Controlling a hurricane
Iran and the myths of non-proliferation
Camron Michael Amin
February 9, 2005
The recent ups and downs of the European brokered deal between
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency will provide fresh
fuel to the debate over non-proliferation strategy here in the
United States. Full of more heat than light, it will be a pointless
debate. We can no more control nuclear arms than weathermen can
control hurricanes. Our superpower status has insulated us from
perceiving that the global climate is ideal for nuclear arms proliferation.
On the eve of its own Atomic Age, Iran is the case in point as
Leaving aside debates over Iran’s brand of Islamic Republicanism,
the world from Iran’s perspective looks rather frightening.
Other Persian Gulf states compete with Iran for regional dominance.
the north, the still-nuclear Russia competes with Iran for
influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. To the East, there
is an unstable
Afghanistan (with which Iran nearly went to war in 1998) and
a tense nuclear stalemate between Pakistan and India.
were to implode politically (a real risk), it is entirely possible
that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of radical Sunnis
who love Shi’ite Iran about as much as they love India, Israel
and the United States. Israel is assumed to have nuclear weapons
(its "strategic ambiguity" on the subject notwithstanding).
And all around the region (especially now in Iraq) are the forward
bases and allies of a sworn enemy: the United States of America.
From the Iranian Islamic Republican perspective, the United States
more threatening than ever.
The invasion of Iraq demonstrated that
the Bush Administration will use the very real war on terror
(and here Iran has not yet convinced its critics that it is not
of that problem) to advance the Neo-Conservative "Project
for a New American Century" (which calls specifically for
changing hostile regimes in the Middle East). To the Iranian
leaders, nuclear power is not about energy, but about shelter for
way of life" in a dangerous political climate.
In addition to fueling Iran's national security issues, we have
been part of the nuclear weapons proliferation problem by promoting "peaceful
nuclear" energy programs as a fig leaf for our own nuclear
armament. Iran received its first research reactor from the United
States in 1959. Near the old Iranian capital of Isfahan, Iran’s
nuclear program emerged with America’s blessing and the benevolent
supervision of the IAEA.
Indeed, despite the current alarm bells
about Iran’s nuclear program, it remains in compliance with
the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because developing
nations are allowed to develop their own nuclear fuel rather than
rely on technologically more advanced suppliers (like the United
States). Is the answer, then, more robust inspections or more sanctions
or more saber rattling? No.
The answer is leadership away from brink. The rationale for nuclear
weapons is still deterrence.
The Iranians (like Indians, Pakistanis, North Koreans and other
recent or would be members of the "nuclear club") are
seeking to deter both regional adversaries and the global superpower,
us. We need to set a diplomatic agenda that includes: regional
nuclear disarmament, peaceful settlement of regional disputes (notably
Palestine/Israel and Kashmir), and energy self-sufficiency.
goal of the energy initiative would be to include fossil fuel
producers (in the Middle East and elsewhere) in a global energy
that weans us all from fossil fuels and nuclear power. There
would be no better way to signal to everyone that we have abandoned
the economic and strategic rationales for dominating the region
as it appears that we are committed to doing now.
Unlike global warming, the global political climate is something
the United States can influence in the short term. Essential nuclear
weapons technology is now 60 years old. No anti-proliferation policy
will forestall the spread of nuclear weapons forever. Even after
expensive inspections efforts, trade sanctions and, possibly, more
wars, the essential pro-proliferation climate will be the same:
nationally and internationally subsidized "peaceful" nuclear
programs will lay the foundation, and unresolved regional conflicts
will provide the pretext for "flipping the switch" to
nuclear weapons programs.
Unless we lead the way, America will
be an ineffectual nuclear goliath, confronted by dozens of nuclear
offspring who cannot be threatened into behaving anymore. If only
a cold warrior like Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only
a neo-Crusader Texas oil-man like Bush can go to Tehran. He should
look in on Jerusalem and Kashmir while he’s at it.
Camron Michael Amin is associate professor of history at
the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He was project director for
Modern Middle East Sourcebook Project and is the co-editor of The
Modern Middle East: A Sourcebook for History (forthcoming from
Oxford in 2005) and The
Electronic Middle East Sourcebook Project.