Why Worry about an Iranian Bomb?

With sanctions and talks – and a big stick in the background – the United States and its allies are trying to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme. Australia is playing its part. Canberra recently blocked a shipment of industrial equipment to Iran. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, believes preventing a nuclear Iran is vital. Is he right?

Kenneth Waltz thinks not. The celebrated American political scientist says we should redefine the problem. The real difficulty in the Gulf is not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he argues. It is the fact that one state in the area (Israel) has a nuclear monopoly. An Iranian bomb would be a good thing. It would create a healthy balance of power, and restore equilibrium to an anxious region. Far from being the crisis, Waltz sees an Iranian bomb as the solution.

At this stage, his argument is hypothetical. To the best of our knowledge, it is not clear that the Islamic Republic has decided to go beyond uranium enrichment and build a bomb. It is not clear that it will. Efforts to dissuade it through economic sanctions, threats of regime change or actual military action may work. Or they may be perverse, motivating Tehran to go for weaponisation.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against the making and use of nuclear weapons in 2005. Yet if Iran changes its mind, it has a doctrine of flexibility that it used during the Iran-Iraq war to justify starting a chemical weapons programme, allowing the needs of the Islamic Republic in extremis to trump Islamic law.

But if Iran keeps enriching to weapons-grade level, what then?

Waltz builds his case on a reading of diplomatic history. This is where the mischief lies. Claiming that the emergence of two nuclear states stabilises regions, he points approvingly to the example of India and Pakistan.

In doing so, he steps lightly over the history of standoffs, confrontations and escalations between those adversaries, whose mutual fears are worsened by ongoing clashes in disputed territories and the ambiguous role of armed proxies.  

In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark.

Waltz also builds his case on a rosy view of nuclear deterrence in the Cold War (1947-1989). For him, nukes have a constraining effect because of their own terrifying logic. Mutually Assured Destruction works. After all, the world has had multiple nuclear states in it since 1949, without a nuclear war.

But we have come close. In the Cold War, despite a deterrence system in a supposedly ‘stable’ bipolar contest, there were still a series of high-stakes ‘near misses’ where fear, misperception, false alarms or system errors nearly resulted in nuclear war. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the Kennedy Administration to attack Cuba, not knowing that Soviet combat forces possessed nuclear-tipped missiles and were authorised to use them. A Soviet submarine commander believed the war had started, and had to be dissuaded by fellow officers not to fire a nuclear torpedo. It was bad enough with two adversaries familiar with each other. A world of more nuclear states makes it harder still. We have avoided Armaggeddon through luck, not just statecraft.

So we should be cautious about Waltz’s ahistorical faith in a stable deterrence system.

More deeply, we should not be narrowly obsessed with the issue of rationality and intentions. Waltz and others assure us that a nuclear Iran would be well behaved, that nukes have a constraining effect. Pessimists often claim the opposite. They fear that a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous than deterrable adversaries such as the Soviet Union, because the theocratic regime is mad and/or bad.

These fears are questionable. That the regime is homicidal does not necessarily make it suicidal. Its commitment to survival was clear during the Green uprisings of 2009. It barks aggressively, but its bite is underwhelming. Recall its hollow threat to block the Straits of Hormuz. It has sound defensive reasons to acquire a nuclear deterrent given its dangerous neighbourhood, encircled by enemy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and now an Israeli airbase in Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Israel could be forgiven for staying alert. Tehran has made death threats against it. It officially sponsored a holocaust denial conference. ‘Death to Israel’ is its populist catch cry. Do we expect a people that has been through genocide and wars of survival to dismiss such rhetoric as mere words? As a holocaust survivor once said, ‘if someone says they want to kill you, believe them.’ A nuclear Iran would frighten Tel Aviv, not to mention Riyadh and Cairo, however reasonable those fears would be. That in itself is dangerous.

The issue is not whether Iran or any state is mad or bad. The issue is that they are uncertain, insecure and lack full knowledge. The existential fears of Iran and Israel are strong. They have no strong dialogue in which to signal and communicate. All this is ripe for accident or error. It makes nuclear weapons a problem when they eyeball each other.

Even if Iran turned out to be a sober and responsible nuclear power, the danger would be considerable. A Gulf with two nuclear enemies in it could generate a witches’ brew of fear, suspicion, sabre rattling and a fresh arms race. That could take the region – and the world – to the brink.  

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