Derping a bit on Iran and Nukes
April 18, 2013
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My father forwarded me an op-ed by an IR prof claiming that Iran has been skilled in parrying diplomatic attacks against its nuclear weapons programme, and that Iran is determined to get the Bomb because it wants to ‘counter’ Israel, gain an advantage over its regional rivals, build prestige, and engineer the coming of the apocalypse. The op-ed finishes by recommending further sanctions, secret bilateral US-Iran talks, and a US declaration of ‘we can’t stop Israel from bombing Tehran!’ I’m not a big-picture geopolitics student and it’s been a while since I’ve studied Iran in particular, but most of these claims do not sit well with me. Since I haven’t blogged in ages I will just repost my reply to my father. I recognise the high chance that I am talking bollocks in some respect, so please accept my derp disclaimer – and do tell me if I’m off-base.
First, I don’t think that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons in the sense that he seems to. Rather, I think Iran is trying to reach a technological point, with their enrichment and their missile programme, where they could build a nuclear weapon quickly if they felt the need to do so. This ‘breakaway capacity’ is something that quite a few countries have – Japan could have nukes in months if they wanted to make them, I suspect – and helps secure the country against future unknowns. This makes a lot more sense than stockpiling actual weapons, and is still less threatening, regionally.
Second, I don’t think that Israel will launch a conventional attack against Iran. Israel does not have the military power to make such a strike effective in significantly damaging the Iranian nuclear programme. The US does, but they will not use it.
Third, I don’t think that all of this talk of prestige, of apocalyptic views as to the return of the Mahdi, or even of ‘countering’ (balancing against?) the Israeli nuclear capacity is what motivates Iran. I’ve only really read Mehdi Khalaji on the theology of the regime, but the strong sense I get, and which many experts seem to have, is that nobody in power there is actually forming security policies with the intention of prompting the return of the messiah. Here’s what I think motivates Iran: the desire to feel secure against significant conventional attack while it mucks about in the affairs of its neighbours. Groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon or a number of Shiite militias in Iraq (not to mention the Iraqi government) are essentially foreign arms of the Iranian regime. They also have their own autonomy and political agenda, but they take orders and, when the time comes, they go to war for Iran. Iran has tried to build similar organisations in Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf states (eg Bahrain) but have had less success. By having this nascent nuclear capability, Iran can quite actively use these proxy forces without as much worry of a major reprisal. At the same time, in an unstable region (see Syria) and even in an unstable world (see the decline of US hegemony), the Iranian regime knows that having the capability to develop nuclear weapons on short notice is an important safeguard.