Why does Iran want nukes?

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With recent revelations of a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear facility for uranium enrichment and a recent fit of long range missile testing, the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition is reaching critical mass. However, what’s lost in the frenzy of media reports and official denouncements from western leaders is a more fundamental quandary.

Despite its president’s rhetoric I don’t believe the Iranian government, even in its currently fragmented state, is as loony or nihilistic as the world envisions it to be. Ahmadinejad’s calamitous anti-Israeli nonsense is less about Iran’s apocalyptic nuclear intention to incinerate Tel Aviv and much more about exciting his conservative base at home as well as serving a rally cry for Iran’s Arab proxies and allies during a time of waning Iranian, regional influence. Ahmadinejad’s need for a foreign bogey man is at an all time high, given the largely contested recent elections and the virtual, final nail in the coffin of the Khomeini revolution. So what does Iran hope to gain first, by its belligerent non-compliance with the NPT, and second in actually realizing the development of a deliverable nuclear weapon? Some thoughts:

While the world’s custodians of the NPT (specifically the US, UK and France as concerns Iran) envision it as a measure to mitigate nuclear proliferation, Iran utilizes it as a measure of leveling the geopolitical playing field. Lacking a stable, proliferate economy, anything resembling a robust, modern military (Iran lost it’s sole AWACS recently during an airshow) Iran is wholly reliant on three measures to project itself onto the radar screen of global matters. The threat of regional primacy, resource connectivity (Iran is China’s largest oil supplier) and the murky threat of possibly developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran isn’t currently pursuing a functioning and deliverable nuclear weapon. Iran want’s <i>access</i> to a functioning and deliverable nuclear weapon. In one respect, full development would bring Iran into the “Big Boyz Club” of global prominence. However, the mere existence of Iran’s nuclear program poses an existential threat to itself. Not likely from the above mentioned custodian’s of the NPT but almost certainly from Israel. In this Iran skates very thin ice.

In the short term, so long as the Israeli’s believe Iran’s nuke program remains in the nascent stage (partial enrichment of uranium below weapons grade) diplomatic measures remain the mainstay globally and politically feasible in Tel Aviv. The closer intelligence or, more importantly, media reports tie Iran to a viable nuclear weapon the more eminent and politically necessary Israeli interdiction becomes. Iran is neither blind nor deaf to this reality. By staging incremental, if internationally illegal, steps in stockpiling uranium at low levels of enrichment (5%) Iran is building a framework for the ability to piece together a functioning nuke in a relatively short period of time. In going this route Iran gains some weight to throw around regionally and globally while ceding first strike capability to Israel and other nuke states.

The question, of course, is how long Israel is willing to hold back and endure the status quo. I expect nothing in terms of groundbreaking accomplishment from Iran’s October 1st palaver with the Group of Six. However the talks will set the mood, if you will, for what happens next. Should Iran’s representatives bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fire and brimstone nonsense to the table I wouldn’t expect Israeli willingness to stand around waiting for the UN Security Counsel to bicker about sanctions.

Image credit: The Guardian

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17 Responses to Why does Iran want nukes?

  1. Oliver says:

    Nuclear weapons amount to an extremely effective deterrent against invasion and a highly effective deterrent against bombing of one’s home territory.

  2. hass says:

    Iran does not want nukes. The iranians point out that nukes were no help to the Soviet Union, nor to the US in Iraq, and so they would be of no help to Iran’s security, nor are they about to get into a nuclear exchange with the US if invaded, since that would guarantee something far worse than being invaded for Iran. In fact, rather than keeping open the “option” of building nukes a la Japan or Brazil, the Iranians have offered repeatedly to place additional restrictions on their nuclear program goes well beyong even the most stringent requirements of the NPT to address even hypothetical fears that iran may one day use its civilian nuclear program to build bomb — for example they have offered to forgo plutonium reprocessing and open their nuclear program to multinational participation, an idea widely endorsed by IAEA and international experts — only to see these offered totally ignored and dismissed by the US which insists that Iran should be totally deprived of civilian uranium enrichment technology. Why? See, the issue is not really about nuclear weapons in the first place — that’s just misdirection. The real conflict is bigger: a dispute between developed and developing, rich and poor, nations over who gets to control the nuclear fuel cycle (uranium enrichment technology.) We are fast approaching a world in which the main and perhaps only real source of energy will be nuclear power. The countries that control that technology will naturally gain much strategic and economic advantage from monopolizing it. Developing nations have long refused and fought against US efforts to keep uranium enrichment to a limited group of countries. They insist that the US is trying to monopolize it for its own benefit. In this context, the dispute with Iran is only representative of the North-South conflict, and Iran is being made an example of. Otherwise, there’s no real basis to claims about an Iranian nuclear weapon. So keep your eyes on the ball, don’t be distracted by the fear mongering.

