Misreading Iran - It Wants More Than Reassurance
The Economist: Nuclear Proliferation
Especially since the election last June of its fire-breathing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he who denies the Holocaust and calls for the removal of Israel, Iran is often portrayed as dangerous, irrational and unpredictable. In truth, it is not irrational. It has so far played a shrewd and winning hand both in Iraq and in its nuclear game of cat-and-mouse with America, Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor is it unpredictable. Although the timing may have surprised, Iran's crossing this week of yet another “red line” by resuming work—research only, you understand—at its uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz was the expected next step in a long-standing plan to put itself within a screwdriver's turn of building an atomic bomb. Iran is, however, dangerous. But how dangerous? And to whom? READ MORESanctions won't work either.
The grand bargain, and other possible delusions
The country with most to lose from a nuclear Iran is Israel, whose undeclared arsenal has for the past 40 years or so given it a monopoly on Armageddon in the Middle East. In 2001, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's supposed moderates, mused that a single nuclear weapon could obliterate Israel, whereas Israel could “only damage” the world of Islam. Even so, a nuclear-armed Iran would indeed have to be irrational to strike Israel with such weapons. Barring tragic miscalculation, the main threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose is not the direct use of those weapons but two second-order dangers. One is that an Iran with a nuclear deterrent might feel emboldened to pursue a more adventurous foreign policy. The other danger, related to the first, is that if Iran were to go nuclear many other countries in this uniquely combustible region—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, to name just four—will be sorely tempted to follow.
It is often said in defence of Iran's nuclear appetite that this is a country with good reason to want a way to deter its enemies. Israel has never attacked it, and would have no conceivable reason to do so if the Iranians left it in peace. But Iran does have recent experience of invasion. The eight-year war Saddam Hussein forced on it in the 1980s cost perhaps a million Iranian lives. Today the armed forces of a hostile America are encamped in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranians listen to the talk of regime change from Washington, and remember how British and American spies helped to fell a nationalist Iranian government in 1953. Given both its recent history and present predicament, Iran's fears are understandable, says one appealing school of thought in the West. The best way to wean it from its nuclear obsession is therefore to offer it security and reassurance—a “grand bargain”, perhaps, that would end its quarter-century estrangement from the United States.
Maybe. However, there is a less soothing possibility. With Iraq under American occupation, and the occupiers in trouble, Iran no longer faces a threat (except, perhaps, in the realm of ideology) from its historical foe. If Iran wants a “grand bargain”, why did it snub the efforts of Britain, France and Germany to broker one, even after they had won the tacit support of George Bush? Applying Occam's razor, the simplest answer may be that Iran just isn't the status quo power the soothers want to think it is. Its leaders, if not its people, remain loyal to Khomeini's legacy—intent both on mastering their region and fulfilling Iran's destiny as the vanguard of militant Islam.
If that is the case, it is not only Israel that has much to fear if Iran breaks out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to go nuclear. So does America, which in Iran may come to face an even more potent opponent than al-Qaeda to Mr Bush's vision of spreading secular democracy in the Middle East. So do the Arab regimes whose fear of Iran prompted them to bankroll Saddam Hussein's war against Ayatollah Khomeini, and which in some cases will react to a nuclear Iran by making or buying nuclear weapons of their own. A nuclear-armed Middle East on its doorstep can hardly be in Russia's interest either.
Which theory of Iran is right? The regime is opaque. Maybe there are two Irans, oscillating at different times between fear and ambition. Whichever is the case, it is clear by now that relying on talk alone to stop Iran from going nuclear has failed. It is time to go to the UN Security Council and try sanctions.