Unequivocal statements by President Barack Obama and visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron today about Iranian nuclear ambitions leave small doubt about the perilous path facing the West. The President was right to chide more hawkish supporters of military action against Iran and for choosing a variety of diplomatic and economic tools to isolate Tehran, but that may leave the country to embark on a crash course for the ultimate weapon.
I have little doubt Iran is pursuing that weapon (although that is a political judgment, not based on intelligence analysis or IAEA reporting) but it is not for the purposes that the doom-sayers — usually those who think this can be resolved with a well-placed BLU-109 — claim. While Iran’s rulers may be fanatical, they are not insane. The same rules of deterrence and mutual assured destruction that governed the Cold War and govern the balance of power among nuclear-armed nations would still apply to Tehran in a showdown with Israel. Moreover, attacking an Israeli city with nuclear weapons would isolate the already pariah state and would invite a terrible response the regime could never survive.
And regime survival is the dirty little secret motivating development of the weapon. There is an important theoretical argument to make here which comes from Hannah Arendt’s On Violence. She notes that weak or repressive regimes feel threatened by only two sources: war and revolution. It is no surprise, then, that these regimes invest so much in their armed forces and security services. And it should be no surprise that the countries that feel most threatened and can afford it — usually at the expense of the people’s needs — seek the ultimate weapon to stay the hand of intervention while they cudgel their people with another. We’ve seen this in Libya, Iraq, China, the Soviet Union, and to some extent other countries.
Iran’s situation today is similar to South Africa’s position in the late 1970s when Pretoria secretly built six nuclear weapons. Isolated by the international community for the crimes of Apartheid, surrounded by enemies (Soviet-backed post-colonial regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, all of which were harboring or sponsoring anti-Apartheid partisans) and suppressing a population in revolt, South Africa wanted the ultimate weapon to hold the outside world at bay and therefore contain turmoil at home. (Fortunately, the country emerged under remarkable political leadership from the African National Congress and Pretoria, and the nuclear program was abandoned.)
Another analogy is the slow-motion tragedy of North Korea. Having held control for three generations and repressed all dissent, the Kim dynasty now brandishes its nuclear deterrent at its enemies: South Korea (reinforced by the United States), China, and Japan. The result has been isolation, poverty, and starvation since the end of the Korean War, an abject humanitarian horror we are now unwilling to risk nuclear war to avert.
But in both cases — I would argue in the case of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, Israel, India and Pakistan as well — the bomb’s domestic political consequences have been ignored or simply missed for the far more exciting security ramifications. Given concerns about escalation, rivals simply backed away. As a result, the bomb froze these countries in place and left unresolved fundamental political questions. The Soviet Union and North Korea took complete advantage of that state of affairs to consolidate control.
Iran’s leaders are not irrational. They no doubt see similar outcomes if they develop the same wonder weapon. Beset at home by a restive population, isolated abroad, losing proxies against their enemies and surrounded by suspicious powers, it seems all but inevitable that the regime would pursue the bomb.
And because of the history of the Soviet Union and North Korea, we already know who will really lose if that happens: the Iranians themselves. Trapped in isolation, unable to call on friends abroad who fear provoking incidents and escalation, they will be left alone to face the cruel caprice of their rulers.