Roger Howard is
a British defense journalist and author of Iran in Crisis?
(Zed Books, London & New York, June
An Iranian Bomb Matters
The real reasons the world should be worried...
[Roger Howard] 8/5/04
As the mullahs press ahead with the construction of a new heavy
water reactor at Arak and resume the production of centrifuges,
the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb looms increasingly large.
Why, though, would such a development be a cause of serious concern
for the watching world?
It is not
because, as often claimed, a nuclear Iran would be able to
pursue a much more aggressive foreign
its archenemy, Israel, and destabilise the entire Middle East.
Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, for
example, has argued that the Iranians would feel at liberty to
use the bomb “as leverage to enhance their sphere of influence
throughout the Middle East,”[i] perhaps by using Hezbollah,
their Lebanese protégés, to turn up the heat against
the Jewish state or to assert their claims over disputed areas
of the Gulf Straits or Caspian Sea.
is, however, fallacious because it exaggerates the role of
nuclear weapons: half a century
on, Liddell Hart’s
argument that a nuclear bomb deters only nuclear blackmail while
conventional forces deter the attack of a conventional army remains
unchallenged by experience. So as long as Israel maintains its
overwhelming preponderance of non-nuclear firepower, an Iranian
bomb will make no real difference to the behaviour of any conventional
forces in the field.
however, is that elites inside the Iranian regime can secretly
pass fissile material along
to its terrorist
allies, whose fanaticism renders them immune from the mutually
assured destruction that their use would invite. “What
check is there that Iran would not transfer even some of its
WMD technology to terrorists?” as Zalmay Khalilzad asked
two years ago.
No one seriously
disputes this is a cause for concern – as
serious as the prospect of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence
passing its own nuclear materials into the hands of its proxy
forces in Kashmir. But it is not, however, the paramount reason
why an Iranian bomb really matters, because it is a threat the
outside world can easily deter: if your protégés
use Iranian weapons, the Iranians will still be accountable and
must pay the price.
Nor is it
enough to say that the development of an Iranian bomb would
provoke a regional arms race that
could prove highly destabilising,
just as India’s nuclear programme during and after the
1960s provoked a comparable Pakistani reaction. Iran’s
current situation differs considerably from the Indo-Pak model.
Israel, its regional enemy, and Pakistan, a possible future rival
for influence and resources, are already nuclear powers and the
other countries that might feel threatened – Saudi Arabia,
Iraq and Turkey – are already well-protected by the long
arm of the American nuclear umbrella. With whom, then, is this
arms race going to occur?
The most convincing reasons to be deeply concerned about an
Iranian bomb are in fact the least mentioned. The first is that
the development of a warhead would be seen by ordinary Iranians
as a huge national achievement and thereby enormously boost the
prestige of the current regime. If this helps to sustain the
rule of the mullahs, then the cause of democracy and human rights
inside Iran would be dealt a very hard blow.
these terms, stopping the development of an Iranian bomb is
one of the very few things the outside
world can constructively
do to assist the humanitarian cause. The decade-long efforts
of the European Union to promote human rights inside Iran has
achieved nothing, not least because anything that smacks of foreign
interference immediately raises hackles and so becomes counter-productive. “The
truth is that European Critical Dialogue has failed to deliver,” as
a senior Western diplomat told me in Tehran last autumn, admitting
that the single supposed achievement of the policy – a
moratorium on the stoning to death of some criminals – officially
ended a practice that was already dead in practice. But we are
not powerless to prevent the mullahs reaping a political harvest
of nationalism when they successfully test-fire a nuclear device.
An Iranian bomb also matters because the possibility of serious
political unrest inside Iran over the next few years cannot easily
be discounted. It is of course possible that the mullahs will
cling to power in the same way as the Chinese communists have
clung to their own, buying off their enemies and introducing
populist measures as well as ruthlessly suppressing disorder.
But should the regime crumble before violent street protests,
then the ensuing anarchy could easily allow nuclear materials
to be spirited away by anyone who can bribe or steal their way
into nuclear installations. And just as former Soviet and Iraqi
scientists were headhunted when their own masters fell from power,
so could destitute Iranian scientists one day also prove easy
targets for foreign governments wanting their expertise.
the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb would reveal an
alarming truth that bodes ill for the
future: for all the
formidable powers of intelligence gathering that lie at their
disposal, and for all the immense weight of diplomatic and economic
pressure that they can muster, the Western powers are ultimately
unable to prevent a government from developing a nuclear warhead
if it has sufficient determination and resources. So an Iranian
warhead could conceivably prompt other governments to introduce
or accelerate their own nuclear programmes – not to deter
any threat from Iran, but because such a development could raise
hopes that they, like the mullahs, can succeed in doing so.
There are, then, very good reasons to fear an Iranian bomb and
hope that it does not become a reality. CRO
[i] The Weekly Standard, 2 September 2002
Howard is a British defense journalist and author of Iran
(Zed Books, London & New York, June
appeared at In
The National Interest