Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Iran and Nuclear Weapons: Putting it all in context

The Irani Nuclear Program is part of a larger specter of nuclear proliferation haunting the world. As nuclear technology becomes more efficient and proliferates, it is easy to imagine a world where many second rate powers seek to solidify their power with a nuclear weapon. It is important though, to take these cases as they come, and not to over generalize. Each state is different. It is also important though, to ensure that we look at the broader contexts behind proliferation.

Iran's motives for getting the bomb are complex. One of the first motivations is likely fear. In the past centuries, Iran has watched the world around it fall victim to western imperialism as the British, French, and Russians have seized the land around them. 1953 was a pivotal year for Irani relations with the world, when an elected Iranian leader was overthrown by American and British intelligence. 1979 was as much a revolution against the American backers and suppliers of the Shah's regime as it was against the Shah himself. When the Irani people rallied behind Khomeini in 1979, he was as much a nationalist figure as he was a religious figure, and the theocracy has since attempted to tie the knot between Iranian nationalism and Shia Islam wherever it could. Throughout the 1980s, Iran found itself locked in a brutal war with Hussein's Iraq, with Hussein being supplied weapons, including the precursors for WMDs, by the United States. In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, and in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. Despite the removal of Iran's nemesis in Iraq, it should be easy to see why the heavy US Military presence on both side of Iran's borders would provoke national paranoia. The Irani nuclear program is believed to have started prior to the US invasion of Iraq, however the invasion certainly served to entrench paranoia in Iran.

There is also the fact that Pakistan, a Sunni majority state with widespread ethnic repression of Shiites, possesses nuclear weapons right on Iran's border. Add to that the Israeli nuclear weapons, nuclear armed America's military bases all over the region, and Turkey's membership in NATO, and it becomes clear why Iran feels so threatened. Note that none of this is excusing Iran's behavior, but merely trying to provide context for why a rational Irani would want a nuclear bomb.

People though, are not rational, and Iran's leadership does not provide any exceptions. Iran is a revolutionary theocracy that uses terrorist groups like Hezbollah to unleash chaos throught the region. Iran has been involved in provoking ethnic conflicts and aiding militias in Iraq, which lead directly to the deaths of American troops and countless civilians. Iran has engaged in terrorism across the globe, most recently taking the form of a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed 6 civilians, 5 of whom were Israeli. Iran continues to arm and finance Assad's extraordinarily bloody regime in Syria, and is now enabling the spilling of massive amounts of blood in an unwinnable civil war.

I believe that the nine nuclear states can be divided into three categories: States that can be trusted with nuclear weapons, states that can mostly be trusted with nuclear weapons (but have some shortcomings,) and states that cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Due to the high stakes of nuclear weapons, I do not see much a middle ground between mostly trustworthy and not trustwrothy. The decision to put a country into a group is based on a combination of past behavior, political stability, and the larger geopolitical situation that they happen to find themselves in.

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia all find themselves in the trusted category. Drastic changes aside, there does not appear to be any chance that these states would find themselves in a nuclear exchange any time on the horizon.

China, Israel, and India find themselves in the second category.

China finds itself here because its military rise and aggressive nationalism may very well make it prone to adventurism. Chinese leaders may want to try out the new toys that they've been spending all of that money on, and nationalists are eager to expand Chinese power. This combination of forces may make China's rise more violent and clash prone than observers would hope.

Israel finds itself in the second category because of the deep resentment between Israel and its neighbors. This is not necessarily an indictment of Israeli behavior, but it is impossible to deny that Israel's routine clashes with its neighbors could very well escalate into something horrific.

India finds itself in the second category because of its issues with Pakistan, and to a lesser extent China. Similarly to Israel, this is less of an indictment on Indian conduct as it is of the broader situation that India finds itself in.

In the third group of nations, those that should under no conditions be trusted with a nuclear bomb, we find Pakistan and North Korea. The choices to put these two states in this category should not require an explanation.

For the reasons stated above, Iran belongs best in the untrusted third category. This brings up the question as to what the proper response is. There are some who theorize that since Iran's paranoia about its situation is somewhat justified, perhaps letting them get them bomb would improve regional security by allowing them to rely less on groups like Hezbollah. A more mainstream view holds that an Irani nucelar bomb would spark at least Turkey and Saudi Arabia to initiate their own nuclear programs, further heightening tensions in an already unstable and tense region. There is also the view, which I do not happen to hold but believe is valid for discussion, that Iran may try to transfer some form of nuclear weapon, whether it be a bomb or a dirty bomb, to Hezbollah.

Ultimately, the decision on what to do with Iran depends on how much one is willing to gamble with the lives of Middle Easterners. Personally, I do not see an Iranian bomb as the end of the world, just as North Korea and Pakistan's bombs have not yet ushered in nuclear annihilation. Still though, the night is young, and there is plenty of room for one of these less stable regimes to unleash hell. Every new third-category state (and Saudi Arabia probably falls under here as well) that is allowed to get a bomb endangers the safety and stability of the entire world more and more.

Paul Bracken's The Second Nuclear Age just arrived in my mailbox from Amazon. It is at the top of my queue of books to read, right after I finish Robert Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography. Hopefully Bracken will be able to enlighten me on what to do about this mess we find ourselves in.

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