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Can We Live with a Nuclear-Armed Iran?

Can We Live with a Nuclear-Armed Iran?

Photo Credit: Iran’s Presidency Office Handout/EPA

Bill Keller of the New York Times had a column in the Monday paper addressing the question of whether, if we have to choose between attacking Iran militarily or getting used to the idea of Iran’s becoming a nuclear weapons state, we should gulp a few times and then just get used to a nuclear Iran. “Anyone who has a glib answer to this problem isn’t taking the subject seriously,” he says. One rather wishes he had more to say about “the serious, thoughtful people willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran”  he has talked with, and about the expert thinking on both sides of the question he says he has immersed himself in. But even without authorities being specified, Keller is persuasive in his reasoning: He reckons that the danger of a nuclear Iran’s igniting a regional nuclear arms race has probably been somewhat exaggerated; concedes that a nuclear Iran will be more meddlesome but suspects that can be handled; and worries about the escalated risk of the confrontation between Iran and Israel getting out of control but surmises, taking account of the Cold War and relations between India and Pakistan, that the basic effect of bilateral nuclear terror will be to deter aggression.

An important matter not addressed by Keller is how bad the impact of a nuclear-arming Iran would be on the non-proliferation regime. Would failure to prevent Iran from going nuclear undermine the credibility of the nuclear safeguards system and the International Atomic Energy Agency? Of course any country’s going nuclear is highly undesirable, quite apart from security concerns specific to that country; with every additional nuclear weapons state, the problem of how ultimately to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether is made immensely more complicated.

Can We Live with a Nuclear-Armed Iran?

One more nuclear country means one more state and society whose concerns would have to be placated in any final negotiation aiming at comprehensive and complete nuclear disarmament  But even so, there is reason to doubt whether the impact of a nuclear Iran would be devastating for the NPT and IAEA. The basic point of the safeguards system is to provide timely warning of a country’s preparing to repudiate treaty obligations and to start making nuclear weapons. That the world certainly has had in the case of Iran. From the time it became apparent in 2003 that the country had been systematically side-stepping its treaty obligations, the IAEA has been vigilant and unsparing in its handling of the situation. Overall, the agency’s conduct has been unimpeachable.

Of course it will be better–much, much better–if a diplomatic solution is found that keeps Iran non-nuclear. Keller notes rightly that this cannot realistically happen before November. But two major non-developments in recent weeks have materially improved long-term prospects for a diplomatic solution. First, the Netanyahu government appears to be getting the message that the United States does not want to see an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. As reported in an excellent article by Jim Lobe and Gareth Porter of Consortium News, carried on the rsn website, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff let it be known in no uncertain terms that the United States considers such an attack to be inadvisable and wants no part in it; grassroots pressure on President Obama to support such an attack has simply not materialized. Second, Candidate Romney has refrained (so far at least) from signalling that Iran will be a major issue in the campaign.

“Although the [Republican] party platform said the threshold for military action should be Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons ‘capability’ rather than the construction of an actual weapon, Romney did not embrace the threat to go to war unless Iran agrees to shut down its nuclear program, as Netanyahu would have hoped,” the article observes. “That omission appeared to reflect the growing influence in his campaign of the ‘realist’ faction of the Republican Party which opposed the radical post-9/11 trajectory of George W. Bush’s first presidential term in office and re-asserted itself in the second term.”

Thus, as Time magazine has been reporting, it seems that the Obama administration has been able to scale back its participation in military exercises with Israel this fall without that causing much of a stir out on the campaign trails.

Late last month, in this space, I expressed concern that Romney might seize on the latest IAEA report on Iran to accuse Obama of having allowed a five-fold increase in Tehran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. Thankfully, Romney appears to be taking the high road. Despite his personal relationship with Netanyahu and their shared professional background at Bain, he is not giving the Israeli prime minister reason to think he can afford to take actions that contradict emphatically stated U.S. policy. And he is not succumbing to any temptation to hit the U.S. president below the belt.

That double negative equates to be big positive.




William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.