Why we can’t allow Iran to go nuclear
During my tenure as foreign minister, I have made it a point to place the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the forefront of Italy’s agenda.
Reuters Photographer / Reuters Photo: Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi [File].
My country (Italy) is undergoing a phase of parliamentary
During my tenure as foreign minister, I have made it a point
to place the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the forefront of Italy’s
Our Middle Eastern policy has long been built on a basis of
coherence and continuity, principles that Italy will hold dear at any time,
under any government.
As my country’s new political scene takes shape, I
could seize no better opportunity than this to outline the rising challenges
that lie ahead.
Nuclear proliferation, and particularly Iran’s nuclear
ambition, is the most pressing of these challenges. Rivers of ink have been
spilled on how to tackle Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The debate seems to have
polarized into two main positions. According to the first one, a nuclear Iran
cannot be reliably contained because there is no guarantee that it will behave
rationally; therefore, it must be prevented at all costs. The second is that
Iran is a rational actor, and can be deterred and contained; hence, the risks of
preventing it are not warranted for.
However, I would argue that a
nuclear Iran must be prevented precisely because it would act rationally. Should
Iran acquire a nuclear military capability, it is mainly the conventional
balance of the region that would take a different shape.
Under its own
nuclear umbrella, Tehran would be free to raise and lower the volume of regional
tension as best suits its national interest. Its range of foreign activity tools
would instantly broaden, to include several destabilizing options. Increasing
the tension on the Israeli-Lebanese border to make oil prices skyrocket would
become a viable economic path.
Arming a friendly and ruthless regime with
weapons of mass destruction could become a rational course of
With a nuclear Iran, the rules of the Middle Eastern game would
not only change overnight; they would change irreversibly. As it’s been
appropriately put, in the Middle East “cost benefit calculations would be
replaced by risk management.”
Iran’s nuclear pursuit is also a stark
reminder that the general discussion on the role of nuclear weapons is in dire
need of a drastic overhaul. For 50 years, we have been used to a “clean,”
bipolar nuclear environment with simple, if frightening, rules. Those rules were
applicable to a world where technology was scarce and out of reach for all but
the superpowers, and cyber-war and nuclear terrorism simply did not
The main change that occurred in these rules is that today’s
multi-polar nuclear order acquires a regional dimension. Nuclear dynamics are no
more the tides of one “global” bilateral relationship. They are now defined not
only in Washington and Moscow, but also in Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad and
Pyongyang. These countries’ nuclear weapons, as would be Iran’s, could all be
“aimed” at conditioning regional balances, which, in turn, interact with one
another adding uncertainty and instability. Recurrent recent news of a possible
nuclear dimension to the cooperation between Iran and North Korea is a
troublesome reminder of this fact.
In the end, however “regional” the
trigger, a nuclear crisis will always have a global impact.
This is why
the prospect of proliferation in a region as volatile as the Middle East is so
alarming. Should Tehran acquire nuclear capabilities, others would follow, and
the Middle East – the very doorstep of Europe - would enter this new regional
This trend is unfolding much faster than the discussion
around it. We are largely stuck in an unrealistic cold-war conception of nuclear
issues, as are the international instruments we rely upon. The NPT is the most
valuable multilateral system we have. It works to a very large extent, and can
be regarded as one of the most remarkable successes of diplomacy for
And yet, a reflection on how to make it stronger and fitter for
today’s world is long overdue; a reflection that acknowledges the nature and
diffusion of new technologies; the threat of cyber attacks on nuclear
infrastructure, and nuclear terrorism; and the regional dimension of
Ultimately, moving towards a global zero goal means
pushing beyond the NPT as it is today, first by expanding and reinforcing its
safeguards, and eventually through an international agreement for the abolition
of nuclear weapons.
At the regional level, everybody recognizes that the
Middle East is a very special case. The EU, as well as other partners, also in
the framework of the UN, have long advocated the creation of a nuclear-free
zone. We are all well aware of the difficulties, and realism advises that we
treat this goal as a long-term perspective.
The writer is Italy’s minister
of foreign affairs and a former ambassador to Israel.
This op-ed is
adapted from his address to the 13th Herzliya Conference this week.