Why the push for nukes?

Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear plans even though circumstances have been radically transformed.

iran nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
iran nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The closer Iran gets to the bomb and the clearer it becomes that the international community is unable or unwilling to stop it, the more frequent the argument is made that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons may prove uneventful. There is no evidence to suggest Iran will behave in any but a responsible manner and accede to the unwritten rules of strategic deterrence, it is said. Iran's foreign policy has traditionally been marked by caution. Its apparent opting for a turnkey nuclear posture instead of rushing headlong to build a bomb in itself indicates as much. Despite the bloodcurdling declarations emanating these days from Teheran, the Iranians are keenly aware that by acquiring nuclear armaments they will automatically become the target of their enemies' nuclear weapons. On the face of it these seems like valid points. But a closer examination of recent history suggests that when it comes to strategic deterrence, Iran's record is much murkier. First, Iran has continuously demonstrated that it was not deterred by various warnings and sanctions, and instead continued to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Even the 2007 CIA National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which claimed Iran suspended its nuclear program in 2003, because of "increasing international scrutiny and pressure," in effect qualified its judgment to only one aspect of the Iranian program: the construction of nuclear warheads. And, the NIE expressed only "moderate" confidence that the suspension has not been lifted already. WHILE MUAMMAR GADDAFI of Libya was so unnerved by the US invasion of Iraq that he agreed to dismantle his country's entire weapons of mass destruction program, Iran continues to discount stern and increasingly overt warnings. As recently as 2007, in a display widely seen as sending a strong signal to Teheran, Israel launched an air strike that reportedly destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor under construction. Yet Iran remained undeterred. Similarly in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Teheran could not have known what would be Israel's response to Hizbullah firing thousands of rockets, many of which were produced and delivered by Iran, at its cities. For example, Israel could have chosen to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon to destroy Hizbullah's rocket arsenal or even opt to confront Iran itself in retaliation. But Teheran never told its Lebanese proxies to stop the firing. Instead, its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini declared that "resistance" is the only way to confront, what he called " the wild wolf of Zionism and the aggression by the Great Satan [the US]." Given that arming Hizbullah with a vast rocket stockpile was for Iran vital to deterring Israel from launching a preemptive strike against its nuclear sites, its readiness to jeopardize this asset to uphold its ideological vehemence is remarkable as it is worrying. After the war Iran's conduct not only revalidated how central was Hizbullah's arsenal to its own nuclear aspirations, but should have redoubled the disquiet about its readiness to forgo it for the sake of a "sideshow." Iran (and Syria) worked tirelessly to restock Hizbullah's rocket stores despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Worse yet, Teheran endeavored to upgrade the weapons supplied to Hizbullah both in terms of range and accuracy. Today Hizbullah increasingly fields rockets which could be used for counterforce missions and thus potentially perform as first strike weapons not just the inaccurate counter-city (or second-strike) rockets it possessed in 2006. IRAN'S UNDETERRABILITY is also evident by its actions in Iraq. For example, Gen. David Petraeus, then the top US military commander in Iraq, said in October 2007: "They [the Iranians] are responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed US soldiers. There is no question about the connection between Iran and these [attacks]." While some may argue Iran was cleverly establishing itself in Iraq ahead of a US pullout, the question arises as to Iran's cost-benefit calculations. Were these provocations considered so vital as to risk providing the Bush administration the pretext for attacking its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility in retaliation, for instance? In fact, Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear plans even though the geopolitical circumstances, which may have been seen as justifying them once, have radically transformed in its favor. It is entirely reasonable to ask where on earth is the threat to Iran today that allegedly requires bolstering its deterrence? The main danger - Iraq under Saddam - dissolved in 2003. The US military presence in Iraq, it is now clear, was never a springboard for "aggression" against the mullahs, and in fact has been used by the Iranians as a virtual hostage to deter any "adventurism" against its nuclear buildup. Indeed, with the change of administrations in the US and the deep economic crisis there, the likelihood of a military undertaking against Iran, if ever there was one, has virtually evaporated. Russia is a major economic partner, including as a supplier of nuclear technology as well as of conventional arms, and Israel is only a threat if Teheran continues the nuclear race or possibly if it comes under another major attack by Iran's proxy in Lebanon. Taken together, there are sufficient grounds to conclude that the argument about a durable nuclear balance emerging in the Middle East is based on a best-case scenario when it comes to Iran. Even if it once was, boosting its strategic deterrence no longer seems to be Iran's motive for acquiring nuclear arms, nor does its record of conflict involvement leave much doubt about its undeterrability. Both aspects in fact provide a compelling argument to use all available means to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To argue otherwise is rooted in impotence not coherence. The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press, 1999).