Why is the United States concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran? Iran is hostile, and has been since the 1979 revolution overthrew the American-backed Shah and precipitated the embassy hostage crisis. It has supplied insurgents in Iraq with explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and other weapons that have killed American service members. Its leaders have at times vowed to drive Israel into the sea. And the Iranian regime stands directly behind Hezbollah.
American anxiety centers on three general nightmare scenarios: (1) that Iran will direct target Israel or the United States with a nuclear weapon; (2) that another group, not necessarily at the regime’s behest, will target Israel or the United States with an Iranian warhead; and (3) that the region will be destabilized by a nuclear arms race.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have said that they would support military action against Iran to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, taking for granted that the country’s leaders intend to unleash a nuclear holocaust. I believe this view imperils not only Iran, but also the United States and Israel.
Like most totalitarian regimes, Iran’s leadership is concerned first and foremost with self-preservation and survival. President Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Khamenei may like to maintain the revolutionary national creation myth by defying the West. Yet in the final analysis, both men surely understand that the deployment of an Iranian nuclear weapon would take away the things they value most. Ahmadinejad would lose his power and, in all likelihood, his life. The Grand Ayatollah, if he survived, would watch the nation and cause central to his self-concept succumb to his archenemies.
Although it is a fairly advanced country with sophisticated technology, Iran has a very weak economy. Despite substantial oil resources, its refining capacity has so deteriorated under incompetent, socialistic leadership that it must import gasoline. Its army, navy and air force are laughably overmatched by not only their American counterparts, but also the experienced, thoroughly modern Israel Defense Forces. The United States has a nuclear arsenal and Israel is widely believed to have one too. A full-scale war with either country, particularly a nuclear war, would be so devastating that Iran has every incentive to avoid one. If Iran totally wiped out Israel, the United States would presumably respond by totally wiping out Iran. And attacking us directly would be suicide.
Iran is developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggression. Its worldview is the key to understanding its willingness to accept the risks that have come with its nuclear program. A pariah in the international community (as it should be for oppressing its people) that is surrounded by U.S. military bases and worried about an aggressive Israel, Iran sees enemies and potential threats everywhere it looks. Obviously this perception is simplistic. If Iran were not developing a nuclear weapon, the United States — and, I hazard to guess, Israel — would not be considering the overt deployment of conventional military force. But Iran seems to perceive an existential threat independent of opposition to its program.
A nuclear attack by a terrorist group linked to Iran would likely prompt a response by the United States, Israel, or another ally targeting Iran itself, so it has every incentive to prevent this from happening. Even if nuclear terrorists were not immediately identifiable with it, Iran would be on the short list of suspects. In any case, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent — the most plausible theory — it would want to maintain close control of any nuclear weapons it created.
Obviously, there is a risk that any nuclear weapon, particularly in a country like Iran, might be stolen by a rogue group. However, Iran has already demonstrated great strategic sophistication in executing its nuclear program. On a related note, successfully eliminating Iran’s nuclear program is probably beyond the capabilities of Israel and may even be beyond the capabilities of the United States.
Would a nuclear Iran spark an arms race among its neighbors? Perhaps. This is the greatest risk of non-intervention. However, attacking Iran is guaranteed to destabilize the region.
We would be best served by a subdued yet firm restatement of our commitment to our ally Israel and a policy of prudent vigilance. For the sake of peace as much as ourselves, we should also warn our allies, including Israel, that we will not entangle ourselves in a conflict they initiate. To the extent that we misread this complicated situation, we are our own worst enemy.
Luca Gattoni-Celli is a contributing editor at The Skeptical Libertarian. He is spending the summer in Washington, D.C., interning at a public policy think tank, where he works with the editorial, operations, and IT departments. In the fall he hopes to begin an internship or entry-level position as a journalist writing about economics and politics.