The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the European Union, and Iran
Last month, Iran reached a deal with the United States and six other nations regarding its nuclear program. The deal (summarized here) will limit the purity of Iran’s stock of uranium to 3.67% (well below the 90% purity of weapons-grade uranium), decommission and reduce the number of reactors capable of enriching weapons-grade substances, and allow international arms inspectors to investigate existing Iranian nuclear facilities. In exchange, the West will lift crippling sanctions on arms and ballistic missiles within the next decade, and those on the economy immediately.
History shows that while nations with nuclear aspirations cannot be deterred forever, nuclear weapons in and of themselves do not automatically beget instability. Fear of destabilization is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, and is not — as the deal’s opponents speciously argue — a reason to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program entirely.
The deal is the best option currently available to the West given the political context of the situation. Both the U.S. Congress as well as the Iranian legislature are expected to ratify the agreement, despite criticism by some congressional Republicans and foreign (particularly, Israeli and Saudi) leaders who refuse to endorse a solution that doesn’t seek a permanent end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These politicians, for their part, are playing a dangerous and unrealistic game of brinkmanship.
In the past, Israel has bombed the nuclear infrastructure of potential nuclear rivals in the Middle East with relatively high success (Iraq in 1981, Syria in 2007), thanks in no small part to the fact that these nuclear facilities were concentrated in one area, clearly identifiable, and easily strikeable by air. But such is not the case with Iran, whose nearly 20,000 uranium centrifuges (to be reduced to approximately 6,000 under the terms of the deal) and multiple nuclear reactors have been carefully spread out, hidden, and buried underground — a key difference that today’s political rhetoric fails to account for. Furthermore, the 2009/2010 Stuxnet virus, widely believed to have been a joint Israeli-U.S. operation and by far the most effective attack on Iran’s nuclear program, was hardly a death blow — at most, it set the program back by two years. As stated by Colonel John A. Warden III (principal air warfare theorist behind Operation Desert Storm) in his interview with US News, “if [Iran] is determined to get nuclear weapons, no amount of airstrikes will stop them.”
There is a third option, however. Given that Iran cannot be deterred forever, a small minority of experienced academics, politicians, and former military commanders have recommended that the United States not only cease disrupting Iran’s program, but provide support in the form of training, technology, and nuclear fuel. History has repeatedly demonstrated that states that are determined to produce nuclear weaponry are nearly impossible to stop if given enough time. North Korea succeeded in creating a nuclear program despite some of the most punishing international sanctions in modern times, and France’s development of nuclear weaponry ran contrary to the wishes of the United States — a key strategic and economic ally.
Kenneth N. Waltz, an influential IR theorist, is not alone in pointing out that past experience with rising nuclear powers, contrary to modern thinking with respect to Iran, demonstrates that states tend to exhibit more caution after obtaining nuclear weapons — not less. China, India, and Pakistan have consistently exercised greater caution in international affairs, often utilizing the deterrent power of a nuclear arsenal to shift national attention to matters of domestic importance. To be sure, North Korea is an exception to the theory, primarily because its nuclear weapons cannot yet strike the continental United States, removing their deterrent effect and providing strategic cause for the North’s continued aggressive anti-Western rhetoric.
By insisting on the unrealistic goal of completely eliminating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israel and the West overlook the real cause of the region’s instability: foreign intervention. Intercepted American weapons shipments, multiple invasions (Afghanistan in 1979 and 2001, Iraq in 2003), and training of unstable rebel groups are all catalysts for the regional instability for which foreign powers are directly responsible. Within Iran, the American-led CIA coup of 1953 overthrew a democratic, secular Iranian government in favour of a pro-Western one that would collapse in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution, which author Ahmad Hamzeh argues “had its greatest impact in Lebanon” with the rise of Hezbollah — the Iranian-backed Shia terror group and a key stumbling block to Iran-Israel relations. Referring to the continued instability in the Middle East in a 2012 essay for Foreign Affairs, Waltz stated that “it is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis.”
Iran’s nuclear aspirations are at best temporarily interruptible and at worst immediately attainable, and the key to determining an appropriate Western response is in the realization that Iran is not the unstable, zealotous regime that opponents of the nuclear deal make it out to be. It is in the interests of both Israel and the West to ensure that tensions don’t escalate further. Achieving this will require the cessation of Israeli-American airstrikes, cyber attacks, and attacks on Iranian scientists, as well as a genuine, good-faith effort by the West to sit down with Iranian leaders and discuss how to move Iran’s nuclear program forward responsibly — not to cripple it.
With the nuclear deal set to pass and be ratified by Iran and Congress, Western powers face a crossroads. A nuclear-armed, internationally accountable, and economically powerful Iran can be the check on Israel and the regional economic player that the region desperately needs or the unstable, anti-Western, and inevitably nuclear-capable regime that will mire the region in conflict. The decision is clear: when it comes to the nuclear club, history says ‘yes’ to a nuclear Iran.
Patrick O’Donnell is a sophomore at McGill University, majoring in Political Science and Sociology and minoring in Economics and Arabic.
Image Attribution: “Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Program” by United States Department of State, licensed under Public Domain