COLUMN: Nuclear optimism - or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb
Editor's Note: This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the columnist
Nuclear optimism refers to the acceptance of nuclear weapons as a positive force in perpetuation of peace and stability. It is my contention that, in the context of Iranian nuclear proliferation, there is a case to be had for nuclear optimism.
First, the term “proliferation” is a misnomer — the term was originally used to convey the idea of a cancer — an uncontrollable, unsustainable, self-propagating process, that would eventually collapse upon itself. The term could not be more misleading — we have had nuclear weapons for over 50 years, yet only nine states have acquired nuclear capabilities. Such spread is glacial compared to the diffusion of conventional weapons which pose a far more potent threat to world peace than nuclear arms. The key question, then, is whether or not proliferation in the Middle East will be slow or rapid. Contrary to the hyperbolic rhetoric from neoconservatives who echoed similar reservations in the 1960’s concerning China’s nuclear program, I believe Iranian proliferation will be slow, stabilizing and conducive to international peace.
Of the Middle Eastern states with the resources to go nuclear, only Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have the fiscal and technical capacity to follow Iran’s lead. Israel is already a nuclear power, and Iranian proliferation could stabilize Israel’s militaristic ambition and encourage nuclear opacity. Egypt may be tempted to follow in Iran’s stead, but is heavily incapacitated by its dependence on foreign assistance, particularly from the U.S., and has this huge economic disincentive to refrain from nuclearizing. Saudi Arabia, though having the monetary and technical potential to create a nuclear device, would require extensive cooperation with black market, which, being a heavily monitored enterprise, would leave the Saudis susceptible to international pressure.
Establishing the infrastructure, technical expertise, and financial resources necessary to produce a nuclear weapon would also take years, and the interim period would be held hostage to pressure by the U.S. and Europe who could use a portfolio of nuclear security assurances, economic sanctions and diplomatic measures to coerce compliance. Turkey, being a member of NATO, would not risk nuclearizing, for fear of losing membership. Turkey will not have forgotten the protection offered by NATO during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and will thus retain a strong political incentive to adhere to international demands.
Furthermore, any program developed by Iran would be both small and opaque. Iran does not require a large nuclear force to deter regional aggressors and developing long-range systems hamper secrecy efforts. It is therefore likely Iran would develop a number of small-range systems, disperse them throughout the country and keep a low-profile to inhibit foreign intervention. The permutation of all three of these factors makes it unlikely that Iranian proliferation, even in the worst case, could provide a threat to global stability.
Second, Iranian proliferation is utterly inevitable. Discussing the merits of proliferation must take into account the realistic understanding that Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons is unparalleled and will invariably come to fruition. Iran borders Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, two countries that are incredibly unstable and, with Sunni majorities, pose at least a small threat to Iran. To the west, Iran borders Iraq, which engaged in heavy conflict for eight years with Iran during the 1980s. The fact that Saddam Hussein has been replaced by an American-controlled puppet does not do much to encourage optimism. Turkey, a NATO member, has close security ties with the United States, and could serve as a proxy for a pre-emptive strike against Iran. But by far the most imminent threat to Iran’s security is Israel which has the ability to attack with ballistic and submarine-launched cruise missiles, and has also publically announced the willingness to do so. From a realist standpoint, Iran has every justification to acquire nuclear weapons for the sake of its own security, and will stop at nothing to do so.
From a historical perspective, Iran seeks to regain its historical primacy over the Arabian Gulf, a status begrudgingly ceded to the interests of nuclear states. Additionally, status quo efforts to inhibit Iranian nuclear development are woefully inadequate: Russia refuses to cooperate with sanctions, even going so far as to provide Iran with an S-300 missile defense system, and China insists on diplomatic negotiations with Iran, citing commercial interests in Iran’s oil and gas sector. Geographical motive, historical ambition, and inter-state factionalism have thus set the stage for the emergence of Iran as a nuclear state.
There is, however, a silver lining to nuclear fatalism. Iran is actually motivated, rather than deterred, by aggressive U.S. interference with Iranian nuclear ambitions. For example, in 1975 when Iran began its nuclear power plant, its original intentions were innocuous. It wasn’t until George W. Bush declared the country part of the “axis of evil” that Iran began to militarize its nascent nuclear program under the justifiable pretense of self-defense. Furthermore, U.S. intervention can only incense nationalistic backlash in Iran, giving Tehran the public support needed to expedite the nuclearization process. We can either continue to pursue hardheaded nonproliferation strategies and risk indefinitely fracturing our relationship with Iran just before it gets nuclear weapons, or we can provide Tehran with the technical capacity to ensure that its nuclear program is safe and sustainable, and potentially gain a valuable economic partner in the meantime.
