A Perfectly Normal Ill Wind
I’m informed that there is an old Arab saying to the effect that the Persians know how to do everything. I don’t know about that, but I suspect they know enough to bemuse the world long enough to develop a nuclear arsenal. The Iranians are in the situation of the Athenians, who wanted to wall their city in order to be able to defy the Spartans. The Spartans convened a conference to prevent just this sort of destablizing and irresponsible masonry proliferation, but the Athenians, led by Themistocles, who, to judge by his track record, was even more clever than the Persians, kept on talking and talking and talking, ragging the puck, working the clock, resorting to a four corner offense, bribing the odd ephor, lying through their teeth, and sending the official wall inspectors on a series of wild goose chases through the whorehouses of the Piraeus while all the while every man, woman, and child back home was furiously piling brick on brick. Naturally, when the wall was tall enough to defend, Themistocles diplomatically advised the Spartans to bugger off just as it is a good bet that seventeen U.N. committee meetings from now, the Iranians are going to invite us to bite their cranks.
Most Americans seem to regard Iran as a non-fiction version of one of those comical countries you find in novels. The Iranians, presumably don’t think of themselves as living in San Narciso, however. Not without historical warrant, they have a sense of themselves as one of the great nations of the earth. If the Americans, British, Russians, Chinese, French, Indians, and even the benighted Pakistanis have the bomb, how can so proud a people as the Persians be content to forgo the prestige that comes with nuclear power, especially since their national identity has been repeatedly and painfully disrespected down through the centuries? Even if the Iranians lacked a practical reason for wanting the definitive deterrent in the face of what they see as a paranoid Israel and an aggressive, erratic America, their self-definition would demand the bomb. Which is why it is probably impossible to deny it to them even in the medium term. What we have here is not the whim of some maximum leader like Kim Il Sung or even part of the program of some party or sect. It isn’t just the mullahs who want the weapons. I suspect it isn’t even especially the mullahs. And Iran is a big country with considerable resources, not a basket case like North Korea. They’re going to get the bombs.
Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed to be very worried about the Persian bomb, but I’m mostly worried of the consequences of efforts to forestall it. In a different time line, one in which we had pursued a calm and principled foreign policy, America might be in a position to argue against the bomb with more justice. As it is, our options are to go on practicing our own policy of delay or to unleash the Israelis or resort to a bombing campaign of our own. Between the disastrous consequences of a violent response and learning to live with a nuclear Iran, I’d opt for the latter. I think the dangers of such an eventuality are vastly overstated. Meanwhile, nobody with a paying job seems to be willing to notice its upside. At least an Iranian bomb would prevent prevention.
Unlike the first few nuclear club members, India, Pakistan, and even China have not built a huge number of bombs or delivery systems. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. still have thousands of warheads and the British and French hundreds, presumably because they once upon a time seriously considered using them. Having a notably smaller arsenal has a different logic. India, Pakistan, and China have enough megatonnage to hugely raise the ante for any country that contemplated attacking them, but acquiring the continent-destroying power of even the Force de Frappe would be pointless. A nuclear India isn’t going to get in an arms race with the United States or even Europe, and a nuclear Iranian isn’t going to either. It couldn’t afford the investment and would have no prospect of success against any of the big powers. From an Iranian perspective, however, the inability to compete is irrelevant because the point of having the bomb is to preserve their sovereignty against aggressive countries like the U.S. whose public intellectuals frequently speak blandly about attacking Iran as if it were Guatemala or Haiti.