and I do not see why they would work in the future if Iran really wants nukes.  We could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran, but most experts agree that such a move would do little good since we do not know where most of the facilities are located.  And we simply do not have the manpower or the national will to invade Iran.  The only other option would be to negotiate and offer them carrots, but if the cases of India, Pakistan and North Korea demonstrate anything it is that Iran could probably get more from the international community after it obtained atomic bombs.


So it looks like Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  So what are the implications of that?  Personally, I do not think we should be that worried.  Is it really that big a deal if Iran has nukes?  Just because a nation has them does not mean it is going to use them.  Sure, Ahmadinejad has said some crazy things, but Khrushchev and Mao were not exactly cool characters either and they never used their nuclear weapons.  And hey, if Kim Jong-Il has atomic bombs and has not used them against other countries then I am not going to worry too much if Ahmadinejad has them because Kim Jong-Il makes James Bond villains seem like reasonable men.  I am also not worried about Iranian nukes falling into the hands of terrorists.  Unlike Pakistan, Iran is a very stable country, and I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to why any government would give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups; just FYI, all nuclear weapons have return addresses on them even if they are not delivered by missiles. 


Now when it comes to regional dynamics, other countries in the Middle East will certainly be concerned if Iran makes a mushroom cloud, but that might actually work to our advantage because those nations will want to crawl under the American security blanket.  If we can provide credible security guarantees to Arab states then they would have no reason to acquire bombs of their own; Israel, which is not exactly beloved by most Arab countries, has lots of nukes yet the Arabs have not felt compelled to create a nuclear counterbalance, so there is no reason to assume that they will if Iran has them.  Ironically, Iran going nuclear might help move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward if it encourages Arab states and Israeli to seek favor from the US.


So the bottom line is that we should just stop worrying and love the Bomb.


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