  3. Oliver says:

    Nukes were of enormous use to the Soviet Union.
    - total impunity in the East German, Hungarian and Czechoslovak uprisings
    - no invasion of Cuba and North Vietnam

  4. Richard says:

    One wonders if Israel can effectively strike at Iran’s nuclear capability given the size of Iran, the distance from Israel and the cleverness of the Iranian regime in locating its facilities.

  5. SJPONeill says:

    Oliver – spot on!

    Richard – if they can find it they can fix it!!!

  6. hass says:

    Nuclear weapon do NOT amount to a deterrent to invasion for countries such as Iran because they cannot provide “mutually assured destruction” to the US since Iran does not have the technology or know-how to “win” or even significantly damage US in any nuclear exchange, without suffering catastrophic losses itself in retaliatory nuclear attacks. Here’s the scenario: the US attacks Iran. Iran launches a nuke. The US turns Iran into a glass-encased glow-in-the-dark parking lot. What has Iran accomplished? Sure it wasn’t “invaded” but so what?

  7. “Nuclear weapon do NOT amount to a deterrent to invasion for countries such as Iran because they cannot provide “mutually assured destruction” to the US ”

    No. You don’t need mutually assured destruction to deter an invasion.

    No one is going to mass a conventional army and risk having it hit with nuclear weapons by a regime that is staring death in the face and has nothing to lose.

    Nukes = safety.

    To answer the question at the top of this post: Iran wants nuclear weapons because its leadership is rational.

  8. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I agree with what Bruce Buena de Mesquita said the other night on The Daily Show — Iran will likely develop the requisite technology that would enable them to build a nuclear weapon, but stop short of actually doing it. Very publicly. Building warheads and weaponizing delivery systems is ruinously expensive and I suspect it would elevate hostilities between Iran and the rest of the world (Israel in particular) to dangerous levels. People sometimes forget that Iran has eschewed dangerous confrontations under the clerical regime. They are conservative in more than one respect. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is nowhere near the top of the food chain, so much of what he says can be discounted.

  9. jon says:

    In addition to having a rational if bellicose, leadership, Iran thinks of itself as one of the great civilizations of world history. Therefore it is only right that they have the weapons to play in the “big boy club”.

    As for an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities, this is not Osirak in the mid-80′s. This program is much more dispersed and better protected than Iraq’s.

    As far as even a couple of warheads being a deterrent to a US invasion, imagine what one nuclear weapon, could do to any US fleet operating in the Persian Gulf.
    That is one Nimitz class carrier destroyed, $4.5 bill, plus 5,000 lives, not even counting the support vessels lost.

    Finally, I only see one real way for Israel to have real security over the next 40-50 years. They need to develop, if they haven’t already, the third leg of the nuclear triad. The ballistic missile submarine. This would ensure that Iran could never wipe Israel off of the face of the earth. At least not without MAD coming into play.

  10. Hass, thanks for the comment. It’s an interesting theory but: a short list of developing countries with proposed nuclear reactors as of 2009:
    Egypt
    Belarus
    Indonesia
    Kazakhstan
    South Africa (already has 2 in operation)
    Vietnam
    source
    If your accusation holds water then why haven’t western countries been leaning on any of the above in the same fashion as they have Iran?

    Richard, the CIA had knowledge of the Qom plant for some years before Iran went public. I’d suggest a method of how to successfully destroy them (Qom site is under a mountain for instance) is of higher concern.

    Lex, Oliver agreed, there’s more to nuclear deterrence than MAD. One aspect of Iran’s possible proliferation I didn’t get into (it’d have resulted in a virtual novella of a post) is the regional consequences. Iran can use the threat of proliferation (assuming they reach the “Japan/Brazil” point Hass mentions) as a measure of deterrence.

  11. Curzon says:

    Oliver, the US and the rest of the civilized world do not and should not take Iran seriously when they say they are trying to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful” purposes of power generation only. Iran can extract oil at the cost of $6 a gallon and thus have access to the cheapest and most abundant source of energy on the planet, and could power themselves almost limitlessly for the rest of this century at a fraction of the cost it would take to develop nuclear power. There is undeniably an additional motive here, and that’s why Iran is getting so much heat — unlike Kazakhstan, Egypt, Vietnam, and others.

