How Can We Deal With the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons?
There are six options - four military and two non-military - but only one option is viable
Has Iran’s government said it wants to develop nuclear weapons?
No. The problem is not that the Iranians have said they are determined to make nuclear weapons. In fact they’ve said they only intend to use nuclear power for civilian electricity production (thus allowing them to use less oil for this purpose and sell more, boosting their economy). Iran’s religious and political ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Khameini, has also re-issued the late Khomeini’s fatwa condemning the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons as ‘un-Islamic’. The problem is that there is no way to verify this is true and many people disbelieve them, especially given elements of Iran’s nuclear programme which it only revealed and gave access to the IAEA in the last few years.
This is exacerbated by statements by past and present Iranian Presidents on the destruction of Israel. The most worrying of these was not actually Ahmadinejad’s but Akbar Rafsanjani’s. To understand both speeches and Iran’s conflict with the US, Britain and Israel we need to look at their history.
Has Iran’s government said it wants to destroy Israel using nuclear weapons ?
Ahmadinejad’s and Rafsanjani’s Qods Day Speeches
This depends on how some of their speeches are interpreted, whether they really mean what they may seem to say and whether the views of current and former Presidents are shared by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.
In 1979, after the Iranian revolution which overthrew the western backed dictatorship of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini made a speech on ‘Qods day’, which in Iran is a religious day dedicated to opposing Israel’s control of Jerusalem (Al Quds or Qods being Arabic for Jerusalem). In this speech he said that he hoped ‘the regime which rules over Jerusalem [i.e Israel] will be removed from the pages of time’.
Israel is reviled by Iran’s rulers for at least five main reasons. First because its government were allies of the Shah’s corrupt dictatorship – and are still allies of the US government, which was also allied to the Shah and remain hostile to Iran’s new regime. Second because fundamentalists among Shia Muslims believe all secular government is illegitimate and against God’s will. Third because Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land and kill Palestinians – and many (though not all) Palestinians are Muslims like the Iranian government (though most are Sunnis while Iran’s government is overwhelmingly Shia. Fourth because by backing the Arab Palestinians the (mostly) non-Arab Iranians get support from and influence over Arabs – like the influence they have over Lebanon by backing the Shia group Hezbollah there. Fifth – but not least – because since 1967 Israel has had a growing array of nuclear missiles which, combined with its large US funded and supplied military, make it feared across the Middle East (in fact Israel’s military remains stronger than that of the rest of the Middle East combined, to say nothing of its ally America’s – whose annual military spending exceeds that of the rest of the world combined).
The US and Britain are equally distrusted and feared for their role in the operation by the CIA and MI6 in 1953 which aided Anglo-Persian Oil (now BP) to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq and replace him with the dictatorship of the Shah (who claimed to be a hereditary monarch but in fact was the grandson of a previous military dictator who had been overthrown by the British after he allied himself to Nazi Germany to try to escape the British Empire’s dominance in Iran.)
They also (along with the Chinese, Soviet and most European governments) armed and funded Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1980 Saddam invaded Iran. Even after his gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 the Bush (senior) administration kept funding Saddam under the guise of ‘agricultural aid’, which only ended in October 1990. This made many Iranians feel that the ‘international community’ which backed Saddam for 8 years while he gassed their troops and his own people, is not to be trusted or relied on. It may also have made some of think that having their own nuclear deterrent to prevent others using WMD on them in the future might be worth considering.
So to be seen as ‘soft’ on Israel, the US or Britain in Iran would lose Iranian politicians support just as much as being seen as ‘soft on terrorism’ or ‘soft on rogue states’ would lose Israeli, British or American politicians support.
This is probably the main reason why Iranian politicians have made a speech including a similar call to Khomeini’s for Israel to be ‘removed from the pages of time’ every year on the same day. Ahmadinejad as President quoted Khomeini on this in his Qods day speech in 200?. This followed a passage in Ahmadinejad’s speech in which he said the Soviet Union and the Apartheid government in South Africa no longer existed – and in an interview on French television he later clarified that he had meant he hoped Israel would cease to exist in the same way the Soviet Union and Apartheid had – through a peaceful referendum of all ‘Palestinians…Christian, Jewish and Muslim’. However the ‘wipe Israel off the map’ translation had already been widely disseminated – and even confirmed by some over-zealous PR men working for the Iranian President.
