Asking the Wrong Questions on Iran
Tony Karon of Rootless Cosmopolitan says that the West should not be asking whether Tehran will build nuclear weapons in the future, but rather how the regime can be persuaded that it doesn’t need them.
Imagine that US troops invading Iraq four years ago had discovered two warehouses full of VX and mustard gas shells, or a refrigerator full of anthrax. Although the case for war made by the Administration would have been “proved,” Iraq would be no less of a strategic calamity for the United States today.
Flimsy evidence of WMD in Iraq was clearly not the only problem of the Administration’s case for war. The flaw was in the premise—largely accepted in the prewar US public discussion, though not in Europe—that the existence of certain weapons in an adversary’s arsenal necessitated an invasion.
Now, many Washington hawks are demanding that the US bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is racing to build nuclear weapons, they allege, posing a mortal threat to the West and Israel. Once again, the possibility of an adversary possessing WMD capability is offered as grounds for war.
There is no evidence that Iran is actually building a nuclear weapon. We know that Iran is building a nuclear energy infrastructure which would put nuclear weapons capability easily within reach, and that the Iranian authorities have not been entirely transparent in dealings with the IAEA. But the professional assessment of IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei is that despite some unresolved concerns, Iran’s nuclear program is not a “clear and present danger.”
The Administration denies it wants war, favoring instead a “diplomatic solution.” But by this it still means that Tehran surrenders to Western demands to cease uranium enrichment, which is allowed under the NPT for civilian purposes but is also a key building block of nuclear weapons. If Iran doesn’t back down, say hawks, then military action becomes a “last resort.”
But that’s only if you accept the logic of Senator John McCain’s statement that “the only thing worse than war with Iran is an Iran with nuclear weapons.”
Iran would likely respond to any US strike though direct and proxy attacks that could claim thousands of American lives in Iraq and elsewhere over the next decade, disrupt world oil supplies and doom US efforts to win support in the Muslim world for the foreseeable future.
That may be why more rational voices reverse McCain’s equation. Last week, General John Abizaid, former US commander in the Gulf, made clear that the US could, in fact, live with a nuclear-armed Iran, just as it lived with nuclear-armed rivals during the Cold War. Claims that Iran is committed to a doomsday confrontation fly in the face of Tehran’s behavior until now, and are often based on apocalyptic statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose provocation of the West is driven by his ongoing power struggle with domestic rivals. anticipation of a tough reelection battle in 2009.
It is often forgotten that in Iran’s theocracy, President Ahmadinejad has no more authority over national security decisions than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has over Washington’s.
The more important question ought to be why Iran would seek nuclear weapons, and how it could be persuaded—as North Korea has been—that it doesn’t need them. The strategic rationale that might prompt Tehran to seek a nuclear deterrent is obvious: Three of its arch-rivals, the US, Israel and Pakistan, have such weapons, and North Korea’s demonstration of nuclear weapons capability forced the US to finally offer recognition and security guarantees to Pyongyang.
The attempt by Iran’s leadership in 2003 to reach agreement with the US on all issues of conflict was a reminder of the pragmatic interests-based foreign policy of the Tehran regime. If the country’s nuclear power plants were targeted in a bombing, Tehran’s retaliation would likely make it far more dangerous to the US and its allies for many years to come than even an Iran that had nuclear weapons within reach.
The only way to diminish the danger of confrontation with Iran is to directly address the conflict between Iran and its rivals through a grand bargain. US policy over the past five years has dramatically expanded Iranian influence in the Middle East, and global security demands that relations between the West and Tehran become less unpredictable.
Iran has shown itself to be ready to engage in a comprehensive dialogue; it is the Bush administration that has, so far, demurred.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME who comments on international affairs on his web site Rootless Cosmopolitan. A longer version of this article is available as a posting at Mr. Karon’s web site.