Third, proliferation is stabilizing. It was Professor Kenneth Waltz at U.C. Berkeley who reminded us “the world has enjoyed more years of peace since 1945 than had been known in modern history.” Nuclear deterrence, assuring absolute destruction for either side, makes miscalculation a near impossibility, and induces caution and stability in all nuclear states. Such claims are not without wide substantiation. In the case of India and Pakistan, the Kargil Conflict of 1999 and the Twin Peaks Crisis of 2001 were both de-escalated due to the presence of nuclear weapons. The same could not be said in 1965, before either India or Pakistan had begun their nuclear weapons programs, when Pakistani support of a military uprising in Kashmir lead to all out conventional war. In the case of Iraq, U.S. nuclear deterrence prevented the use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) during the Gulf War. Gen . Waffic al Sammarai, the then-head of Iraqi military intelligence, stated that Sadaam Hussein was undeterred by U.S. conventional prowess, but that Bush’s tacit threat of nuclear use against biological weapons deployment induced extreme caution in Sadaam’s decision calculus. This historical example is particularly relevant in the Middle East, where the probability of CBW use is steadily increasing. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt all have extensive chemical weapons regimes they could deploy at a moment’s notice, and Iranian nuclear proliferation would serve as a deterrent against such use. In fact, the reason cited for why no Middle Eastern country has carried out a CBW attack against Israel, despite many countries having the capacity to do so since the 1970s, is because of the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Due to the asymmetrical arms imbalance between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, Israel is free to deploy CBW weapons wherever it pleases, as is the ostensible case in 2001, 2002, and 2003 against Palestinians.
It should not need mentioning, but nuclear deterrence is the main reason why the Cold War did not escalate beyond brinkmanship, and why the Soviet-Chinese war, a subset of the Cold War, did not escalate beyond border disputes in the 60s. In fact, nuclear weapons probably prevented a number of conflicts from even materializing, so the true potential of deterrence can't be adequately quantified.
In the context of Iran, nuclear weapons would be especially conducive to peace. Iran acts frenetically due to the militaristic behavior of the United States. Having seen the United States supplant two bordering regimes, Iran can only assume it’s next. As a result, Iran is pursuing the only rational course of action to ensure self-defense against a conventionally superior enemy.
It is my contention that a nuclear Iran would cement deterrence relationships that would provide the stability necessary for economic and diplomatic cooperation in the Middle East. Nuclear weapons in the Middle East would insure states only fight over minor interests, because conflicts over central interests would risk nuclear retaliation. Such a paradigm would be conducive to regional peace.
It is also my belief that Iranian nuclearization would encourage Israel to abandon regional military hegemony, providing the foundation for peace negotiations and stability. Trita Parsi argues that Tel Aviv’s decision calculus is so dominated by fears of inferiority and threat perception that it misses opportunities to engage in peace negotiations with neighboring states. It is argued that Iran’s offensive posture is self-fulfilling in that it creates the very enemies it seeks to deter, and, in turn, thwarts all hope for future peace agreements. Thus, the loss of nuclear primacy in the Middle East will exemplify the transition to a new paradigm characterized by a nuclear duopoly. Such a substantial geopolitical change would would force Israel into tempering its aggressive ambitions and encourage Israel to consider peace agreements.
Fourth, proliferation is normalizing. It is a disingenuous reading of history to argue that the case for a nuclear Iran is substantively different from that of China or Soviet Russia. Certainly nobody thought that China or Soviet Russia was capable of nuclear moderation, yet both countries exhibited incredible restraint and responsibility. Stalin was a genocidal sociopath who had announced plans to end the entire world with nuclear weapons, and Mao Zedong heralded the emergence of China as a nuclear power on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, a time of such extreme fanaticism that the Iranian situation can be adequately described as a banality in comparison. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Iran will exercise pragmatism and Westphalian decision calculus if it obtains the bomb.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s ideological and religious fervor has significantly waned. It has ceased the exportation of Islamic ideology, and is now concerned with more pragmatic concerns: territorial integrity, economic stability, and political status. A quick survey of historical developments prove my point: a) Iran exercised rationality during the Iran-Iraq war of 1981, when Iran’s leadership abandoned the original objective of defeating Saddam Hussein and agreed to a peace negotiation that left Iran weaker with respect to Iraq. Khomeini released a statement to the Iranian people about how it would have been “more bearable to accept death and martyrdom” than surrender, but that in the end he was forced to accept the wisdom of military experts and resign his ideological ambition; b) Iran exhibited neorealist decision-making in the Khobar Towers incident of 1996, where the Iranian government was indicted for supporting a terrorist bombing on an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans dead. The United States responded by completely decapitating Iran’s intelligence capacity. All terrorist activity was immediately halted. The event demonstrated Iran’s ability to exercise sound, rational judgment when making strategic political decisions; c) Iran has consistently demonstrated an almost secular decision calculus in international affairs—despite the fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric espoused by Ahmadenijad, Iran has consistently turned a blind eye to Muslims transgressions, actively pursuing objectives counter to welfare of Muslims around the world for the sake of political and economic gain. For example, Iran cooperates extensively with Russia economically and militarily despite Russian abuse of Chechen Muslims. Iran has a vast market selling gas and oil to China, despite Chinese oppression of Uighar Muslims. Iran retains a close, cordial relationship with Christian Armenia despite its conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan. And Iran continues to cooperate with India despite acts of violence against its own Muslim populace. Clearly, the ideological fervor spewed by Ahmadenijad, who is more or less an impotent figurehead, is not indicative of Iran’s grand strategy.
