Why Shouldn't Iran Seek Nuclear Weapons?

It now seems difficult to dispute that the Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons, lying about it and intent on continuing both come hell or high water.

It now seems difficult to dispute that the Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons, lying about it and intent on continuing both come hell or high water. Why? Because the temptation for Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal of its own - driven by the contradictions of the Bush Administration's foreign and nuclear policies - is simply too seductive to resist.

On Friday, June 18th, the IAEA strongly rebuked Tehran, saying: "Iran's cooperation has not been as full, timely and proactive as it should have been." The next day Iran's top nuclear official, Hassan Rohani, objected bitterly to the IAEA's statement, reiterated his insistence that Tehran's nuclear program is intended to generate electricity rather than warheads and said that Tehran now would resume some of the nuclear activities it had previously suspended.

In addition, the chair of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Ala'eddin Borujerdi, said the same day that the Majlis might now reject the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which allows unannounced and unfettered inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. Under both international and Iranian law, the Additional Protocol cannot take effect without Majlis approval.

Then, on Monday, June 21st, in a development difficult to believe wholly unrelated, Iran seized 3 British naval vessels and 8 British sailors -- after Britain, along with France and Germany, had spearheaded the IAEA censure.      

Consider the outside world as viewed from Tehran. President Bush delivers his 2002 State of the Union address, and, of all the countries in the world, he singles out three as constituting an "axis of evil." He announces his intent to instigate unilateral preemptive war against any nation that his Administration subjectively determines to be a potential threat. Defying almost universal world opinion, he actually commences such a war against one of those three - decapitating its regime, killing the supreme leader's sons and driving that leader himself into a pathetic hole in the ground. And he surrounds Iran on all four sides with bristling American military power - Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east, sprawling new American bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to the north and the unchallengeable U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south.

Iran, of course, cannot hope to take on the United States in any kind of direct military confrontation. But it can aspire to deter what must seem to them to be a quite real threat - someday - of American military aggression. How? By developing the capability to inflict unacceptable catastrophic damage on American interests or military forces abroad, on the American fleet in the Persian Gulf, or even on the American homeland itself. And by holding out even the mere possibility that it would respond to any American assault by employing that capability immediately, before it became too late, following the traditional military maxim of "use ‘em or lose ‘em."

There is, of course, only one thing that can provide Iran with that kind of deterrent capability. (Hint: it's not nuclear electricity.)

It is probably the case that, for Tehran, the perceived danger of a U.S. invasion is lower today than it might have been in 2002 or 2003. It is difficult to envision any U.S. president in the foreseeable future launching another unilateral preemptive first strike in the wake of the fiasco in Iraq. Imagine the political firestorm - even after a Bush reelection - if the Administration began contemplating another preemptive war, this time on Iran.

But Tehran has no reason to believe that that shift in geostrategic dynamics has become permanent. It has resulted, after all, from external circumstances rather than from an internal American change of heart (or regime). On the contrary, it probably provides the mullahs with all the more reason to press ahead, in order to obtain the Great Deterrent before the Great Satan has a chance to regroup and refocus.

Looming over Iran's immediate perception of the American threat is the nuclear double standard that so many other nations so resent. Bush insists that selected other countries have no right to possess nuclear weapons, while at the same time making abundantly clear that we intend to retain thousands in perpetuity. To the rest of the world, this is sanctimonious and self-righteous, suggesting that in our view we can be "trusted" with these weapons while others cannot. Such a position is factually questionable. It is morally indefensible. And it is politically unsustainable.

On Monday, June 21st, IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei delivered a blistering speech blaming this posture for much of his difficulty stemming nuclear proliferation in Iran and elsewhere. The time has come, he said, to "abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them."

This is especially true when the original Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is understood in its original context. The NPT was not just a framework to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It was, instead, a grand bargain - where the great many "nuclear have-nots" agreed to forego nuclear weapons while the few "nuclear haves" agreed eventually to get rid of theirs. Moreover, the United States recommitted itself to this covenant at the 30-year NPT Review Conference in spring 2000, where the NPT's nuclear signatories pledged "an unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."