Re-evaluating the Threat of a Nuclear Iran

Ahmed Eissa, UMBC:

There are a lot of reasons to be afraid of Iran’s nuclear program, and there are a lot of reasons not to be. Unfortunately, sensationalist media outlets and people with ideological biases highlight all the wrong reasons, and fail to discuss the correct ones.

These emotional, knee-jerk responses – often void of any sound logic – that surround this issue have been amplified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress and the recent nuclear-deal between the P5+1 and Iran.

iran 1However, while many things remain unclear, there is something that cannot be denied; people are scared. According to a poll conducted by NBC, 54% of Americans view Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat, while 91% of Americans view Iran’s program as either a major threat or a minor threat. Those viewing Iran’s nuclear program as not a threat at all trailed behind at 8%.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a similar poll at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County by asking students on the school’s online forums, “If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, would you view this as a threat?” The results show that 52% of students responded affirmatively. In both polls, the scared have the majority, however large or small (or un-scientific) it may be.

iran 2

The question must be asked, why are people scared? Surprisingly (or not), it’s quite simple. Besides a fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear strategy, there is a rampant misconception that if Iran were to obtain a nuclear-weapon on day A, it would be deployed and fired on Israel, the United States, and any other nation it has ever bad-mouthed or spewed hate towards on day B. Without even considering Iran’s underdeveloped ballistic missile program, the main argument against this simplistic, uninformed belief is rationality.

Mad Mullahs?

No doubt, Iran’s official rhetoric is aggressive and somewhat apocalyptic. But however barbaric and belligerent “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” may be, we mustn’t forget that irrationality is a bold claim. As Kenneth Waltz argues in his landmark (and controversial) article Why Iran Should Get the Bomb, “Iranian policy is made not by mad mullahs but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders.”

This is the key. It is imperative for citizens and policymakers alike to understand that inflammatory and hateful rhetoric are not the same as a propensity for self-destruction. After all, any state that chooses to initiate a nuclear attack – regardless of its politics – effectively invites its own destruction. Iran is no different; they have a cold-hard calculus like every other nation. Such an attack would surely be met with retaliation (Mutually Assured Destruction), and thus risk the lives of 77 million Iranian citizens, nearly all of the state’s infrastructure, intellectual progress, sacred religious sites, and more.


Another unfounded fear is nuclear proliferation, or the rapid and uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons. Many worry that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would encourage other states in the region to pursue similar capabilities, out of fear, entitlement, or both. However, a closer look at history in fact shows a significant downturn in the spread of nuclear weapons (with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the ambiguous Israel being the exception) since the technology’s inception.

But if Iran’s newly-acquired nuclear capabilities were to indeed cause proliferation, who would be the likely contenders? Saudi Arabia, as the principal Sunni power in the region, immediately comes to mind. In fact, the Kingdom has made their desire explicit – “I’ve always said whatever comes out of these [nuclear talks with Iran], we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud to the BBC.

However, despite the prince’s confidence, states do not acquire nuclear weapons at whim, nor do they acquire them because they suddenly feel threatened. Perhaps the best example is the case of Israel, who is speculated to have developed and built its first nuclear weapon between the 1950s-1966. During this time, the infant state of Israel was engaged in constant warfare with its Arab neighbors, none of whom then obtained nuclear-weapons in response. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time for nuclear proliferation in the region, but nothing happened. Again, as Kenneth Waltz reminds us, “If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.”

Egypt, arguably the Middle East’s strongest military, and Turkey, another major Sunni rival to Shia Iran, are also thought to be likely seekers of nuclear-capabilities to balance Iran. Egypt has already signed a preliminary agreement with Russia to cooperate on building a nuclear power plant amidst the “continuation of ‘strategic relations’ and high-level meetings to discuss regional issues” (why not just say Iran?). Turkey’s response is more speculative, as they already enjoy a nuclear umbrella by hosting approximately 60-70 US tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.

But proliferation cannot be talked about in terms of “if State X acquires WMD, States Y & Z will as well.” This logic ignores the intricate workings of diplomacy, sanctions, foreign aid, protectionist relationships, and other incentives to avoid seeking the bomb. Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi has already demonstrated his dependence on US military and economic aid. And again, the United States’ nuclear umbrella over Turkey comes at the implicit cost of them participating in anti-proliferation efforts. It becomes clear that below the surface, likely contenders for nuclear-capabilities are not in fact what they appear to be.

Lastly, there seems to be a prevailing thought that Iran’s nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist groups. But which ones? Certainly, it’s time for the public to realize that the Islamic State (ISIS) is by no stretch of the imagination friendly with Iran. In fact, the leader of ISIS urged the group’s followers not long ago to prioritize violence on Shia Muslims (of which the majority live in Iran), then the Saudi royal family, and finally on Western crusaders. Certainly, Hezbollah – a Shia Islamic militant group based out of Lebanon – could be a likely candidate, but again, this fear is superficial. The historical record is clear: nuclear states do not eagerly hand-off what is arguably the single greatest source of power in the world to groups they potentially could not control. All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that such a hand-off would be easily detected by United States and Israeli intelligence, and that non-state terrorist groups lack the infrastructure, know-how, and capabilities to maintain and deploy nuclear weapons.

Nuclear strategy is nothing if not complicated, but it’s long past due for an open and candid discussion on what truly amounts to a threat, and what is simply political hate-speech.

Next week’s issue will contain the second part of this analysis – two valid concerns and threat percpetions: the Pakistani example, and the Samson Option.


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