Iranian Pickles: The Options for Handling Iranian Nukes

Stopping a country from developing nuclear weapons is hard -- and dangerous

Ah, the complexities of today's world. Wouldn't it be nice to go back to when things were simpler: When we only had to worry about Soviet nukes being fired from Cuba; or West Berlin, a city surrounded by communist East Germany, being attacked by Soviet forces thus testing the US commitment to treating Berlin as if it were New York, possibly causing nuclear war? If you haven't gathered this already: this is sarcasm. There may have been only "one" enemy during the Cold War, but it was, especially through the 1960s, a terrifying time for the entire world. Just a bit of perspective on Iranian nukes.

I am neither a hawk nor a dove, so let's address both extremes of the spectrum before we begin. First off, the doves: All signs point to Iran developing nuclear weapons -- even the IAEA, once reluctant to draw conclusions, has now verified this (see in particular point 43 of its report). If it is not developing nuclear weapons, then it is doing everything it can to give that impression, for example by keeping secrets and building underground nuclear facilities. Since Iran would gain little from such a ruse (pretending to already HAVE nukes could prevent countries from attacking you, claiming you are developing them when you're not, ENCOURAGES attacks), we must conclude that it is really doing it. Iran is NOT harmless, and talk from the US and Israel about its dangers is not a pretext for launching wars that both want to get into just for the hell of it, or whatever it is that leftists think is the conspiratorial reasoning for all this. Iran has supported insurgents in Iraq, as well as the terror/militia groups/political parties Hamas and, most notably, Hezbollah, which follows the lead of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The issue against the Hawks, who would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, is a bit more complex because their line, unlike that of the leftist doves who think Iran's leaders are lovely, peace-loving people, is more credible. The main issue here, though, is that an attack would almost certainly not stop Iran from getting a bomb. For one thing, no one knows if there are additional secret enrichment facilities in Iran like the one discovered in September 2009. Iran is set to transfer production to an alleged number of secret facilities, which are reported to be bomb-proof, even if all of them could be found. Could Iran be bluffing to deter an attack by making it sound futile? Sure, this is international politics and diplomacy after all. Lies abound. But can we afford to assume it's a bluff? No, and that's the problem.

What's more, an attack on Iran carries incredible risks. Unless it were successful in completely wiping out Iran's nuclear development capabilities and killing most of its nuclear scientists, a near miracle if you think about it (and even then: once you've gotten through the complexities once, the second development run ought to be faster), Iran will simply be delayed -- and really angry. Sure, Iran spews hatred for the West and above all Israel, which carried out attacks on its nuclear facilities once before. Increasing its determination further still seems unwise, however.

Dr. Strangelove time
So what can we do? It seems ever more likely that Iran will get the bomb no matter what we do. This does not have to be the end of Israel or civilization as we know it. Keep in mind that only two atom bombs have ever been used in the history of nuclear arms. Further, it's important to note two factors in that case: Japan could not retaliate with nuclear weapons, and Japan and the US were locked in a brutal war and the US stood to bring the war to a quick end, preventing further US casualties and expense, by dropping two bombs. Whatever your feelings about the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, the US had every incentive to do it, and there was essentially no risk. Iran has nothing to gain by using its nukes first or giving them to terrorist groups -- and everything to lose by doing either.

So what's the point of having the bomb in the first place if it is useless? Careful! I said that it makes no sense to use nukes first in the current situation, but that doesn't mean they're not useful. As Kenneth Waltz, the high priest of international political theory, points out: "the usefulness of force should not be confused with its usability... [that would be] comparable to saying that the police force that seldom if ever employs violence is weak or that a police force is strong only when policemen are shooting their guns... [or] that a man with large assets is not rich if he spends little money or that a man is rich only if he spends a lot of it."1 The main use for Iran's weapons, when they're finally developed, is deterrence: it becomes much more unlikely that anyone will attack a nuclear-armed Iran, giving Iran greater freedom of political mobility. That is hugely useful.

"You're assuming Iran's leaders aren't nuts." You're right. And what is it about their actions that would lead us to think otherwise? Since I've pointed out that nuclear weapons are quite useful, even if this usefulness is not bound up with their actual use, the mere fact of them pressing on with the project implies paranoia about foreign influence or fear of attack -- but also rationality. Let's also not forget that Iran has been subject to heavy foreign interference in its affairs since the early 19th century, first by Britain and Russia, and later by the United States (the greatest example of which is the toppling of the Iranian government with US (CIA) assistance to re-instate the western-oriented Shah in 1953). So Iran has reason to be "paranoid," if the word can still be used to describe justified fear -- which would be an oxymoron; so no, it can't. Also, if you want to make people uncertain of your next move and encourage them to be extra cautious, it's a good idea to scare the crap out of them by making them think you're crazy. Kim Jong-Il (who has apparently just died!) was a master of this art, and the Iranian leaders may be, too. Note that Kim never really attacked South Korea, an easy target (Kim has tested South Korea's determination by firing at its ships and a small island near the border, but these tests showed South Korea was not just going to be pushed over).

We thought the Soviets were crazy enough to put ideology above reason, too, but they never did anything unreasonable. If Iran were to launch nukes at Israel, it would surely be completely destroyed by Israeli retaliation -- a pointless action. Likewise with an attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran's real arch rival in the region. The US could very well feel the need to launch a nuclear counterattack in that case as well. Or Israel might do it. In that case, too, Iran would have even less sympathy than it already does, for it clearly would be the aggressor. In the end, then, nukes are very useful for Iran in deterring foreign attacks and influence. They are not so useful if they explode, and that includes at the hands of Iran-linked terrorists. The bombs can be traced, and Iran would face a brutal retaliation if any of its bombs went off as a result of it giving them to terrorists. Plus: you have the most destructive weapon known to mankind, you've worked for years to develop it, in spite of tough sanctions and threats of attacks, and you're going to hand them over to a terrorist group over which you do not exercise total control? Not bloody likely!

Is this a happy compromise? No. But the other options are even worse. The world is not safe from nuclear weapons, but Pakistan and India provide further evidence that its destruction is probably not imminent: The countries hate each other, they are right next to each other, Pakistan is unstable and unpredictable, and yet no nukes have gone off. Instead, the conflict has been frozen. Both sides have become more cautious, and neither has been able to make any headway on its agenda. Frozen conflicts aren't great, either, but after a long freeze, future generations might forget what the fuss is all about and finally decide to resolve them peacefully, rather than letting them return to hot war or simply fester in the tundra. Nuclear weapons, then, force something like the Islamic concept of a hudna, or temporary cease-fire. The idea is to stop fighting and let the next generation decide how to take it from there. Strange love indeed.
  1. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979): 185.


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