Why No Nukes for Iran?

The rules of the game.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

How many times have we heard the following whining and yet received no specific answers from our leaders?

“Israel has nuclear weapons, so why single out Iran?”

“Pakistan got nukes and we lived with it.”

“Who is to say the United States or Russia should have the bomb and not other countries?”

“Iran has promised to use its reactors for peaceful purposes, so why demonize the regime?”

In fact, the United States has a perfectly sound rationale for singling out Iran to halt its nuclear proliferation. At least six good reasons come to mind, not counting the more obvious objection over Iran’s violation of U.N. non-proliferation protocols. It is past time that we spell them out to the world at large.

First, we cannot excuse Iran by acknowledging that the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons. In each case of acquisition, Western foreign-policy makers went into a crisis mode, as anti-liberal regimes gained stature and advantage by the ability to destroy Western cities.

A tragic lapse is not corrected by yet another similar mistake, especially since one should learn from the errors of the past. The logic of “They did it, so why can’t I?” would lead to a nuclearized globe in which our daily multifarious wars, from Darfur to the Middle East, would all assume the potential to go nuclear. In contrast, the fewer the nuclear players, the more likely deterrence can play some role. There is no such thing as abstract hypocrisy when it is a matter of Armageddon.

Second, it is a fact that full-fledged democracies are less likely to attack one another. Although they are prone to fighting — imperial Athens and republican Venice both were in some sort of war about three out of four years during the 5th century B.C. and the 16th century respectively — consensual governments are not so ready to fight like kind. In contemporary terms that means that there is no chance whatsoever that an anti-American France and an increasingly anti-French America would, as nuclear democracies, attack each other. Russia, following the fall of Communism, and its partial evolution to democracy, poses less threat to the United States than when it was a totalitarian state.

It would be regrettable should Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or Germany go nuclear — but not the catastrophe of a nuclear Pakistan that, with impunity de facto, offers sanctuary to bin Laden and the planners of 9/11. The former governments operate under a free press, open elections, and free speech, and thus their war-making is subject to a series of checks and balances. Pakistan is a strongman’s heartbeat away from an Islamic theocracy. And while India has volatile relations with its Islamic neighbor, the world is not nearly as worried about its arsenal as it is about autocratic Pakistan’s.

Third, there are a number of rogue regimes that belong in a special category: North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba, unfree states whose leaders have sought global attention and stature through sponsoring insurrection and terrorism beyond their borders. If it is scary that Russia, China, and Pakistan are now nuclear, it is terrifying that Kim Jong Il has the bomb, or that President Ahmadinejad might. Islamic fundamentalism or North Korean Stalinism might be antithetical to scientific advancement, but it is actually conducive to nuclear politics. When such renegade regimes go nuclear they gain the added lunatic edge: “We are either crazy or have nothing to lose or both — but you aren’t.” In nuclear poker, the appearance of derangement is an apparent advantage.

Fourth, there are all sorts of scary combinations — petrodollars, nukes, terrorism, and fanaticism. But Iran is a uniquely fivefold danger. It has enough cash to buy influence and exemption; nuclear weapons to threaten civilization; oil reserves to blackmail a petroleum hungry world; terrorists to either find sanctuary under a nuclear umbrella or to be armed with dirty bombs; and it has a leader who wishes either to take his entire country into paradise, or at least back to the eighth century amid the ashes of the Middle East.

Just imagine the present controversy over the cartoons in the context of President Ahmadinejad with his finger on a half-dozen nuclear missiles pointed at Copenhagen.

Fifth, any country that seeks “peaceful” nuclear power and is completely self-sufficient in energy production is de facto suspect. Iran has enough natural gas to meet its clean electrical generation needs for centuries. The only possible rationale for its multi-billion-dollar program of building nuclear reactors, and spending billions more to hide and decentralize them, is to obtain weapons, and thus to gain clout and attention in a manner that otherwise is not warranted by either Iranian conventional forces, cultural influence, or economic achievement.

Sixth, the West is right to take on a certain responsibility to discourage nuclear proliferation. The technology for such weapons grew entirely out of Western science and technology. In fact, the story of nuclear proliferation is exclusively one of espionage, stealthy commerce, or American and European-trained native engineers using their foreign-acquired expertise. Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran have no ability themselves to create such weapons, in the same manner that Russia, China, and India learned or stole a craft established only from the knowledge of European-American physics and industrial engineering. Any country that cannot itself create such weapons is probably not going to ensure the necessary protocols to guard against their misuse or theft.

We can argue all we want over the solution — it is either immoral to use military force or immoral not to use it; air strikes are feasible or will be an operational disaster; dissidents will rise up or have already mostly been killed or exiled; Russia and China will help solve or will instead enjoy our dilemma; Europe is now on board or is already triangulating; the U.N. will at last step in, or is more likely to damn the United States than Teheran.

Yet where all parties agree is that a poker-faced United States seems hesitant to act until moments before the missiles are armed, and is certainly not behaving like the hegemon or imperialist power so caricatured by Michael Moore and an array of post-September 11 university-press books. Until there is firm evidence that Iran has the warheads ready, the administration apparently does not wish to relive the nightmare of the past three years in which striking Iran will conjure up all the old Iraqi-style hysteria about unilateralism, preemption, incomplete or cooked intelligence, imperialism, and purported hostility toward a Muslim country.

In the greatest irony of all, the Left (who must understand well the nightmarish scenario of a fascist Iran with nuclear weapons) is suddenly bewildered by George Bush’s apparent multilateral caution. The Senate Democrats don’t know whether to attack the administration now for its nonchalance or to wait and second-guess them once the bombs begin to fall.

Either way, no one should doubt that a nuclear Iran would end the entire notion of global adjudication of nuclear proliferation — as well as remain a recurrent nightmare to civilization itself.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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