I have talked to a number of Republican friends of mine who say that they believe we will have to invade Iran soon because they are developing nuclear weapons and we can’t let them have them. I ask them one question: “Why?” It is clear at first that their paradigm has not even entertained such a question and that they simply assume that we cannot allow it. The responses I get generally fall into three categories: 1. Iran is an implacable enemy of the United States. 2. The leaders of Iran are a bunch of fanatics who would probably use a nuclear weapon, either against the United States or against Israel, if they had one, and 3. Iran is a known supporter of terrorism, and they can’t be trusted not to give a nuclear weapon to people who certainly would use it.
I- Let’s examine these assumptions more clearly:
1. It is true that since the revolutionary overthrow of the American backed regime of the Shah in 1979 and the hostage crisis that same year, relations between Iran and the United States have never warmed above a deep freeze. However, the same could be said of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union or China during the height of the Cold War, and yet neither of these two countries ever used nuclear weapons against the United States or anyone else. Clearly it is in America’s interest for Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon, but history teaches us that we can survive having an enemy which has nuclear weapons.
2. The leadership in Iran is a complex structure, with a conservative hierarchy of aging mullahs running the show, but a parliament and a President which have at times in the past challenged the mullahs (although right now the mullahs have apparently rigged the election to prevent any legal political challenges). In Iran today, over 60% of the population is under 30—people with no memory of the Shah and who took no part in the revolution but have instead come to resent the strictures of an Islamic society. As the years pass, this number will grow. The revolutionary rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini is as dead to them as the rhetoric of Lenin is to Russians. And like the Russians, Iran’s internationalist revolutionary fervor (where they actively tried to incite Islamic revolution in neighboring countries) seems to have passed with the aging of that generation, bled dry by the Iran-Iraq war. The mullahs have their hands full just maintaining internal control, and it is hard to see why they would start a nuclear war which would devastate their country and destroy what hold they still have. Both the United States and Israel possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy Iran, so such an attack would be suicidal. The leader of the mullahs, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, is a hard liner to be sure, but has never been described as insane or suicidal. It is true that the Iranians did use some chemical weapons during the war with Iraq, but that was in response to repeated use of the same by Saddam. Given that they, like Saddam, had them in the 1980’s, it is a fact that they never used them against Israel, so there is precedent for the idea that they wouldn’t use nukes. The most likely reason why they want nuclear weapons, especially given recent American actions in the region, is as a deterrent in case we actually invade and try to conquer Iran. The best example we can give of an attack attributed to the mullahs in recent times against the United States, the Khobar towers bombing, was carried out using conventional weapons, apparently as payback for the United States’ support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and the accidental shooting down of a commercial airliner over Iranian waters during an undeclared war in 1987. We should not excuse the Khobar towers bombing, but it certainly does not suggest that the Iranian regime is looking to fight a nuclear war. And, finally, the mullahs running Iran aren’t a one-man dictatorship. So, even if one of them did want to destroy the country to make a point, it is hard to see how it could happen.
3. Iran does have ties to terrorists, like many of our ‘friends’ in the region including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Heck, we have ourselves in the past supported many of the same terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. We should certainly fight against these terrorists, and maintain sanctions and if necessary take other conventional action against Iran if needed, but let’s keep in mind that Iran is not generally a supporter of many of the Sunni groups (who consider Shiite and Persian Iran a heretical branch of Islam), and the best way to prevent them from supporting terrorists is to work to enlist their help in the war against terrorism. For that matter, the Soviet Union at times supported numerous terrorist groups, ranging from the Red Brigades in Italy and the Japanese Red Army to the early days of the P.L.O. However, at no time did they ever give any of these terrorists nuclear weapons. The Iranians have never given Hezbollah or other terrorists they support chemical weapons, long range missiles or other weapons which would be a clear escalation of the low level Cold War style terrorist campaigns they are waging, so why would they be stupid enough to give them nukes?
II- So, what should we do?
1. Begin by realizing that the line in the sand we drew fifty or sixty years ago has been washed away by the rising tide. The idea that technology which we developed sixty years ago (including the enrichment of Uranium) is somehow ‘too hard’ for rogue states to get is laughable. What we need is a new line in the sand. One that history teaches would set a great precedent and be obeyed. One that really does make our overwhelming military might a ‘big stick’ which we can put to a good use, really is unilateral, and yet makes no overt threats toward anyone or takes sides before the fact. How about a nuclear version of the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ that focuses not on the development of nuclear weapons, but rather makes it plain that any nation which uses them in war will be at war with the United States and can expect a ‘regime change?’. How can a country avoid this? Simple, build your nukes, fight your wars, but DON’T USE THE NUKES IN THE WARS. Is this fail-safe? No. And where we can make it as difficult as possible for other countries to get nukes, we should still do so. But instead of invoking a now routinely violated line that countries should not build nukes (which Pakistan, India and North Korea have already made a joke out of), we have a better chance of making a new line stick, and I suspect it is a line which, despite its unilateralism, would be welcomed by the world. The beauty is that such a direct statement does not make any distinction between nations, either based on current or future alliances or rivalries. And in case a terrorist group blows up a nuke, develop the intelligence (which we already pretty much have) that can analyze the results and determine where the bomb came from. Uranium from different sources has different types of impurities so it would not be that hard to determine.
2. Work with countries that have nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and other nuclear installations to secure the nuclear material, because this is where terrorists are most likely to get it. John Kerry proposed to secure the nuclear material in the former Soviet Union in four years. This is realistic. The Bush administration expects it to take nine years longer. We also need to hasten the rate at which we inspect every container entering the United States by ship. Right now, we inspect a random sample of 2% (meaning that if a terrorist places a weapon on any given container, there is a 98% chance that the container won’t be inspected). This is four years since 9/11 and Congress has refused to adequately fund this, but we must fund it. Traditional Republican budget cuts and failure to make tax investments just aren’t an option when talking about nuclear safety and terrorism. Cooperate with all nations, friendly or not, to work on ways to prevent an accidental firing of a nuclear weapon.
3. Revamp our foreign policy. It is clear to many that the Bush administration’s inclusion of Iran and North Korea in the ‘axis of evil,’ rather than deterring nuclear ambitions, have had the opposite effect, especially in light of the Iraq war. On the other hand, we have approximately the same chilly relationship with Cuba as we have with all of these countries (including Cuban support of terrorist groups like FARC), but since we have not threatened to actually invade Cuba, they have had no inducement to research nuclear weapons. Going back to the Soviet Union, it fell because of a policy of ‘constructive engagement.’ People saw our freedom, and wanted it for themselves. If anything, the survival of Cuba and North Korea, almost alone among old line anti-capitalist Marxist states (recall that China and Vietnam have had the foresight to develop private enterprise) is indicative that failure to engage the people of these nations strengthens the regime instead of undermining it. I pointed out in I-2 that Iran has a similar internal structure, where young people want change and the old line revolutionaries want to preserve the status quo. Engage the people who will be the future, and a future of freedom will arrive one day, and the people will earn it themselves, and treasure it all the more. If we instead invade their country because of our dispute with its leaders, we should have learned from Iraq that we won’t be universally welcome and the price will be paid in the lives of our soldiers.