Monday, March 3, 2008

On Iran and Nuclear Weapons

The IAEA today has stepped up its criticism of Iran's nuclear program, following a presentation last week by the agency's chief inspector, which presented evidence that Iranian scientists have been engaging in work "not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon."

I, along with most engaged citizens, breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing last November's National Intelligence Estimate which showed that Iran had likely stopped nuclear weapons development in 2003. I was relieved not out of any belief that Iran's nuclear ambitions had been curbed, but out of a sense that any justification that the Bush Administration might use to unilaterally attack Iran before leaving office had evaporated. The damage to America's geostrategic position caused by such an attack would have been incalculable and irreparable. Along with many people better informed than myself, though, I worried that the NIE would make dealing with Iran's nuclear program more difficult, as it would provide cover to members of the international community who were wary of confronting Iran in the first place, and who underestimated the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to global security. Unfortunately, those fears now appear to be well-founded, as the U.S. and France remain the only countries really standing tough against Iran on the issue (my how unthinkable such a situation would have seemed only a few short years ago).

Let us be clear: an Iran armed with operational and deliverable nuclear weapons would be a serious threat to both regional and global security. I don't share the worries of some that a nuclear Iran would endure self-immolation in a messianic quest to destroy Israel - I give the Iranian leadership more credit than that - and I also doubt that the Iranians would give a nuclear device to a terrorist group, both because state governments are loathe to relinquish control over nuclear weapons and because acts of nuclear terrorism would almost certainly be traced back to their source. The greater danger comes from the multidimensional nuclear chess game that would emerge in the Middle East as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and perhaps others followed Iran down the nuclear path. I tend not to agree with the notion of "nuclear peace" whereby nuclear weapons are said to introduce stability to inter-state relations. Rather, I paraphrase the wisdom of former Secretary of Defense McNamara - someone who once looked into the abyss of nuclear war - who said that the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons can only lead to disaster. In the blindingly complex chess game of Middle Eastern politics, nuclear weapons cannot be placed on all sides of the board.

It has been a common for U.S. officials to say that 'all options remain on the table' with regard to stopping Iran's nuclear program. The problem, though, is that such statements have not yet been true. The United States has not shown itself particularly willing to offer carrots - security guarantees, diplomatic recognition, trade agreements - to match its sticks, and so has been negotiating at a profound disadvantage. I would recommend Reuel Marc Gerecht's piece in the Times recently as a way forward in Iran that is neither blindly hawkish nor willfully blind about the problems Iran poses. Global security demands that Iran not attain nuclear capabilities, but toothless sanctions and foolish obstinancy won't stop that from happening. It's time for a different approach.


hass said...

Note that this "new evidence" is the from same old "Laptop of Death" that the US has been shopping around for 3 year...and pretty much laughed at by everyone as an obvious plant.

Funny how according to the lates IAEA report itself, the US only provided the info to the IAEA a few days before the IAEA was set to release a report that essentially cleared Iran. And note that that the IAEA report refers to these as "alleged studies" and says that it has "no credible information in this regard."

Matt Eckel said...

...I'm confused, are you saying that you don't think Iran is interested in weapons development? Generally I trust that the intelligence community is qualified to render a decent judgement on the validity of a source (obviously they make mistakes, but I'm still more confident in their judgement than in mine). That aside, though, for what purpose would the Iranians be building a heavy water reactor at Arak that is terrible for power generation but great at producing weapons grade plutonium other than for weapons? Why would they be expending large sums designing long-range ballistic missile systems that have little military utility absent a nuclear payload? The Iranians may well have stopped developing nuclear weapons for the moment, but the hardest part of producing nukes is in the fuel cycle, which they've been working on full steam ahead.

The Iranians can likely be persuaded not to go nuclear. That's what I'm arguing for here. To argue, though, that there is no danger in Iran's nuclear program strikes me as a bit short-sighted. Some things are true even if the Bush Administration says them.