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 to why.
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. To 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.
If Pakistan 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 is 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 part 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 “its 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.
The goal of the energy initiative would be to include fossil fuel producers (in the Middle East and elsewhere) in a global energy strategy that weans us all from fossil fuels and nuclear power. There would be no better way to signal to everyone that we have abandoned both 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.
About Camron Michael Amin is associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He was project director for the 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.