Fifth, Iranian proliferation would decrease the regularity of terrorism in the Middle East. The confidence in security that Iran would obtain as a result of its nuclear weapons arsenal would allow it to forgo the use of Hezbollah as a strategic deterrent against Israel. Hezbollah currently functions as a mere nuisance to Iran’s strategic ambition, so Iran would have no incentive to bear the costs of funding terrorist incursions, especially considering the new risk of nuclear escalation.
To those who claim that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists, I have five responses:
a) the reason that no nuclear state has ever given an intact nuclear device to a terrorist group is because such weapons can be traced back to the donor state, along with the guarantee of a retaliatory strike.
b) Iran has been extremely cautious with its chemical weapons supply, refusing to hand over weapons to Hezbollah or Hamas, despite supporting both groups politically. Chemical weapon restraint serves as an adequate test case to extrapolate nuclear weapons caution. If Iran’s intent had been to unequivocally destroy Israel, they would have already supplied terrorist groups with a heavy arsenal of deadly gas.
c) Hezbollah and Hamas have become increasingly autonomous as of recent, and it would be incredibly uncharacteristic and irrational of Iran to give the deadliest weapon on Earth to a group of questionable loyalty.
d) The cost of construction and prestige associated with owning nuclear weapons is so great that it would be nonsensical for Iran to clandestinely hand over any weapons without any expectation of return.
e) Even if a terrorist group managed to acquire a nuclear weapon from Iran the hurdles associated with transportation, guardianship, activation, and deployment would make it impossible for terrorist groups to pose a consequential threat to anyone in the Middle East.
My opponent will argue that nuclear weapons are an immoral instrument in international affairs because of their existential capacity. My thesis is just the opposite—deterrence is the most moral system governing international affairs from both a utilitarian and deontological standpoint. First, moral claims without empirical support are no different than blind religious metaphysics, so all moral judgment concerning deterrence theory have to be supported in history. History shows a direct correlation between the nuclear age and the decline in conventional conflicts; whereas wartime fatalities accounted for 2 percent of the world’s population in the 1600s and 1700s, it accounted for only one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population during the Cold War. Furthermore, fatality data collected since 1910 show a distinct drop in battle deaths in the post-World War II period. Nobel economics laureate Thomas Schelling recalled that “no state that has developed nuclear weapons has ever been attacked by another state and that no state armed with nuclear weapons has ever attacked another state similarly armed.” From a deontological standpoint, deterrence is the most moral paradigm because it operates from a fundamentally benevolent principle—the prevention and de-escalation of conflict. Deterrence is evaluated negatively because it is examined in a vacuum, where it is demonized for its catastrophic potential. However, a sincere evaluation of deterrence must include an examination of its intent and real-world effects—and history has made the answer clear as to its effects.
It makes little sense to embark on a quixotic quest to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, when it is so obvious that such endeavors are fruitless. United States is failing to secure a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. We have been continually unsuccessful at ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is in shambles, we have failed to stop North Korean and Iranian proliferation, and all the while we are forcing nascent nuclear states to drive their programs underground, fearing military reprisal from the United States. Rather than temper and moderate the dangerous excess of rapid nuclear proliferation, abolitionists have created a hostile environment that precludes any concessions to nuclear optimists. Such an “all-or-nothing” approach is, ironically, immensely counter-productive to world peace. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvited, nor would it be desirable if they could. We have two choices: we can either accept the inevitability of nuclear weapons, recognizing the pivotal role they play in maintaining world peace, or we can continue fighting this futile, explicitly racist struggle against all those we deem “irrational”, and make enemies, lose friends, and squander diplomatic capital in the meantime.
Nuclear abolitionists are not moral in their ambition, for they seek a return to a world rife with civil and interstate conflict, a world where violence and war are geopolitical mainstays, and where peace is defined as simply the interim period between conflicts.