I’ve already noted how pundits are misrepresenting the current diplomatic moves regarding Iran’s nuclear program – some of them radically so – but something few Western commentators discuss is why Iran wants The Bomb. Since, no matter what they say, Tehran certainly aspires to be a member of the nuclear weapons club eventually. That is a select group of countries and getting membership puts you in a different category, internationally speaking. Given how much pain Iran has endured over its nuclear enrichment program – sanctions, economic degradation, international isolation, to say nothing of cyberattacks and assassinations – it’s clear someone in the regime’s leadership thinks nukes are worth a great deal indeed.
And they may be right. So today I want to discuss why Iranians want nuclear weapons. Now, they could be wrong in wanting The Bomb. As my colleague Tom Nichols has explained at length, the United States has overvalued the actual strategic worth of nuclear weapons for so long that many countries have joined the atomic bandwagon, at great economic and political expense, perhaps without thinking it through all the way.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Twelver Shia fanatics who get off on fantasies of ending the Zionist project with a mushroom cloud – there are powerful and prominent Jews who publicly fantasize about nuking Iran, so it’s not altogether surprising there are notable Iranians who do the opposite – nor am I discussing Iranians who think bringing on armageddon is a great way to make the Hidden Imam reveal himself.
I’m talking about reality-based Iranians who have a grasp of strategy, meaning a sense of how power works in their region. It’s easy to forget that the Persians have lived in their neighborhood for a long, long time, and they know everybody and everybody knows them. Remember the movie 300? That’s these guys.
I teach strategy to mid-career and senior military officers from my country and many others, and though I claim no special insight into the Persian strategic mind, I can look at a map and I think I understand the intersection of ends, ways and means that we call strategy. So here’s how it looks to me, and I suspect to a lot of non-fanatical Iranians too.
From Tehran, I look to the north and see a country that, on a good day, can be termed a frenemy. We’ve got a lot of bad history with the Russians, some quite recent, and while they aren’t a direct strategic threat to us, neither are they to be trusted, not even for a moment.
To the west it looks somewhat better, since Iraq is now ruled by a Shia-dominated government that is filled with politicos who are beholden to us to one degree or another. Our spies operate in Baghdad pretty freely. But Iraq is still an American colony in military terms, and the Americans took out Saddam when he got on their nerves, so presumably they can unseat the current government if they feel like it too.
To the east, the Great Satan actually does occupy the country, and despite the fact that our interests and America’s interests align almost eerily well in Afghanistan – something the geniuses in Washington, DC, have a hard time seeing, somehow – this creates strategic vulnerabilities for us. We’re sandwiched in, in other words.
And our access to the outside world – it’s the Persian Gulf, don’t forget, no matter what the Arabs say – is completely bottled up by the American fleet, which we can only challenge with small boats filled with fanatics bent on martyrdom. We have no real naval power, so we are at the mercy of the Great Satan here, and there’s really nothing we can do about it.
A bit further to the south you’ve got the weird, malignant family firm called Saudi Arabia, which is obsessed with us – ok, we’re obsessed with them too – and bankrolls all our enemies, everywhere. The House of Saud will eventually collapse when the money runs out, they’ll go back to the camels they were riding when Persia was already a great civilization, but that won’t be as soon as we’d like. It’s especially worrying that Riyadh now is cozying up to the Zionists.
We certainly don’t forget about them. It’s a small country but they have hundreds of nuclear weapons, and their ex-commando prime minister seems to enjoy reminding us of how much he wants to bomb our country. Their relationship with the Americans is complicated – we’re never entirely sure who’s the tail and who’s the dog there – but we take it as a given that the Israelis are out to get us. Never take your eyes off them.
Most of all, we noticed that you need a nuclear weapon because it’s the only guarantee that the Americans won’t kick off Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM anytime they feel like it. You’d have to be an idiot not to notice this, as it’s the clear lesson of the last decade, when President Bush read the notes written up by that weird Canadian and coined the “Axis of Evil.” You may not remember that one, but we certainly do, and we noticed that the Iraqi regime, which lacked a nuclear weapon (by the way, it was really stupid of Saddam to make everyone think he almost had The Bomb – don’t feel bad, he fooled us too), got taken out, while the North Koreans, who are much nuttier than Saddam or even our oddest ayatollahs, got left alone, as Pyongyang has The Bomb.
So we got it. Getting a nuclear weapon means security and therefore is worth the enormous political and economic cost to get one. We also understand that we must never, ever trust the Americans, because if you agree to give up your nuclear program and cease support for liberation movements (which the West calls “terrorists”), you’ll eventually get sold down the river and wind up half-naked in a sewage ditch, shot in the head by a gold-plated pistol. The Americans don’t even go to bat for longtime friends like Mubarak, do you really think their word is good when they already hate you?
