With all the clamor to sanction and attack Iran, there's a minor issue most journalists are ignoring: the actual existence of a nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the global organization responsible for securing nuclear materials around the world and making sure they are not spread or weaponized, has rigorous monitoring activities at Iran’s nuclear sites. It makes, as former U.S. National Security Council staffer Gary Sick writes, “frequent surprise visits, keep[ing] cameras in place to watch every move, and carefully measuring Iran’s input of feed stock to the centrifuges and the output of low enriched uranium, which is then placed under seal.”
For years, not one of the inspectors has been kicked out of Iran, a move that would signify that Tehran is about to up the ante on its nuclear material and turn it into a weapon. And U.S. intelligence has asserted that Iran’s supreme leader has not yet given the order to build a nuclear weapon, even though most experts (including the IAEA) suspect that Iran has some sort of weapons program underway. But most important, given the agency’s access, the inspectors have declared that there is currently no nuclear-weapons program to speak of in Iran. Of course, the IAEA has taken issue with restrictions on its access to Iranian facilities, but even America’s intelligence agencies, Israel’s Mossad, and countless others have come to the same conclusion themselves. These speculations about Iran’s hypothetical transgressions have at their source American uncertainty about Iran’s intentions, not certainty about Iran’s abilities.
In fact, the whole confrontation over a nuclear program is, in many ways, more a symptom than a cause of U.S.-Iran enmity. Tehran was first accused of exploring a weapons program in late 2003, when Iran was flanked by America in Afghanistan and Iraq and its olive branch to Washington—an offer for a “grand bargain”—was rejected. But bilateral enmity existed long before then, stemming from the CIA- and MI6-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, in 1953, and the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. The discord was made worse by Iranian support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamist militias throughout the Middle East and by America’s arming of Iran’s enemies: Iraq during the 1980s war, the Gulf Arab states, and anti-Tehran militant groups such as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and Jundullah.
Today we are left with a situation where, from an Iranian perspective, it would make perfect sense to try to get nuclear weapons: Muammar Gaddafi gave up the bomb, and Saddam Hussein didn’t have one; they were toppled. The North Koreans and Pakistanis (and Israelis and Indians) have the bomb and receive all sorts of concessions, from normalized relations, to a blind eye turned to support for terrorism, to trade and military aid.
And with hostile forces surrounding Iran in Afghanistan, the Gulf, Iraq, Israel, and the Caucasus, the imperatives appear greater. Even American officials as high-ranking as Vice President Joe Biden concede that they understand Iran’s rationale for nuclear capability, but simply insist that it oughtn’t be allowed.
Tight sanctions, sabotage, and military action may minimally delay, but not destroy, Tehran’s ability to get a bomb—and only with a good deal of fallout. Sanctions not only are fated to be ignored by countries like India, China, Russia, and Turkey, but, by aiming to cut off Iran’s access to refined gasoline, they strengthen Tehran’s claim to need a nuclear program to produce domestic energy.
War, meanwhile, would destabilize a region that is already in turmoil and threaten energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, precipitating further global economic crises. And a military confrontation with Iran would make Pakistan a frontline state in yet another American war, increasing America’s destructive dependence on the Pakistani military. Only dialogue and tangible reassurances will come close to eliminating or reducing Iran’s drive to get the bomb.
And yet, considering Gaddafi’s experience, perhaps even that will not do. Even when negotiations and détente convinced Gaddafi to give up his nuclear-weapons program and be embraced by the West in 2003, America was able to reverse course and depose him in 2011—precisely because he did not have nuclear weapons to resist such an onslaught.
Whenever the U.S. attacks a nonnuclear country while giving a pass to nuclear-armed nations, it undermines the nonproliferation regime by demonstrating the effectiveness of nuclear weapons and increasing their allure. Given Western considerations of military intervention, Syria, whose budding nuclear program was destroyed by Israel in 2007, may be the next such illustration. For the same reason, heightened threats—military or economic—increase the Iranians’ fears that they could meet the same fate as Saddam or Gaddafi, convincing them of the need to get a nuclear deterrent as soon as possible, even if they were to come to the negotiating table today.
Then is an Iranian nuclear weapon, or at least the ability to develop one (as in Japan), inevitable? And if it is, will it be all that bad?
A nuclear Saudi Arabia or Turkey is one feared consequence of an Iranian bomb. While certainly undesirable, this domino theory of proliferation is exaggerated: It has taken more than 10 years for Iran to not have nuclear weapons, and the contagion that the world has expected since the advent of the atomic age never happened; after 67 years, only nine countries have the bomb. Moreover, the West has given Saudi Arabia a nearly $100 billion incentive, in the form of weapons sales, to keep its response conventional.
A second concern is that a nuclear Iran would blackmail the region or even give the bomb to terrorists. These undoubtedly would be nightmare scenarios. Yet, the value of nuclear weapons lies in their nonusage: in their ability to deter, not to employ. Given that American or Israeli missiles would rain down on the Zagros Mountains in retaliation, any Iranian threat to actually use nuclear weapons is simply not credible.
As for Hamas or Hizbullah, being given nuclear weapons would increase their capacities as well as their autonomy. This would reduce their need to depend on Iran, and accordingly Iran’s leverage over them would diminish. Iran would not give weapons of mass destruction to militant groups precisely because they are—and Iran would like them to remain—Iranian proxies. Not to mention, any detonated materials can easily be traced back to the country that provided them, keeping deterrence intact. For the same reasons, Iran has refrained from sharing its chemical- and biological-weapons capacities.
An Iranian bomb certainly would, however, reinforce the country’s regional supremacy. But this dominance is inevitable anyway. As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me, “From 1953 to 1979, the U.S. recognized Iran as the hegemon in the region. We recognized that, considering all the factors of power, from demography to military, from geography to national cohesiveness, Iran was the leader in the Gulf. Now, today, we seek to deny that reality—largely because our tyrant no longer rules. This is utterly preposterous.”
What’s more, the strategic aims of this regional power align with America’s 21st-century goals: reducing dependence on Pakistan in order to stabilize Afghanistan, countering Sunni militants like the Taliban, enabling energy and commodities trade throughout the region, working toward a stable Gulf and an unthreatening Iraq, and limiting Russian and, to a degree, Chinese influence in the region.
In his iconoclastic book, Reset, Stephen Kinzer argues that, to contend with the emerging global order, America ought to step back from its close relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel (and, I would add, Pakistan) and embrace Iran and Turkey instead. America’s alliances with Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Islamabad were useful in the Cold War: they could gather intelligence, aid militants, and counter the Soviets where Washington couldn’t. But today, America benefits little from its unconditional support for the status quo regimes in these countries. In fact, Washington’s closeness is harmful to all involved, enabling militarism and extremism across the Middle East and South Asia. Given the inertia in U.S.-Iranian relations, it would take a great deal of political skill to overcome the trust deficit and move forward on such an ambitious realignment.
Of course, the other “doomsday” scenario of a nuclear Iran is that the West would not be able to invade a nuclear Iran and would have to deal with Tehran on different terms. That might even be a good thing. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the nuclear option to get us there.