Image © Daniella Zalcman
Following the release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme in November, the familiar debate about whether the West ought to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities has re-emerged with renewed ferocity. As informed commentators have argued, such an attack would have catastrophic consequences. It could possibly even draw the United States into a ground war if Iran retaliates by closing the Strait of Hormuz, a critical transit route for oil shipments. But is that not a price worth paying to prevent a devastating nuclear conflict in the Middle East?
The debate can ultimately be reduced to one question: do we think a nuclear-armed Iran will launch a first strike on Israel? If Iran’s aim is to develop a nuclear weapon in order to realise President Ahmadinejad’s grim and openly stated ambition of wiping Israel off the map, then it is obvious that we should strike the nuclear facilities as soon as possible. Even for those who disagree with Israel’s foreign policy, a nuclear exchange that would kill millions of civilians should be a clear red line. On the other hand, if Iran, as some have argued, simply wants to develop a nuclear weapon for its value as a deterrent against attacks, then I would argue that the harmful consequences of a bombing raid significantly outweigh those of letting Iran join the nuclear club.
The problem is that this element of the debate has become hopelessly polarised, with hysterical suggestions that Iran is intent on a suicidal and apocalyptic rampage of destruction on one side, and highly dubious arguments that Iranians are motivated only by a sense of insecurity on the other. Talking to Bill Maher in 2006, current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Iran intends to ‘bomb us out of existence’, and claims that ‘we’ve never had this mad ideology armed with nuclear weapons’, before going on to compare Iranian leaders to the Nazis.
The accusation that Iran is beyond rationality is a key component of the Israeli case for air strikes, but it is completely fabricated. There is no evidence that Ahmadinejad’s threats are anything more than crowd-pleasing rhetoric. Nor do clandestine operations like assassinations or the use of militant proxies prove that Iran is an irrational actor; in fact, the US has used similar tactics for decades.
Equally, attempts to re-imagine Iran as a victim are unhelpful. Today, Iran behaves like a self-confident regional superpower with hegemonic ambitions, not a state that is afraid of its own shadow. Iranian interference in the Iraq War, its curious dealings with the Taliban (Iran and the Taliban have traditionally been fierce enemies), its seizure of British soldiers, and, of course, its longstanding policy of aiding Hezbollah, all suggest that Iran has aims in the Middle East that stretch far beyond deterrence and survival.
So why is Iran developing nuclear weapons? It is likely that Tehran sees the bomb as the ultimate safeguard against attempts to derail its pursuit of regional hegemony. Possession of the bomb would allow Iran to strengthen its influence over Iraq and act in a far more aggressive manner towards Israel and Saudi Arabia, without fear of attack. The aim is indeed deterrence, but not for defensive purposes.
Does this mean we should destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities? No. The price would be too great. Aside from the alarming possibility of a ground war, Iran would open the floodgates of military aid to the Taliban, strike at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, order missile attacks on Israel and perhaps even terrorist attacks against Europe and the United States, while moderates in Iranian politics would be sidelined for a generation. Instead, the West should start planning for a future with a nuclear-armed Iran. Red lines will have to be drawn, and it will have to be made clear that possession of nuclear weapons does not give Tehran a free hand in the Middle East. Iran, as ever, will have to be carefully managed.