Iran nukes: Other countries have nuclear weapons, why can’t Iran?

The question is posed whether the world can live with Iranian nuclear weapons?

The obvious answer: Of course it can. Just consider:

  • The world lived when the United States was the sole nuclear power;

  • The world survived when the Soviets and Chinese obtained nuclear capability and various Doomsayers' "clocks" predicted imminent Armageddon.

Even more specifically, the French survived when faced with British nuclear weapons. And the Germans have endured the nuclear "threat" from France and England.

Indians have accepted Pakistani nuclear capability; and the Pakistanis continue to live under threat of Indian nuclear weapons. Nor have Israelis demonstrated significant concern over Islamabad's "Islamic" bomb.

And some challenges are even more directly threatening. The South Koreans and Japanese have lived with North Korean nuclear weapons that, should they be delivered on Seoul and/or Tokyo, would be catastrophic. Likewise for Beijing's nukes. For their part, Pyongyang's weird leaders specialize in blood curdling threats despite the reality that both the Republic of Korea and Japan individually and collectively have sufficient military capability to destroy its nuclear establishment.

Likewise, the entire Middle East blithely endures Israel's (unacknowledged) nuclear weapons.

We even have had much of Africa under implicit threat from the nukes held by an apartheid South Africa — although nobody knew the South Africans had produced them (and didn't know until the South Africans dismantled them).

So the world has already lived and continues to live with nuclear threats which are not trivial and could be catastrophic for those threatened.

What presumably makes the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons uniquely unacceptable/unendurable is that Israel declares them to be so. And we must assume that current Israeli leadership has concluded Iranian nuclear weapons would be intolerably threatening. It has drawn unmistakable "red lines" at international fora rejecting a nuclear Iran; it takes at face value the apocalyptic threats from Iranian religious/political leadership strongly implying desire to destroy Israel whatever the cost might be to Iran. The unique Holocaust experience of the Jewish people generates preternatural sensitivity to threat of the dimension epitomized by nuclear attack; "never again" is not a bumper sticker in Israel. Tel Aviv delivers multiple messages that it will take any necessary action to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons.

[ Previous David vs. David: What to expect from Obama's second term ]

But Tehran is not listening. While it professes not to be developing nuclear weapons, these disclaimers are disingenuous at best; more probably blatant lies. Iran has every reason to seek nuclear weapons, and this desire appears shared across the domestic political spectrum. Specifically:

  • Iran lives in a "dangerous neighborhood." Its neighbors are nuclear weapons states, and it sees U.S. nuclear threat from warships deployed in the Persian Gulf;

  • Tehran's leaders appreciate that no one has attacked a nuclear weapons state, while states that divested themselves of nuclear weapons programs have been attacked (Iraq), had leadership overthrown (Libya), or is under attack (Syria); and

  • Nuclear weapons are big boy toys. Internationally, a nuclear state has more respect, attention, and "weight" in local/regional disputes.

But taking action against Tehran is difficult as one cannot prove it is building nuclear weapons. Indeed, despite multiple indications and intelligence projections, we did not know Pakistan was building nuclear weapons until it constructed an underground test site. Moreover, sophisticated nuclear programs can evolve in multiple directions as individual teams develop components with alternative potential uses.

So we face choices:

  • Continue the diplomatic "carrots and sticks" approach, attempting to persuade Tehran's current government to end its nuclear program;

  • Seek regime change designed to install a government receptive to eliminating/controlling its program;

  • Persuade Tel Aviv to cease and desist its threats; tell Israelis bluntly the U.S. and the West lived (and still live) under Soviet/Russian nuclear threat that would result in our destruction with 200 million dead. They can take the heat also. If they attack Tehran, they will do so alone — and we will condemn them;

  • Simultaneously upgrade Israeli antimissile programs while quietly informing Tehran that nuclear attack on Israel, even one stymied by antimissile defenses, will prompt the total annihilation of Iran; or

  • Attack Iran to destroy any possible nuclear program continuing assaults as long/heavily as necessary.

The nonkinetic options qualify as "hope" — and hope is not a policy. The kinetic alternative would be bloody and likely inconclusive. Iraq and Afghanistan are salient negative experiences.

Thus the least dangerous answer is to "live with it" — we've had successful experience with managing such confrontations and invidious experience with ambiguous military action.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.