May 1, 2012

The prospect of proliferation

Iran’s irrational leadership cannot be trusted to maintain a stable, isolated nuclear program in a volatile region.

Last Friday, the Maroon ran a convincing and insightful op-ed by Ajay Ravichandran regarding the dangers of war with Iran. One especially persuasive point, among others, was this: If Iran’s leaders are rational enough to be deterred by a conventional strike on its nuclear program, then they ought to be deterred from using nuclear weapons in the first place. I do not wish to take up any argument with Ravichandran’s points, but rather to extend the conversation.

Much of the debate over Iran’s nuclear program centers on whether its leaders can be characterized as “irrational.” But of course Iran’s leaders are irrational! They are responsible for an undeclared proxy war against Israel, have sponsored international terrorism from Argentina to Thailand, and have savagely oppressed their own people. However, insanity comes in degrees, and it is unlikely that the Iranian regime would be able to survive the wrath of the international community—or even its own generals—if it did something as foolish as use nuclear weapons against another state.

The danger of a nuclear Iran is not that Iran would actually use nuclear weapons, but rather that it would further proliferation in the region.

To Iran’s west, rival powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the potentially soon-to-be anti-Iranian government of Syria may seek their own nuclear deterrent, unsure of Iran’s future intentions. The same may be said of Iraq, which possessed a nuclear program in the past. A nuclear Iran would also make it politically impossible for Israel to give up its own stockpile. As tensions in the Persian Gulf rise, so might oil prices, since shipping companies and oil conglomerates demand a higher risk premium for doing business in the region. Soothing words by our handsomest political scientists about nuclear deterrence and the stability-instability paradox are unlikely to assuage these economic actors.

One could make the argument that if the U.S. provides a nuclear shield over Iran’s Arab rivals, it would no longer be necessary for those states to develop their own nuclear weapons. But even if the U.S. took such a course of action today, there is no guarantee that it would commit to it tomorrow. When one takes into account the United States’ declining power and influence, promises of a long-term nuclear umbrella over the Gulf have little credibility.

An oft-neglected aspect of this discussion concerns the countries to Iran’s east. Pakistan would find itself surrounded on two fronts by nuclear powers, making it more difficult to convince that country (and, therefore, to convince India) to disarm. When Iran’s influence in the Muslim world expanded after the 1979 revolution, it also provoked a murderous reaction from a slew of bigoted militias in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, who continue to attack Shiite worshippers. These groups are generally sympathetic to the ideology of the Taliban. Another expansion of Iranian influence today might enrage and embolden these thugs yet again.

Though the debate on Iran has raged furiously for many years now, the risk of nuclear proliferation is especially acute in the post–Arab Spring world. The intervention in Libya would not have been possible had Gaddafi retained his nation’s weapons of mass destruction, and there would not even be a debate on a humanitarian corridor or no-fly zone in Syria if that regime had nuclear weapons. In effect, possession of nuclear weapons immunizes homicidal regimes from external pressure. That is good news to those who oppose the principle of Responsibility to Protect, but bad news for the future victims of the next state that decides to mow its people down like flowers.

So when we are talking about a nuclear Iran, we are talking about more than just one extra member in the nuclear club. One could of course enumerate even more gloomy scenarios; I do not claim to know the specific chain of events that an Iranian nuclear bomb may set in motion. But this is precisely the point: Any foreign policy that requires one to predict the future is generally an ill-advised one, especially when it comes to this region of the world. One simply needs to consider the monumental changes that have occurred in the Middle East and South Asia over the past 40, 20, 10, or even five years to appreciate the extent to which this whole affair is a black box. The last thing we should want to add to this chaos is more nuclear weapons.

Chase Mechanick is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.