I’ve already noted how pundits are misrepresenting the current diplomatic moves regarding Iran’s nuclear program – some of them radically so – but something few Western commentators discuss is why Iran wants The Bomb. Since, no matter what they say, Tehran certainly aspires to be a member of the nuclear weapons club eventually. That is a select group of countries and getting membership puts you in a different category, internationally speaking. Given how much pain Iran has endured over its nuclear enrichment program – sanctions, economic degradation, international isolation, to say nothing of cyberattacks and assassinations – it’s clear someone in the regime’s leadership thinks nukes are worth a great deal indeed.
And they may be right. So today I want to discuss why Iranians want nuclear weapons. Now, they could be wrong in wanting The Bomb. As my colleague Tom Nichols has explained at length, the United States has overvalued the actual strategic worth of nuclear weapons for so long that many countries have joined the atomic bandwagon, at great economic and political expense, perhaps without thinking it through all the way.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Twelver Shia fanatics who get off on fantasies of ending the Zionist project with a mushroom cloud – there are powerful and prominent Jews who publicly fantasize about nuking Iran, so it’s not altogether surprising there are notable Iranians who do the opposite – nor am I discussing Iranians who think bringing on armageddon is a great way to make the Hidden Imam reveal himself.
I’m talking about reality-based Iranians who have a grasp of strategy, meaning a sense of how power works in their region. It’s easy to forget that the Persians have lived in their neighborhood for a long, long time, and they know everybody and everybody knows them. Remember the movie 300? That’s these guys.
I teach strategy to mid-career and senior military officers from my country and many others, and though I claim no special insight into the Persian strategic mind, I can look at a map and I think I understand the intersection of ends, ways and means that we call strategy. So here’s how it looks to me, and I suspect to a lot of non-fanatical Iranians too.
From Tehran, I look to the north and see a country that, on a good day, can be termed a frenemy. We’ve got a lot of bad history with the Russians, some quite recent, and while they aren’t a direct strategic threat to us, neither are they to be trusted, not even for a moment.
To the west it looks somewhat better, since Iraq is now ruled by a Shia-dominated government that is filled with politicos who are beholden to us to one degree or another. Our spies operate in Baghdad pretty freely. But Iraq is still an American colony in military terms, and the Americans took out Saddam when he got on their nerves, so presumably they can unseat the current government if they feel like it too.
To the east, the Great Satan actually does occupy the country, and despite the fact that our interests and America’s interests align almost eerily well in Afghanistan – something the geniuses in Washington, DC, have a hard time seeing, somehow – this creates strategic vulnerabilities for us. We’re sandwiched in, in other words.
And our access to the outside world – it’s the Persian Gulf, don’t forget, no matter what the Arabs say – is completely bottled up by the American fleet, which we can only challenge with small boats filled with fanatics bent on martyrdom. We have no real naval power, so we are at the mercy of the Great Satan here, and there’s really nothing we can do about it.
A bit further to the south you’ve got the weird, malignant family firm called Saudi Arabia, which is obsessed with us – ok, we’re obsessed with them too – and bankrolls all our enemies, everywhere. The House of Saud will eventually collapse when the money runs out, they’ll go back to the camels they were riding when Persia was already a great civilization, but that won’t be as soon as we’d like. It’s especially worrying that Riyadh now is cozying up to the Zionists.
We certainly don’t forget about them. It’s a small country but they have hundreds of nuclear weapons, and their ex-commando prime minister seems to enjoy reminding us of how much he wants to bomb our country. Their relationship with the Americans is complicated – we’re never entirely sure who’s the tail and who’s the dog there – but we take it as a given that the Israelis are out to get us. Never take your eyes off them.
Most of all, we noticed that you need a nuclear weapon because it’s the only guarantee that the Americans won’t kick off Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM anytime they feel like it. You’d have to be an idiot not to notice this, as it’s the clear lesson of the last decade, when President Bush read the notes written up by that weird Canadian and coined the “Axis of Evil.” You may not remember that one, but we certainly do, and we noticed that the Iraqi regime, which lacked a nuclear weapon (by the way, it was really stupid of Saddam to make everyone think he almost had The Bomb – don’t feel bad, he fooled us too), got taken out, while the North Koreans, who are much nuttier than Saddam or even our oddest ayatollahs, got left alone, as Pyongyang has The Bomb.
So we got it. Getting a nuclear weapon means security and therefore is worth the enormous political and economic cost to get one. We also understand that we must never, ever trust the Americans, because if you agree to give up your nuclear program and cease support for liberation movements (which the West calls “terrorists”), you’ll eventually get sold down the river and wind up half-naked in a sewage ditch, shot in the head by a gold-plated pistol. The Americans don’t even go to bat for longtime friends like Mubarak, do you really think their word is good when they already hate you?
No thanks, we’ll keep working on nuclear enrichment, we’ll play the diplomatic game as long as necessary. We want the sanctions lifted, so we may even agree to some pretty serious restrictions on our nuclear program, but we’ll never give it up entirely. Somehow the Americans and their friends have forgotten that the Shah also wanted The Bomb, as the CIA was aware, because he could read a map too, his friendship with the Americans and Zionists notwithstanding. A lot of Iranians who despise the mullahs and wish the Shah were still running the country want nuclear weapons as well. It’s not complicated, really. It would be nice if foreigners understood this.