Why We Shouldn’t Worry (Too Much) About a Nuclear Iran


Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have, not for the first time, made strong allegations in a report that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear arms program. In an already tense diplomatic moment, hawks in Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv, Israel, have renewed calls for a preemptive strike on Iran - something that Israel has made no attempts to conceal that it is ready (and willing) to do at a moment's notice. This would be the ultimate folly. History, Iranian politics, and strategic logic have shown clearly and consistently that a nuclear-armed Iran would not significantly alter the prevailing power dynamics in the region.

The dominant theory to explain the nuclear option is “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) – should one party choose to use nuclear arms, the other would retaliate with equally decisive force. While deeply unsettling, MAD has a 100% record in preventing nuclear war.

Some Israeli and American hawks disagree that MAD applies to Iran. Eager to pursue a military option, the idea is that the Iranian leadership has adopted a radical and dangerous form of religious and Islamic ideology: The material is transient; the only reward is in the afterlife. MAD’s policy of rational deterrence will allegedly not restrain Iran’s regime in quite the same way.

If the “radical Islamists” in power in Iran are truly committed to achieving martyrdom, they have done little to prove it. For all the Iranian leadership’s bluster during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iran did not choose to “fight to the death” as it had previously promised and accepted a peace deal that left it none the stronger. Heaven can apparently wait.

The government of Iran has never shown a willingness to start an open war. It is far too logical for that. It may be actively funding shadow wars – through funding insurgencies and proxy groups – but such is the game that the region plays and it is not qualitatively different from what Mossad and the CIA do.

But what of the bellicose, “we will bury you”-style comments emanating from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the highest elected official in the country? For all his Israel-baiting and saber-rattling, Ahmadinejad is not the one who calls the shots, being rather more like Iran’s top administrator than its chief executive. Real political power is, instead, vested in the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council. To put that into perspective, Ahmadinejad is, at best, the 13th most powerful political figure, the equivalent of this country’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan (who?).

But the one thing that Iran’s leaders are acutely aware of is Israel’s own extensive nuclear arsenal. A supposed state secret, the entire Middle East has been operating under that assumption since at least the end of the Yom Kippur War. If anything, Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be required to equalize the MAD formula.

Attacking Iran to “prevent” conflict would be a serious policy misstep. With Israel’s strong nuclear deterrent in place, it has only been subjected to strategic attack in 1991, when Saddam launched his missile arsenal at Israeli targets. But this happened only after the allied invasion began. Attacking Iran might provoke a similar response, sparking off the deaths that Israel and America are, presumably, trying to prevent.

But perhaps of greater concern should be where America might fall into this. The IAEA report and recent renewed calls for a preemptive strike against Iran have come just shy of America’s planned withdrawal from Iraq. Any Israeli airstrike against Iran would almost certainly have to fly through Iraq. Iranian defenses pursuing Israeli intruders into Iraq might very well be construed, by a clumsy war-mongering policy maker, as an attack on American interests, drawing America into this ugly squabble.

Any proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the unstable Middle East, is inherently dangerous but it is a danger that the world can live with. What would be truly destabilizing is for America to be drawn into a wider conflict that it cannot afford.

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