Supreme Leader Khameini and even some officials of the Iranian foreign ministry (whose ministers are appointed by the President) immediately said that if Ahmadinejad had said Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ he did not speak for the Iranian government. (another widespread misconception is that Iranian Presidents are powerful – in fact the Presidency is a very weak office in the Iranian system, has no control of the military and certainly would not decide whether Iran developed nuclear weapons, much less have the power to use them – those powers lie with the unelected ‘Supreme Leader’)
Rafsanjani’s speech in 2002 was less reported but actually more worrying. Rafsanjani is a former Iranian president and a political rival of Ahmadinejad’s who has been highly critical of Ahmadinejad’s intransigence on the nuclear issue and has long been seen as a ‘moderate’ advocating compromise and negotiations with ‘the West’. By 2007 he had been elected to the chairmanship of several of Iran’s governing councils which are second only to the ‘Supreme Leader’ in influence and power. (Iran’s system of government has one similarity to America’s – there are many different centres of power in it which each act as checks and balances on the others, the difference being that the strongest, the Supreme Leader (equivalent to the President in the US) is unelected and the holder must be an ‘Ayatollah’).
Rafsanjani said that
‘Because colonialism and imperialism will not easily leave the people of the world alone. Therefore, you can see that they have arranged it in a way that the balance of power favours Israel…They have supplied vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction and unconventional weapons to Israel…They have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles and suchlike.
If one day ... Of course, that is very important. If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.’
There are two elements to this speech – one is the conventional and WMD threat from Israel, which is both worrying to Iranians, who have no nuclear deterrent and is useful to Iran’s government in directing Iranians’ attention outwards to external threats as opposed to the actions (and oppression) of their own government.
The other is more ambiguous and potentially very worrying. It could be interpreted as meaning that if an Islamic country (such as Iran) develops nuclear weapons then a Cold war style stalemate would develop – or it could be interpreted as saying that if Iran developed nuclear weapons it could use them on Israel (a relatively small country in size and population, though not in military power) and destroy it without having to worry too much about the retaliation.
Since the US possesses an arsenal of thousands of inter continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and would certainly use them on Iran if Iran used nuclear weapons on Israel this speech seems at first glance to bolster the claims of those who say Iran’s regime is suicidal and irrational.
However there is actually nothing unprecedented in Rafsanjani’s statements. During the Cold War Chinese Communist leaders frequently claimed that in the event of nuclear war they could win as they had a larger population and land mass than the US or Russia and could afford to lose tens of millions of people and survive. Yet nuclear war never came. Rafsanjani’s statements may well be a similar attempt at deterrence – we shouldn’t forget that from many Iranians’ point of view the problem is how to deter us from attacking them directly or (as in 1953 and the Iran-Iraq war) by proxies. Even if they aren’t Iran’s government will realize that while “the Islamic world” might survive a US counter-strike, Iran would not.
What are the Options to meet the potential Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and are any of them viable?
The first option is the one followed so far – to use sanctions and diplomacy to try to get the Iranian government to stop enriching Uranium and agree to only use uranium refined for them by other countries (such as Russia) to ensure it isn’t enriched to a level that would allow it to be used to produce nuclear warheads. This is a reasonable option on the face of it but the trouble is that there is no way to verify whether the Iranian government were genuinely complying or not if they did accept the offer – and so far they’ve refused the offer in any case.
There’s also a serious question mark over whether any level of access for IAEA inspectors would be accepted by the US and Israeli governments as proving Iran wasn’t trying to develop nuclear weapons. In Iraq in 2002-2003 the Bush administration invaded despite UNMOVIC weapons inspectors saying they were being granted access to all the sites they requested to say and despite them being in the middle of overseeing the destruction of Saddam’s longest ranged missiles (those with a range of just over 150 kilometres) when war was declared. (In fact the original withdrawal of the previous inspection teams in 1998 was not – as often wrongly stated – due to Saddam’s regime expelling them from the country but actually due to impending Anglo-American air strikes. After these Saddam refused to allow inspectors back into the country as he suspected the inspection teams had been infiltrated by CIA agents who were identifying sites for bombing in the 1998 ‘Operation Desert Fox’ – and in fact some members of the UNSCOM teams admitted this had been the case).
Sanctions and diplomacy to secure inspections or persuade Iran’s government to agree to enrichment by a third country are not a bad thing in themselves, but they will provide no guarantee that the US or Israel won’t attack Iran even if the Iranians are complying with their demands, partly because elements in both governments have ulterior motives (regional dominance in the case of Israel and control of the second largest proven oil reserves in the world plus global hegemony in the case of the US) and partly because it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to be certain whether the Iranians would secretly continue enrichment for nuclear weapons.