No thanks, we’ll keep working on nuclear enrichment, we’ll play the diplomatic game as long as necessary. We want the sanctions lifted, so we may even agree to some pretty serious restrictions on our nuclear program, but we’ll never give it up entirely. Somehow the Americans and their friends have forgotten that the Shah also wanted The Bomb, as the CIA was aware, because he could read a map too, his friendship with the Americans and Zionists notwithstanding. A lot of Iranians who despise the mullahs and wish the Shah were still running the country want nuclear weapons as well. It’s not complicated, really. It would be nice if foreigners understood this.
So why set down to talk now? Is because they are very close to the bomb and they want to make sure they can get the last few months to finish it?
Solid piece, thank you very much.
It’s quite interesting to note that the Israeli press covers a wider band of discussion on the topic than in the USA. Most notable is how Meir Dagan and Gabi Ashkenazi have both publicly stated that Iran is a rational actor. In the USA, the media drumbeats constantly give the refrain of ‘those crazy mullahs!’
This is going to be a long, long process (if it does hold up), but will there be a Nixon going to Chin moment in some future presidency?
Your comment about how the Israeli media is more diverse on this issue than America’s is very true and something that I’ve pondered for eons. Waiting on Nixon II, I suppose …. 😉
I think that’ll be a very long wait, although stranger things have happened. Bibi’s reaction has been very predictable as he has little room for maneuver. What will be more interesting as this process with Iran hopefully continues is the reaction of America’s Jewish establishment of the non neo-conservative brand. Peter Beinart wrote a very important piece in the New York Review of Books back in 2010 about the growing divide between American Jews and Israel due to the latter’s rightward shift.
Here is the link – http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/
Just to corroborate the “rational actor” and media coverage theses you both correctly allude to, Ehud Barak famously said to Charlie Rose (and i’m paraphrasing here) that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons was a perfectly rational thing for them to do, considering the politics of being a nuclear-armed state and it was not solely about Israel. He tried to clean up those remarks after the Israeli right lost its mind, but the remarks were telling in their candor and deviation from the Likud and AIPAC line. Similarly, Ephraim Halevy said that Iran was not an existential threat to Israel and Haredi radicals were a bigger worry internally.
These remarks are noteworthy mainly because of who these men are. Neither guy is what you would exactly call a card-carrying member of Ometz LeSarev. Havely is a former Mossad director and a respected intelligence analyst, and Ehud Barak is a decorated IDF officer and a former Defense Minister and PM. I can’t imagine a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SECDEF or DCIA making similar remarks without the pro-Israel Lobby breathing down their necks.
Ehud Barak…man, I miss that guy. 😉
And there is Pakistan to the east. Another enemy with nuclear weapons.
Why would Iran not retaliate with chemical weapons when more than 100,000 of its people were hit by them by Saddam, but yet want weapons of as distraction far likelier to come at a huge cost?
You seem not to understand the notion of existential threat.
I once saw a chart about crazy dictators from a now inactive/locked blog, and it went something like this:
Saddam and Gaddafi: Gave up nuclear weapons program
Kim Jong Il: Didn’t give up nuclear weapons program, has the bomb
Result: Unkind portrayal in Team America World Police
So, what would you want? Iran and DPRK might be crazy, but they aren’t stupid.
One of the best articles I’ve read here. It’s good you’re on our side.
Thank you very much!
You have left out 3 as important reasons:
1 – Pakistan
2 – India
3 – China
all neighbors, and all nuclear (all unstable ?)
This is one issue where you and Glenn Greenwald seem to be in big-picture agreement, that Iran has very rational, self-interested reasons for wanting its own bomb:
His framing is of course quite different, but he points to the same underlying strategic issues.
And I feel compelled to pass along the old Tom Lehrer song, Who’s Next:
I really believe the USA has come to terms with exiting the Middle East and needs to stabilize the power imbalance sooner than later – too much money and blood spent there. We are no longer desperate for their oil and no longer need unproductive alliances.
No matter what politicians will say pounding on the table, the USA is secretly letting Iran get the nuke. Once they do – there will be decades of peace in that region. Iran is not a loose canon and only strikes those that agressed against it. Having nukes in their possession will be a good thing for the Middle East and the USA can be more hands off and focus on USA strategic initiatives.
Another reason overlooked in all this is that if Iran gets a nuke Saudi Arabia and the UAE will want one too. They are much more likely than Israel to use it. This then ratchets up the tension in the region with out changing anything other than making the outcome worse.
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