Friday, February 03, 2012

What's wrong with Iran developing a nuclear bomb?

New York Times magazine cover, January 29, 2012

If we're going to go to war with Iran, something we seem to be edging toward, I think that as a citizen, I've got a right to an answer. Why it is worth spilling anyone's blood over Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon?

After all there are nine states currently armed with nukes -- the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Not all of those are anywhere I'd like to live, but so far no country except the United States has ever used the Bomb. So far, nuclear weapons' destructive horror has created a taboo that we can all hope will never be broken. Four states formerly possessed nukes (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and South Africa) but voluntarily gave them up. It's not as if the science underlying nuclear weaponry is a deep dark secret. Making a bomb requires sophisticated technology and some wealth, but the principles are in the public domain.

So why should anyone die to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? The most succinct rationale I was able to find came from Thomas Buonomo, a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Army.

Israelis view a nuclear‐armed Iran as an existential threat and U.S. officials are rightly concerned that nuclear weapons would give Iran coercive power over Iraq and its Arab Gulf neighbors, which are critical energy suppliers to the U.S. and its allies.

Let's take that apart a bit.

Israelis view a nuclear‐armed Iran as an existential threat. Yes, and what's that got to do with us? I mean seriously, why is it in the interest of the United States to care enough to risk war? Israel acts like a nasty tribal entity that oppresses the people it has conquered and can''t get along with its neighbors. It's not some pathetic refugee camp for escapees from Hitler; it is a successful state with its own ample supply of nukes should it face any actual threat. It doesn't need the United States to protect it; the people of Israel need to come to terms with the realities of neighborhood where they are located and figure out how to make a peace. The United States has sunk vast sums into supporting Israel; there's such a thing as knowing when to cut your losses.

U.S. officials are rightly concerned that nuclear weapons would give Iran coercive power over Iraq and its Arab Gulf neighbors, which are critical energy suppliers to the U.S. and its allies. Short translation: it's our oil, we stole it fair and square; and we intend to hang on to it. A nuclear armed Iran might upset our apple cart and the equilibrium of some regional allies and we don't like that. Point taken. The thing is, nukes are expensive. For all we know, a nuclear armed Iran would have to sell more oil on the world market to pay for their fancy new weapon. And we need to get over our addiction to carbon-based sources of energy anyway.

How about the fact that the Iranian regime is a nasty theocracy that oppresses many of its people? Yeah -- and so's our buddy the king of Bahrain, but we turn a blind eye when he shoots protesters and brutally attacks medical personnel. I would hope that the Iraq fiasco and the ongoing Afghanistan debacle would have convinced our rulers not to go to war to try to replace other people's governing institutions. Besides, if Egypt's Mubarak can be brought down by his own citizens, the unexpected collapse of governments that have lost their legitimacy should never be ruled out, even though we worry we won't like the results.

Then there's the reality that Iranians and U.S. citizens have spent decades learning to distrust each other. Older people in the U.S. remember the then-new Islamic Republic holding our diplomats hostage in 1979. Few Iranians alive today lived through the CIA coup in 1953 that overthrew a democratically elected prime minister and replaced him with the Shah's monarchy but the memory of humiliation and frustration still festers. Are we really going to allow ourselves to be led into a war because of decades old irritants?

Actually I can think of only one intellectually respectable reason why Iran should not have a nuclear weapon: NO country should have nuclear weapons. The obstacles to achieving that look to be more in Tel Aviv and Washington than in Tehran.
Writing about the rush toward war with Iran in the New Yorker, Steve Coll remarked:

The burden of proof rests, in any event, with those who would urge war.

I'd call that hope "the Iraq war dividend" and a paltry thing it is. I am not convinced the war proponents will be required to meet that test. We seem to be blundering toward another horrible end.

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