This is especially the case because currently the logic, following that in Iraq, is that if sanctions and diplomacy ‘fail’, all options are potentially on the table as Bush and Rice have put it. That means war in one form or another – and as we’ll see these military options are unlikely to be effective in securing an end to Iran’s nuclear programme and would have many other serious negative consequences (not least large numbers of civilian deaths and a boost in support for hardliners and extremists at the expense of moderates in Iran and across the Islamic world, possibly including more Iranian style Islamic revolutions.)
The Four Military Options
– Why none of them would work and all of them would make things worse
The second option, if sanctions and diplomacy fail, or the US and Israeli governments claim they have failed, would be the first military one - limited airstrikes and missile strikes on suspected or known nuclear sites in Iran. Military experts have pointed out that this would be unlikely to do more than delay Iran developing nuclear weapons for 5 to 7 years at most if it continued to want them. Morally this option is likely to result in civilian casualties. This would also be certain to give a boost to hardline Islamic fundamentalists and nationalists in Iran and weaken the position of democrats and those wanting to negotiate with the west – just as the September 11th attacks increased Christian fundamentalism and nationalism in America, made even liberals rally behind the Bush administration and allowed them to paint the opposition as ‘unpatriotic’ or even ‘traitors’. As a result it would make Iran more likely to develop nuclear weapons and strengthen support for extremists who might actually consider using them. This is obvious from the election of Ahmadinejad, whose campaign gained a boost from the US invasion of Iraq and US and Israeli threats to attack Iran next.
It would also be likely to increase support for anti-American and Islamic fundamentalist groups worldwide – especially those in Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapons and even many Islamic fundamentalists in its military and military intelligence.
It would result in Iranian counter-attacks – probably the closure of the straits of Hormuz, pushing up oil prices further and possibly even missile attacks on our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran would definitely step up arms supplies to insurgents in both those countries – and Hezbollah and Israel would probably end up at war again as they were in 2006, causing many casualties, mostly civilians, in both Lebanon and Israel again.
The third option would be an air campaign combined with a ground invasion of ‘regime change’ as in Iraq. We’ve already seen the disastrous effects of this – and despite upbeat talk by General Petraeus and others it continues to result in the deaths of many Iraqi civilians killed in fighting between pro and anti government and occupation forces, is still increasing membership of extremist groups and sectarian and criminal violence and additionally causing deaths due to There had been systematic torture by coalition forces as well as by Iraqi government police and military – who use the same methods employed under Saddam. In addition many Iraqis are suffering hunger and malnutrition on a scale unseen even under sanctions and Saddam and from dysentery caused by lack of clean drinking water (an epidemic of a disease unknown in Iraq even under Saddam). So we can safely say that, as in Iraq, an invasion, regime change and occupation would make things worse rather than better – even taking into account the brutality of the Iranian government which includes the torture and murder of critics of the government and even in one case the killing of a woman by religious police for the “crime” of holding her fiancée’s hand in public.
The fourth option would be to use a massive campaign of bombing and missile strikes from air and sea to destroy Iran’s economy in order to weaken it to the point that it couldn’t afford to produce nuclear weapons. This would be morally highly questionable and the other negative effects would be the same as those for the second option, but on an even larger scale, with Islamist revolutions likely across the Muslim world – including in nuclear armed Pakistan. It might not even prevent the Iranian government putting all its remaining resources into developing nuclear arms.
The fifth option would be to destroy Iran and its people entirely with massive nuclear strikes on the grounds that it's them or the Israelis. This would certainly end Iran's nuclear programme, but only by committing a crime as terrible as the one it would be designed to prevent (the possible future nuclear annihilation of Israel by Iran) with additional negative effects as for the third option above. Luckily the sixth option makes it totally un-necessary.
The Best Option? – Deterrence and negotiations
The sixth option is simply to deter Iran by making it clear (as has been done many times already) that if Iran was to develop nuclear weapons and use them on Israel then France, the UK, the US (and possibly even Russia) would respond by massive nuclear strikes on Iran which would ensure it would not survive either – and that the same would result from any nuclear attack on Israel by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah.
This could be combined with peace negotiations between Iran, Israel and the US along with separate but simultaneous Israeli-Palestinian-Arab negotiations on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the enduring hostility between Israel and some Arab states.
Some will immediately object that Iran cannot be deterred.
Can Iran be Deterred by the nuclear arsenals of Israel’s allies?
