Dealing with a nuclear Iran

01.06.06 Publication:

Ever since 1945, when the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has lived with an extraordinary contradiction. This is the fact that in an era when progress has been made, year after year, in all sorts of political, economic, social, scientific and technological ways, we all nevertheless live under a shadow, a fear that the use by some nation or terrorist group of the most destructive weapons ever known could bring all that progress to a sudden halt.

During the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, that fear was eventually brought under a sort of control. After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the superpowers to the brink of military conflict, a conflict in which nuclear weapons would surely have been used, a doctrine of deterrence and restraint took hold, under the banner of “mutually assured destruction”, or MAD by its English initials. Knowing that any use of nuclear weapons would be disastrous for both sides, since retaliation would be immediate and widespread, both the superpowers felt assured that neither would take the risk.

The question today, however, is how that “MAD” doctrine can be applied in a world when there is only one superpower and in which several countries are seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The current state of greatest concern is Iran, but it is not the only one: North Korea is another cause of great worry. North Korea says it has already produced several nuclear bombs. Iran denies it is doing so at all, and yet insists on the right to develop the uranium enrichment process that is necessary before bombs can be produced, and it is avoiding any international inspection and verification of what it is doing.

America, France and Britain insist it must stop, or submit to full and open inspections. China and Russia, the other veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, say they want Iran to stop too, but do not want to use tough sanctions or the most serious sorts of UN resolutions to achieve that aim. Meanwhile, many people worry that the world is slipping towards a new war right next door to the previous war, in Iraq, and that America will end up bombing and perhaps even invading Iran.

Personally, I think that is very unlikely to happen. America´s military forces are already heavily overstretched, and public opinion in the United States has turned hostile to America´s occupation of Iraq. Congress would be opposed to war against Iran in virtually any conceivable circumstances, unless direct evidence were found that Iran was preparing a nuclear attack of its own, either on America or more likely on Israel. And that is itself a virtually inconceivable possibility, at least for several years.

So what can be done instead? The first question to ask yourself is this: Why should the world worry so much about an Iranian nuclear bomb? Israel developed a bomb covertly, and during the past decade both India and Pakistan revealed themselves to be nuclear-weapons powers. No one is talking about bombing India, Pakistan or Israel because of their nuclear weapons—except Iran, in the case of Israel, which starts to explain why Iran feels different. Iran has never in fact attacked Israel, nor since the ayatollahs´ revolution of 1979 has it started a war with another country. But its recently elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has frequently asserted that Israel must be “wiped from the map”, which might imply a nuclear strike.

If such statements are serious, rather than just rabble-rousing rhetoric, then a nuclear Iran could indeed be a danger. Israel would certainly retaliate if it were attacked in that way and if it were still capable of doing so. Fortunately, it would anyway be several years before we reach that stage, as Iran´s nuclear programme is not believed to be far enough advanced to produce an actual bomb.

There is an additional danger, however. It is that Iran is a clear and well documented supporter of terrorist organisations, including Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. That raises the possibility that it might choose to supply a terrorist organisation with nuclear materials at some stage in the future. Such an act would be a dangerous one, as it would surely be traceable back to Iran, and so Iran would still be vulnerable to retaliation. But it cannot be ruled out altogether.

Taken together, these dangers produce two thoughts. One is that there is still time: no attack or other use of nuclear weapons can be considered imminent, so there is no justification for a pre-emptive military strike against it. The other thought is that the most vital goal has to be the same as was the case during the cold war with the Soviet Union: containment. Iran cannot be defeated, without deploying vast military resources: it is too strong and large a country for that, and its nuclear research facilities are dispersed and well hidden. Instead, it needs to be contained, both by the use of pressure to restrict its freedom of action and by incentives to shape its behaviour.

The containment pressure is only going to be possible if America, France and Britain can secure the co-operation of China and Russia, as well as of Iran´s neighbours such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That will require compromise by the United States in particular: it wants to sound tough, but if its words are too threatening then other countries will shy away. For that reason, America and its European allies need to find incentives for Iran too, incentives that make the Iranian regime feel they have a lot to lose if they become aggressive in their nuclear policy. Those incentives for Iran will also help to convince China, Russia and the Middle Eastern neighbours to co-operate.

What will be needed is a willingness to discuss the removal of existing American sanctions on Iran, and the involvement of Iran in regional political talks concerning Iraq, especially, but also concerning the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In return, the Iranians would have to promise to stop supporting terrorist groups. It will be difficult for both sides to stomach such a “grand bargain”. But the alternative is worse. Currently, the world is watching a slow-moving, 21st century version of the Cuban missile crisis, but this time bringing America and Iran towards a confrontation. Like in 1962, we must hope that both sides seek a compromise rather than conflict.