While intelligence agencies and politicians in the West have been talking about Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons since 1995, it’s rather slipped under the radar of public debate until now. So far economic sanctions, computer viruses and (alleged) Mossad/CIA death squads don’t appear to have yielded any results and the prospect of any direct US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities seems to have been left on the shelf for the moment. So assuming that Iran does get its hands on a functioning nuclear weapon, what are the consequences really going to be for international security in general and the Middle East in particular
The first option, the one that seems to be keeping the likes of Obama and Netanyahu awake at night, is the prospect that when Iran gets a nuke it’s going to want to use it. Certain oft-quoted comments from Iranian President and motor-mouth Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping certain countries off the face of the map haven’t done much to ease those worries, although comments by Supreme Leader (and Ahmadinejad’s boss) Ali Khamenei declaring the use of nuclear weapons to be an “unforgivable sin” haven’t received nearly as much publicity.
However, let’s ignore the rhetoric and look at the practicalities. Firstly, the longest range Iranian ballistic missile that is publically known to exist is the Shahab-3, based on the North Korean Nodong-1, which has an operational range of 1,200 miles. This puts both Israel and the US naval base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in range, but any intercontinental capacity is way out. Secondly, almost every credible theory and commentator on international security assumes that states and their leaders are rational actors. Iran’s approach to acquiring nuclear weapons has been a carefully considered, rational process. It has allowed weapons inspectors into the country, who have verified that Iran is enriching uranium well in excess of its civilian means (according the latest report, if Iran was enriching uranium for use in its one research reactor it would already have enough to power it for 15 years) but in sufficient quantities to produce one bomb a year if further enriched. Throwing out the weapons inspectors and launching a “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” crash program to develop nuclear weapons would have almost certainly invited far worse responses than economic sanctions by now. Iran is doing just enough to mollify international concerns while continuing its nuclear weapons program.
Furthermore, nuclear weapons strategy since the Eisenhower era in the United States has been one of “massive retaliation”. This delightful approach has probably done more to prevent World War 3 than anything else in the last half a century, and would mean that if Iran ever did launch a nuclear weapon in anger, or handed a nuclear weapon over to terrorists it would almost certainly cease to exist as a functioning nation approximately 6 hours later. Since Iran’s leadership has behaved like rational actors so far, it seems illogical that they would commit themselves, their country and its 75 million inhabitants to “suicide by nuke”.
A nuclear Iran has far-reaching implications for the Middle East beyond any doom-mongering of immediate threat to Israel or Western interests. The second option, and by far the more subtle and potentially insidious outcome, is that Iran will use any nuclear weapons capacity to further its own regional strategic aims. This includes checking American power in the region, all but ending Israel’s capability to attack Iran without incurring unacceptable losses and furthering Iranian influence in the Gulf and the wider Muslim world. If you subscribe to an Iranian perspective, these would appear to be perfectly rational objectives. Foreign meddling in Iranian internal affairs has been a near-permanent fixture in Iranian history from the 1800s when Iran’s southern cities were directly occupied by Britain and its central government could not even select their own ministers without Anglo-Russian approval. This continued in the 1950s when the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh was deposed by a CIA/MI6 backed coup d’état in favour of the Shah, and in the 1980s when America offered blatant support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The more recent American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have done little to ease these deep-seated misgivings. Iran can also point, rather justifiably, to the fact that both Israel and India have developed and tested nuclear weapons and still receive international support, and while North Korea has not been extended the same courtesy it has still been allowed to pursue its nuclear ambitions with nary more than harsh words thrown in its direction.
In the global context, Iran successfully acquiring nuclear weapons will confirm what everybody has suspected for a while but nobody has wanted to admit; that anti-nuclear proliferation efforts as enshrined in the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are effectively dead. This will require the international community, no doubt led by the US, to throw away the current rulebook on nuclear non-proliferation and come up with completely new means of preventing and/or containing the spread of nuclear weapons. In the context of the Middle East, a nuclear Iran threatens to open a Pandora’s Box of nuclear proliferation in other Middle Eastern states who would feel that their security is now compromised. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly stated that it considers a nuclear Iran to be unacceptable, with the implication that it would pursue its own nuclear weapons program in response. The end result would be yet more gunpowder thrown onto the already considerable pile in the Middle East.
So should we, as the title suggests, learn to stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb? Well, no, but not for the reasons often presented. The reality is far more complex, and potentially far more dangerous.