With all the clamor to sanction and attack Iran, there's a minor issue most journalists are ignoring: the actual existence of a nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the global organization responsible for securing nuclear materials around the world and making sure they are not spread or weaponized, has rigorous monitoring activities at Iran’s nuclear sites. It makes, as former U.S. National Security Council staffer Gary Sick writes, “frequent surprise visits, keep[ing] cameras in place to watch every move, and carefully measuring Iran’s input of feed stock to the centrifuges and the output of low enriched uranium, which is then placed under seal.”
For years, not one of the inspectors has been kicked out of Iran, a move that would signify that Tehran is about to up the ante on its nuclear material and turn it into a weapon. And U.S. intelligence has asserted that Iran’s supreme leader has not yet given the order to build a nuclear weapon, even though most experts (including the IAEA) suspect that Iran has some sort of weapons program underway. But most important, given the agency’s access, the inspectors have declared that there is currently no nuclear-weapons program to speak of in Iran. Of course, the IAEA has taken issue with restrictions on its access to Iranian facilities, but even America’s intelligence agencies, Israel’s Mossad, and countless others have come to the same conclusion themselves. These speculations about Iran’s hypothetical transgressions have at their source American uncertainty about Iran’s intentions, not certainty about Iran’s abilities.
In fact, the whole confrontation over a nuclear program is, in many ways, more a symptom than a cause of U.S.-Iran enmity. Tehran was first accused of exploring a weapons program in late 2003, when Iran was flanked by America in Afghanistan and Iraq and its olive branch to Washington—an offer for a “grand bargain”—was rejected. But bilateral enmity existed long before then, stemming from the CIA- and MI6-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, in 1953, and the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. The discord was made worse by Iranian support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamist militias throughout the Middle East and by America’s arming of Iran’s enemies: Iraq during the 1980s war, the Gulf Arab states, and anti-Tehran militant groups such as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and Jundullah.
Today we are left with a situation where, from an Iranian perspective, it would make perfect sense to try to get nuclear weapons: Muammar Gaddafi gave up the bomb, and Saddam Hussein didn’t have one; they were toppled. The North Koreans and Pakistanis (and Israelis and Indians) have the bomb and receive all sorts of concessions, from normalized relations, to a blind eye turned to support for terrorism, to trade and military aid.
And with hostile forces surrounding Iran in Afghanistan, the Gulf, Iraq, Israel, and the Caucasus, the imperatives appear greater. Even American officials as high-ranking as Vice President Joe Biden concede that they understand Iran’s rationale for nuclear capability, but simply insist that it oughtn’t be allowed.
Any Iranian threat to actually use nuclear weapons is simply not credible.
Tight sanctions, sabotage, and military action may minimally delay, but not destroy, Tehran’s ability to get a bomb—and only with a good deal of fallout. Sanctions not only are fated to be ignored by countries like India, China, Russia, and Turkey, but, by aiming to cut off Iran’s access to refined gasoline, they strengthen Tehran’s claim to need a nuclear program to produce domestic energy.
War, meanwhile, would destabilize a region that is already in turmoil and threaten energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, precipitating further global economic crises. And a military confrontation with Iran would make Pakistan a frontline state in yet another American war, increasing America’s destructive dependence on the Pakistani military. Only dialogue and tangible reassurances will come close to eliminating or reducing Iran’s drive to get the bomb.
Neil Padukone is a fellow at the Takshashila Institute and the author of Security in a Complex Era. He is currently writing a book on the future of conflict in South Asia.
The above article was published in thedailybeast.com on February 23rd, 2012 (2:10 a.m. EST).