Iran’s government is supposedly uniquely irrational because it has a religious ideology which will make it commit national suicide, something which, the argument goes, no secular regime would do. This argument is full of holes though. During the Cuban missile crisis several high ranking generals and advisers to President Kennedy pushed for him to order a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union by the US as the only way America could ‘win’ the ‘inevitable’ nuclear war. Kennedy, luckily for all of us, refused – but it showed that secular nationalists can be every bit as extreme and irrational as the most extreme religious fanatics. It also showed that while there were some elements in the US and Soviet government and military who were irrational enough to push for collective suicide the majority reined these extremists in and vetoed this insanity.
The history of the Iranian government since 1979 suggests exactly the same is true of ‘the Ayatollahs’. When, in 1988, an American ship misidentified an Iranian passenger plane as a military one and shot it down the Iranians believed this had been a deliberate act signaling that US forces were about to join in the Iran-Iraq war on the Iraqi side. They were wrong – but the decision that followed from their mistake was entirely rational. Almost the entire Iranian military, religious and political establishment lobbied Khomeini to negotiate peace before the Islamic Republic’s government was defeated and overthrown. Khomeini agreed. Those who persuaded him included Ali Khameini – now the Supreme Leader, who is Commander in Chief of Iran’s military and would have his finger on the nuclear trigger if Iran ever developed nuclear weapons ; Rafsanjani (now one of the most influential politicians in Iran, elected to chair several Governing councils),– and the officers of the Revolutionary Guards (of which President Ahmadinejad is a former member).
In 2003, after the US defeated the Iraqi military in a matter of weeks, the Iranian government (with the approval of Khamenei as ‘Supreme Leader’) made offers of negotiations to both the Israeli and US governments on a comprehensive peace settlement covering signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, giving full IAEA access to nuclear sites, putting a freeze on the nuclear programme, recognizing Israel, ending Iranian supplies of arms and training to Hamas and Hezbollah
Once again they were willing to compromise to preserve their own power or security. Many in all three governments were for going ahead with negotiations. Yet Sharon and the neo-conservatives among the Bush administration refused any negotiations, arguing that they could extract all the Iranian government had offered and more by force without making any concessions.
Saddam, who was also supposedly too mentally unstable to be allowed WMDs, did not use them when he did have them – because deterrence worked on his regime too. In 1991 he had chemical warheads for his scud missiles – but he didn’t use any of them on in his missile attacks on Israel or coalition forces – because the Bush senior administration had made it clear that if he did the response from the US would be massive and nuclear.
Deluded or brave individuals may be persuaded into committing suicide for the good or their religion or nation (depending on your viewpoint and the exact form of the suicidal mission) but there has never been an entire nation or an entire government and military which will permit some of its members to bring national suicide on all of them. Japanese troops were often willing to die ‘for the Emperor’ on the ground or as kamikaze pilots – but when Japan’s fleet and air force were defeated and its main islands empty of troops the Emperor began suing for peace – even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So deterrence can work between Iran and Israel and its’ allies just as it worked between the Soviets and NATO in the Cold War.
The current President of North Korea and his predecessor have been notoriously irrational and ideologically extreme – and North Korea, unlike Iran, actually has nuclear weapons and middle to long range missiles capable of delivering them at least to Japan and possibly to the US and has carried out tests of them firing over Japan. Yet the Bush administration has accepted that the North Korean government can be deterred from using these weapons and possibly persuaded to renounce them through concessions offered in negotiations. So why the refusal to take the same position on Iran?
Deterrence is the only option which can give a pretty solid guarantee of safety for Israel and the world. All of the others fail to provide any guarantee of safety while actually increasing the threat – and resulting in the deaths of many more civilians and soldiers than would otherwise be the case.
The Other Benefits of using Deterrence rather than
‘pre-emptive’ Military Strikes or the threat of them
Focusing on our ability to deter any possible future nuclear strike on Israel by Iran (or vice-versa) would also allow us to stop threatening pointless ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘last ditch’ military attacks on Iran to prevent it developing nuclear weapons – which, as we’ve seen, couldn’t achieve that aim anyway and would make things rapidly worse.
These threats of military action have a similar effect on Iranian public opinion to the one that perceived external threats – such as Al Qaeda – have on western public opinion. They strengthen the position of the current Iranian government and boost hardliners and extremists against those who favour greater democracy and negotiations with Israel, the US and the West – who can be painted as ‘unpatriotic’ or even ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’ by the current regime – much as the Bush administration and its supporters (including American nationalists and Christian fundamentalists) have done with critics labelled ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ in the US.