  12. Ralph Hitchens, “And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is nowhere near the top of the food chain, so much of what he says can be discounted.” A year ago I’d have agreed 100% with this assessment. However, given current events in Iran, I’m not so sure…

    Jon, “In addition to having a rational if bellicose, leadership, Iran thinks of itself as one of the great civilizations of world history.”

    Excellent point. Contemporary views of Iran forget or ignore that Iran’s sense of identity isn’t based solely on Islamic ideals but also a storied history that long pre-dates Islam.

  13. ElamBend says:

    Minor Quibble, but I wouldn’t say that Iran’s influence in the area is waning, they have clear influence among large classes in Iraq and a more subtle influence among the Shiite dominated government. They also have clear influence (both beneficial [economic] and not [weapons]) in Afghanistan where they help their Hazara brethren while assist their Taliban in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend move.

    As for the main topic of discussion, I agree, the Iranian leadership is acting in an entirely rational maner in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and as detailed above, it does not take MAD to limit invasion, just enough to go beyond the invaders acceptable losses. Besides, look at their neighbors.
    To the West is an Arab Sunni Majority that has invaded many times and slaughtered Shiites. The last invasion from an Arab Sunni led regime ended only 20 years ago and the non-Iraqis who flooded into Iraq for jihad certainly showed no sympathy toward shiites. To the north is a resurgent Russia who is sort of friendly now, but has shown itself more than happy to throw its weight around in the past. To the East is an unstable Afghanistan with a guerrilla group backed by an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan whose native Shiites haven’t exactly been welcomed as of late. Not to mention Turkey which has huge economy in comparison, twice as many people, a much more modern military and a history of pushing around Persian empires.
    On top of this the regime, though its external influence may be spreading, is brittle.

    It’s sort of ironic because the US makes the perfect sponsor/ally for a country like Iran. We’re not a neighbor and don’t want any territory, but we could benefit from having a friend at that area. I view the current regime as an anomaly.

  14. Elambend, good points, especially “It’s sort of ironic because the US makes the perfect sponsor/ally for a country like Iran.” in consideration of Afghanistan and the direction I believe US strategy will head (right, wrong or indifferent) with less focus on nation building and more on mitigating the likes of AQ. An intelligence partnership with Iran (probably an utopian ideal) in Afghanistan would be ideal.

    Regarding the waning influence of Iran, I’m thinking less about Iraq (where Iran’s influence is, imho, a bit exaggerated) and more about Syria and Hezbollah. Even, to a certain point, Hamas. Beyond Iran’s traditional allies in the Arab world, Iran’s current state of political disparity demonstrates a degree of fragility that I believe the Egyptian’s, Saud’s et al are quite enjoying.

  15. ElamBend says:

    MF,
    I concede your point about Syria, whom I think has an ambiguous feeling toward Hezbollah. Yes, the Sauds and the Egyptians are watching Iran with mirth mixed with worry. I would be shocked if the KSA wasn’t working on some way to purchase a nuke or it’s components from their friends in Islamabad.

  16. Kirk Sowell says:

    My main disagreement with Munro Ferguson’s argument is that I don’t think Iran benefits from the mere threat of developing a weapon. If they had nuclear weapons, they would have what Pakistan has against India (and the US) – a deterent which is not airtight because enough to prevent India from taking action even when ISI-sponsored terrorits wreck havoc in Indian cities. Furthermore, in the pyschology of the Muslim Middle East, simply having the power is attractive. It would be a huge step forward for them in their battle with the Riyadh-Cairo axis.

    Simply having the threat of developing weapons, on the otherhand, is a burden, and a major factor uniting most Arab countries against them right now. Whether one thinks of Iran’s regional ambitions in terms of national hegemony or Khomeinist revolutionary terms, an Arab world united against them is a bad thing. Add to this the enormous economic cost of sanctions, and to me this is a downside play.

    In re to Iran’s alleged influence in the Arab world, it isn’t great. In Iraq it is much weakened with the decline of ISCI and the Sadrists, its No. 1 & 2 proxies. This past January’s elections hurt ISCI bad. And Hizballah is struggling these days as well. Hamas is still going strong, but they are Sunni and Iran has no direct control over them. Their only value is the instability they bring.

  17. Felix says:

    The current state of ‘passive hostility’ plays to the advantage of the current regime in Iranian domestic politics. They are behaving rationally and just like any other political regime- acting in the interest of self-preservation above all else (i.e. staying in power). Whether or not developing nuclear power/weapons is to the benefit of the Iranian state is irrelevant, as long as the development process is in the interest of the current (autocratic) leadership.