On the face of it, it may be possible to make a reasonable case for Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons. After all, Iran is an independent nation, and as such, should have the right to self-determination. If Iran perceives a threat from its enemy, Israel for example, which does possess nuclear weapons; shouldn’t she have the right to counter that threat with a nuclear arsenal of her own? Why should Israel be singled out as the one state in the Middle East that is allowed to have a nuclear weapons capability? Why should Iran be denied the national pride that comes from joining the league of nations which have achieved nuclear capability?
And of course, some of the leaders in Iran may have come to conclusion that the development of a nuclear bomb may bring with it some other benefits as well. A nuclear capability of this sort may be a good defense against outside interference. For example, a lot of people are doing a lot of talking against North Korea, but you don’t see anyone doing anything about it. Why? Perhaps because North Korea has entered the privileged circle of nuclear nations. Saddam Hussein had no such capability and look what happened to him. And a nuclear weapons capability would also be a good insurance policy against internal dissent. If the local population gets a bit too rowdy, the clamp of repression can easily be brought down hard, especially if there is little risk of outside interference. And if Iran wants to spread her influence throughout the region, what better way to be taken seriously than to keep a nuclear arsenal in your back pocket?
So given all these good reasons for allowing a nuclear Iran, why should countries like Israel or the U.S. even bother to try to block it, especially considering the risks implicit in taking Iran’s nuclear facilities out? After all, any attempt to take military action against these nuclear facilities would bring with it a whole host of problems on the perpetrators: a vicious campaign of unbridled terror activity, extreme condemnation in the region and beyond, military reprisals, an upsurge of fanaticism, an oil embargo and/or disruption of the oil supply, etc. And it is precisely the recognition of the price to be paid, that keeps Western countries somewhat paralyzed in their attempts to neutralize the threat of a nuclear Iran. There is a lot of talk, even as we speak, but so far not a whole lot of action.
So given the risks implicit in stopping Iran, why not just call it a day, and let them have what they want? Couldn’t the threat be countered in other ways, other than a military strike? Couldn’t we just point a bunch of nuclear-tipped missiles at Iran and say that if they, or their proxy, ever use a nuclear weapon, then the retaliation against them would be massive. Wouldn’t the prospect of such retaliation be enough to keep a nuclear Iran in check, as was the case between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the cold war?
So what is so wrong in allowing Iran to go nuclear? In my view, the greatest threat with regard to a nuclear Iran is her ideological posture. The Mullahs in Iran came into power as a result of a relatively recent political and religious revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini decried the secular leanings of the Shah, and ushered in a renewed commitment to the religious traditions of the past. Shiite Islam would now be the law of the land, and a new foreign and domestic policy would take hold, which is more consistent with the religious tenets of those in power.
Religious zeal is precisely what’s wrong with a nuclear Iran. Once you put a heavy dose of religiosity into the mix, then all the restraints of rational thinking go out the window, especially under the right circumstances. Imagine if you will, an extremist group blowing up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and Israel being blamed for it. Under these circumstances, will any measure of rationality be able to control Iran’s often stated commitment to destroy Israel, and pushing the button to make that happen? If purely rational considerations were on the table, then prudence and restraint would probably win out. But with religious ideological conviction at play, no one could be sure that reason will prevail, and at the end of the day, the existential risk of nuclear war may be a risk that is too great to take.
It is true, as others have often said, that other nuclear nations are ideological as well. It can certainly be said that Israel is ideological about her right to survive. In the war of 1973, for example, when her survival was on the line and in question, there was talk of using the nuclear option, and thank God, that talk did not result in taking such action. But as ideological as Israel is about certain things, like the survival of the Jewish people, she is not ideological religiously. She wants to retain her Jewish character, but she is not particularly interested in spreading Judaism throughout the region. The same cannot be said about Iran, which is very interested in spreading her brand of Islam, and her version of real politick, and is not averse to using terrorist proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah to do so.
So bottom line, arguments can certainly be made, based on the equities of the moment, for allowing Iran to fulfill her national aspiration of becoming a nuclear power. And a great risk of reprisal will be taken by any nation, be it Israel or the U.S., which undertakes military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, given the religious ideological conviction that motivates at least some of Iran’s leadership, the risk of a nuclear Iran may be a risk too great to take, by any and all of the actors in the region: by Israel, by the U.S., by the other nations of the region, and even by the Iranian people themselves. Sometimes, the unimaginable becomes possible, and the possible becomes real. It takes only a little imagination to imagine a nuclear Iran making the impossible real.