Suppose Iran obtained nuclear weapons. The threat of retaliatory annihilation from the United States and Israel, both endowed with enormously superior nuclear arsenals, would assuredly deter Iran’s clerical regime from a suicidal nuclear attack against either global or regional superpower.
The threat of nuclear incineration has deterred extremist or unstable regimes in Pakistan and North Korea from using nuclear weapons against historic enemies such as India (for Pakistan) and South Korea and Japan (for North Korea). Only in a neoconservative fantasyland, such as that inhabited by columnist Charles Krauthammer, would Iran not similarly be deterred.
The United States should refrain from any preemptive military strike in hopes of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability (which only Congress may authorize under Article I, section 8, clause 11 of the Constitution). Waging war without the justification of self-defense constitutes the crime of aggression under international law. The post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal, on which the United States sat, punished Hitler’s subordinates for wars of aggression. Chief American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson elaborated: “To initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Possession of nuclear weapons, simpliciter, is not an act of belligerency creating a right of self-defense. If it were, every nation on the planet would be entitled to attack the United States.
Foreign aggression against Iran also would strengthen the ruling clerics by unifying the nation in defense of Iranian sovereignty. The 1980–1988 Iraq-Iran War provoked precisely that patriotic response despite the widespread unpopularity of the Iranian government. United States aggression would additionally risk calamitous blowback indistinguishable from our ill-considered support for Al Qaeda—then in embryo—to oppose the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The United States exercised military restraint when India, Pakistan and North Korea acquired nuclear arsenals. Even neoconservatives are not clamoring to reverse those decisions. Is the case of Iran different?
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran’s ruling mullahs have predictably acted to advance national interests and to seek money and power in lieu of exporting Shia Islam around the world with force and violence. Ruling clerics and their flocks have shown no enthusiasm for emulating the Jewish mass suicide at Masada in protest of Roman paganism. They negotiated the release of American hostages in Tehran in exchange for an international arbitration tribunal to settle monetary claims. Ayatollah Khomeini accepted termination of the Iraq-Iran conflict. He rejected an indefinite apocalyptic holy war that might accelerate putative ecstasies of afterlife for a mounting number of dead Muslims. Iran negotiated compensation payments in lieu of military retaliation for the accidental United States destruction of a civilian airliner and the deaths of hundreds of passengers in 1988. Iran has refrained from complicity in terrorism in Israel notwithstanding Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran. Members of Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guard are more preoccupied with making money in government-controlled or protected businesses than with pilgrimages to Mecca.
Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons bespeaks realpolitik, not avidity for destroying Israel. For more than fifty years, the United States has attempted to manipulate the internal affairs of Iran to its own advantage. The CIA engineered the overthrow of popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 in favor of the pliable and corrupt shah. Washington propped up the shah with massive weapons sales and diplomatic or economic support until he was toppled in the 1979 revolution.
Since then, the covert and overt policy of the United States has been regime change through economic strangulation, sabotage or otherwise—a variation of 1953. The United States supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War triggered by Saddam Hussein’s aggression. In October 1995, then congressman Newt Gingrich authored the first of several articles urging covert action to overthrow the government of Iran. Gingrich then had $18 million inserted into the classified portion of the annual Intelligence Authorization Act to support covert action to “change the behavior” of the Iranian regime. The provision leaked to the press, was signed by President Clinton, and provoked the Iranian parliament to appropriate $20 million to counter the U.S. covert action.
The United States similarly desires regime change in North Korea, but Washington has refrained from military force to accomplish that objective because North Korea sports nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders have learned from that example. They rationally seek nuclear weapons to deter the United States or Israel from resorting to military force to oust them from power. If the United States and Israel renounced regime change in Iran by outside force or manipulation, Iran might abandon its quest for nuclear weapons in the manner of South Africa, Argentina and Brazil.