The Obama administration’s official policy on Iran’s nuclear ambitions is clear, it does not intend to accept a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. This is the right policy. Should Iran gain nuclear weapons, regional and global peace would be severely jeopardised. I suggest a new strategy for preventing this outcome.
A debate on the current nuclear stand-off involving Iran, the United States, and Israel is currently raging amongst foreign policy intellectuals. This debate centers on the question: can the America and Israel live with a nuclear-armed Iran? The answer is no. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Middle Eastern security, global security, and Israel’s security; as such this outcome cannot be tolerated. The debate must therefore shift from can America and Israel live with a nuclear-armed Iran, to what can America and Israel do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
The Middle East is a region that can be described as a ‘powderkeg.’ The region consists of a multitude of nation-states, and each nation-state consists of a number of peoples, religions, religious sects, and cultures, in varying ratios. These factions are often extremely at-odds, to such an extent that when a central government is removed (i.e. Iraq) the country collapses into sectarian violence. In other cases it does not even take the removal of a government to achieve this outcome; Syria is currently fighting a bloody civil war. To make matters worse, relations between many of these states vary – from warm to icy hatred.
Thus, like 1914 Europe, a seemingly insignificant event (like the random assassination of an archduke) could lead to a devastating war. In 1914 this event occurred in an area mired with sectarian tension: the Balkans. History tends to repeat itself, when the Soviet Union gave up its influence of this same region it again collapsed into violence. Luckily this time around it did not trigger a European war.
Adding nuclear weapons to the Middle East would make the region a ‘nuclear powderkeg.’ If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will likely motivate its regional rival Saudi Arabia to do the same, which would likely trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. In a quest for security, many regional actors will be motivated to gain nuclear weapons as a means of deterring the nuclear threat posed by Iran. Although the risk would still remain relatively small, the probability of the world’s first nuclear war occurring would increase dramatically.
A dangerous regime
True, the Iranian regime is not suicidal, and is unlikely to use its nuclear weapons should it develop them. I argued in ‘Knowing Ones Enemy’ – Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Motives that no nation-state purposely risks its own security. While this is true, if every state in history acted according to the rational-actor model, history would not have occurred as it did. But history unfolded as we know it and governments at times acted irrationally – indeed Hitler invaded the Soviet Union while Stalin ignored intelligence reports of the coming German invasion. So while the Iranian regime may not be irrational, it may at times act irrationally.
I would argue Iran is even more likely to act irrationally than other states. The Cold War saw two gargantuan nuclear superpowers face each other on the brink of nuclear war, and both stood down. Even an irrational Iranian regime would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons should it possess them. But the nuclear-armed Iran scenario is a much different situation than the one seen during the Cold War. Neither Iran nor its would-be nuclear rival Israel (since Israel also possesses nuclear weapons) are superpowers. Israel’s sheer size means it could be completely destroyed by even a few nuclear bombs, and the Iranian regime openly talks of doing literally just this. To prove this, one must only look to statements made by the Iranian officials. Jeffrey Goldberg sums up the situation eloquently:
What we have right now in the world is a genuinely unprecedented situation, certainly unprecedented in the post-World War 2 international order. We have a member state of the United Nations, the Islamic Republic of Iran, that actively calls for the destruction of another member state, that is Israel. They are very clear and consistent on this subject, right from the beginning of the Islamic Republic. I’ll give you a couple of examples. This is from the supreme leader of Iran [Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei]: “The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumour on this region that should be cut off and it definitely will be cut off.” General Gholam Reza Jalali, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Core said last August: “The fact is, that there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” Finally, Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, who is a top aide to Khamenei, said in a January 2010 television interview quote: “We have manufactured missiles that allow us when necessary to replace Israel in its entirety with a big holocaust.”
Statements such as these display the fact that the Iranian regime is even less likely than most states to act according to the rational actor model. Bound by a hatred for Israel, the regime is likely to act unpredictably – or predictably against Israel depending on one’s view. If nuclear weapons are involved in this scenario, the situation becomes more dangerous still. Therefore Iran must not be allowed to gain nuclear technology.
Many argue a surgical military strike by the United States or Israel can halt or at least set-back Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Proponents of this strategy point to the successful preemptive Israeli attacks of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. While these attacks did prevent these states from attaining nuclear weapons, this strategy must only be kept as a last resort. Military action comes with risks, the worst being triggering a full-blown war. Iran could retaliate by attempting to close, or even threatening to close, the Strait of Hormuz, causing a global economic crisis. It could stir up its terrorist proxies. Although unlikely, Iran could launch missiles at US troops and allies across the Gulf region, even parts of Europe fall in its range. Finally an attack on Iranian turf, even a surgical strike minimizing or eliminating civilian casualties, could be used by Iranian propaganda to sway Iranian public opinion in favour of a nuclear program. The regime would argue it needs nuclear capabilities for security.
Thinking outside the box
Let us not forget why Iran wants nuclear capabilities. As I argued in my previous piece on Iran the Iranian regime feels threatened by a history of American influence, the removal of the Afghani and Iraqi regimes by American interventions on Iran’s borders, and President George W. Bush’s labeling of Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” These events caused the regime in Tehran to fear for its very existence. It thus seeks nuclear weapons as a means of securing itself.
Let us also not forget there is already a nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, Israel. Because Israel has nuclear weapons there is already a nuclear imbalance. Once again, Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in order to maintain its security.
A potential solution
Keeping these facts in mind it becomes obvious that the only way to convince Iran that giving up its nuclear ambitions is in its best interest, is to somehow offer it a guarantee of security during negotiations. Perhaps Israel should give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for Iranian cooperation. In return Iran would have to give up its weapons program and allow complete access to foreign investigators. The United States could guarantee Israel’s security by promising to support it militarily should Israel suffer an Iranian attack, but the United States must also promise not to preemptively attack Iran like it did Iraq in 2003. I do not argue this situation is necessarily attainable with today’s leadership, indeed Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is highly unlikely to agree to this, but I do argue it is a potential solution that should be given the consideration of foreign policy circles.
History gives my proposal credit. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the secret negotiations led to a similar compromise. The Soviet Union was convinced to remove missiles from Cuba, in return the United States removed its missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile Castro was promised that no US invasion of Cuba would occur. Three nation-states gave up nuclear security – the US and the USSR some second-strike capabilities, and Cuba the ability to deter an American attack. The lesson to be learned here is that in order to gain something one must be willing to give something up. Thus the original question should really be what is America and Israel willing to give up to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Washington should keep this in mind during future negotiations with Tehran, and Obama should keep this in mind during negotiations with Netanyahu.
Allison, Graham. “The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 4, July/August 2012.
‘Can Israel Live With A Nuclear Iran?’ Intelligence Squared, NPR. 22 January 2013.
Kroening, Matthew. “Time to Attack Iran.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 1, January/February 2012.
Waltz, Kenneth N. “Whay Iran Should Get the Bomb.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 4, July/August 2012.