Why a Nuclear Iran isn’t the End of the World
On July 14th, 2015, negotiations in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear weapons program came to an end, resulting in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union had finally pressured the Islamic Republic into a diplomatic compromise with the hopes of preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The international sanctions regime, which prohibited the sale of Iranian oil and froze Iranian assets abroad, would begin to unwind as inspectors verified Iran’s compliance. The Iran Deal was hailed as one of President Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievements, and will be a pillar of his legacy.
Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98% for the next fifteen years. Iran is also prohibited from enriching uranium beyond a maximum of 3.67%, which allows for peaceful civilian and industrial use, but is not high enough for military applications (around 90% enrichment is necessary to construct a nuclear weapon). Iran will also reduce its centrifuges from roughly 20,000 to just over 5,000 and will be barred from using seven out of its eight nuclear facilities to produce nuclear material, making only one location approved for the civilian enrichment of uranium. Iran has agreed to allow the Internationl Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unfettered access to its facilities for the next fifteen years. If Iran prevents inspectors from gaining access in any way, the sanctions regime which brought them to the negotiating table will “snap back” into place. Experts estimate that, before the deal, Iran could have produced a bomb in two to three months. Post-deal, that “nuclear break-out” period is closer to one year.
Critics of the deal argue that states, by nature, cheat on international agreements and that it will be almost impossible to 100% guarantee that Iran isn’t cheating. For them, the change from a three month to one year break-out period is a minor victory which doesn’t solve the long-term problem of a nuclear Iran, and they’re right. What proponents and opponents of the deal miss, however, is that a nuclear Iran isn’t the worst thing in the world.
As technology progresses and is more readily available, nuclear proliferation will be inevitable. In the pre-internet world of the 1940s, the technology behind the Manhattan Project was kept as secret as possible, and yet the Soviet Union was still able to develop a bomb a mere four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While states should do what they can to stem the tide of proliferation, we need to be realistic in our expectations: more countries will get nuclear weapons.
In the words of Kenneth Waltz, power begs to be balanced. For over four decades, Israel has maintained a nuclear monopoly over the Middle East, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are merely the inevitable answer to this monopoly. In fact, we should be amazed that it took this long for a serious response the Israeli weapons program to emerge. One could make the argument that it is the Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal (and the relative power instability it produces) that has contributed the most to this crisis, not Iran’s ambition to construct their own.
Nonetheless, there is a near-unanimous consensus that Iran must be prevented from having a nuclear weapon. In the West, there is fear that Iran will be irrational with its nuclear weapons and will use them to destroy Israel, regardless of the cost. This fear misses two key characteristics of a nuclear Iran.
First, Iran’s leaders want to survive just like the leaders of every other country on the planet. Yes, they spout extremist rhetoric to their population for domestic purposes but, in private, they show no propensity for self-destruction. Second, there is no concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ with Iran. Hypothetically, if Iran were to use a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world, the international response would be exponentially more severe. Iran’s leaders are rational, and they realize that the slightest misstep with a nuclear weapon will almost certainly end in their annihilation.
There is also a fear that Iran will give a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. If this is such a grave threat, why is there no movement to de-nuclearize Pakistan, an Islamic country that also has ties to extremist groups? Since Pakistan’s first successful nuclear test in 1998, it has not given a weapon to a terrorist group. Conversely, a nuclear Pakistan has largely had a stabilizing effect in the region, balancing power with a nuclear India. Why wouldn’t the same occur in the Middle East between Israel and Iran?
A nuclear weapon is an expensive and time consuming investment for a country to make, and it would make no sense to pawn it off to a terrorist organization after all the trouble Iran has gone through to develop it. If Iran turns a nuclear weapon over to a terrorist group, Tehran loses all command and control and will still suffer the retaliatory consequences of its use.
There is also no guarantee that a nuclear Iran will lead to an explosion of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Israel became a nuclear power in the 1960s, a time when it was constantly at war with its neighbors, and there was no serious challenge to its nuclear monopoly until now. If an Israeli weapons program failed to produce mass proliferation, it is unlikely that an Iranian program would. The second Iran gets the bomb, the concept of deterrence will immediately apply and Iran will be under much more scrutiny, making it less likely to engage in risky behavior.
Is a nuclear Iran ideal? Of course not. But, as technology progresses, we are going to have to get used to the fact that the nuclear club is going to expand. While the international community should do what it can to peacefully prevent a nuclear Iran, our rhetoric needs to be realistic. The gates of Hell will not open and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will not ride the second that Iran gets the bomb. There is a greater likelihood that an Iranian bomb would have a stabilizing effect, finally balancing the nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
In the end, one thing is clear: a nuclear balance in the Middle East is inevitable. If not Iran, then some other country will bring balance to the system, because the current situation is simply unsustainable.