Home / Robert Farley / Iranian Nukes Re-Visited

Iranian Nukes Re-Visited


Today we’re revisiting the Iran: No Big Deal argument.  First up, my column at WPR makes the case for thinking about Iran in terms of the behavior of other nuclear powers:

The problem with nukes is that there are strong material and normative pressures against their use, not least because states that use nukes risk incurring nuclear retaliation. Part of the appeal of nuclear weapons is their bluntness, but for foreign policy objectives requiring a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, they are useless. As a result, states with nuclear neighbors quickly find that they can engage in all manner of harassment and escalation without risking nuclear retaliation. The weapons themselves are often more expensive than the foreign policy objectives that they would be used to attain. Moreover, normative pressures do matter. Even “outlaw” nations recognize that the world views the use of nuclear — not to mention chemical or biological — weapons differently than other expressions of force. And almost without exception, even outlaw nations require the goodwill of at least some segments of the international community.

Given all this, it is not at all surprising that many countries eschew nuclear programs, even when they could easily attain nuclear status. Setting aside the legal problems, nuclear programs tend to be expensive, and they provide relatively little in terms of foreign policy return on investment. Brazil, for example, does not need nuclear weapons to exercise influence in Latin America or deter its rivals. Turkey, like Germany, Japan and South Korea, decided a long time ago that the nuclear “problem” could be solved most efficiently through alignment with an existing nuclear power.

Why do policymakers, analysts and journalists so consistently overrate the importance of nuclear weapons? The answer is that everyone has a strong incentive to lie about their importance. The Iranians will lie to the world about the extent of their program and to their people about the fruits of going nuclear. The various U.S. client states in the region will lie to Washington about how terrified they are of a nuclear Iran, warning of the need for “strategic re-evaluation,” while also using the Iranian menace as an excuse for brutality against their own populations. Nonproliferation advocates will lie about the terrors of unrestrained proliferation because they do not want anyone to shift focus to the manageability of a post-nuclear Iran. The United States will lie to everyone in order to reassure its clients and maintain the cohesion of the anti-Iran block.

Over at Yale Journal, Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman both responded to my op-ed on the Middle Eastern regional balance of power. Cohen takes a historical track, arguing that nuclear weapons have been important in past crises, while Ackerman points out that many regional actors are quite insistent about the dangers of Iranian nukes. Both are good; check them out. I’ll have a response later that discusses how Cohen gets the history wrong and Ackerman, for lack of a better phrase, gets the ontology wrong.

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  • It bears mentioning that the only nation that has ever used nuclear weapons on an enemy is the US. Man, when even North Korea is more restrained that we are it ought to tell you something.

    There remains the question of whether Iran is in fact developing a nuclear weapons capacity. I suppose the evidence is becoming stronger, but I’m still not sure why it would. As you point out it is expensive and offers little advantage on a regional political basis. Having the bomb and delivering it are two very different issues, and although I suppose Iran might supply others, it seems to me that doing so essentially invites the same retaliation prospects as using it any other way. Seriously, who would Iran use it on?

    • It bears mentioning that the only nation that has ever used nuclear weapons on an enemy is the US.


      What does the end of the Pacific War tell us about the Iran nuke controversy?

      • Jason

        It’s not that the Pacific War ended with an enormous “boom,” but that 65 years have gone by since then and no nuclear weapons on any level (tactical or strategic) have ever been used, despite numerous opportunities for such. That’s all he’s saying.

        • Exactly. And since that time the concept (and reality) of deterrence has come into being.

  • SEK

    (This post is far superior to the one below it, but in my defense–and as should be expected–it contains far less actual punching.)

  • The the Iranian President threatened to wipe Israel off the map crap got stale a long time ago— he said something to the effect that Israel would disappear from the pages of time, like the Soviet Union did. There is no longer a Soviet Union, but all the land and the people on it are still there. This is not a tough concept to grasp.

    Furthermore, the President of Iran is not a powerful man the way the U.S. President is, he’s more of a lippy figurehead.

    Third, as far as I know, the Ayatollah—who really is a powerful man in Iran—has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons that still holds.

    I don’t see a major problem with Israel feeling a bit constrained to take military actions against their neighbors. If other countries in the Middle East having nuclear weapons is such an existential threat to Israel, then perhaps they should dismantle or even reduce their own arsenal. Being the only nuclear power in the Mid-East with the capability to deliver bombs anywhere while stamping their feet and threatening to attack or trying to get U.S. to attack for them every time they think some other nation in the Mid-East might be thinking about developing nuclear weapons is not an admirable state to be in nor is it fair nor is it reasonable.

    Imagine having a nuclear bomb in your back yard that everybody knows about and you can get an idea of what it must be like to be a government with a nuclear arsenal. For a country that has suffered a coup in living memory, nuclear weapons must be an especially troublesome thing to have, because they can be held hostage by their own fanatic countrymen.

    • The the Iranian President threatened to wipe Israel off the map crap got stale a long time ago— he said something to the effect that Israel would disappear from the pages of time, like the Soviet Union did.

      I keep seeing wingnuts on “respectable” nooz shows proclaiming that the Iranians have “repeatedly” threatened to wipe Israel off the map, that they “continue” to threaten to wipe Israel off the map.

      Nobody ever calls them on it.

  • Jason

    Also see Thomas Barnett’s article on “How to Stop Worrying and Live with the Iranian Bomb.”

  • Yes. From wikipedia: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam.[42] The fatwa was cited in an official statement by the Iranian government at an August 2005 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.[43]

    Rumsfeld had some reason to lie, too. Remember, his disingenuous I don’t know why Iran needs nuclear energy sitting on top of all that oil?

    Cheney and Rumsfeld master-minded the scheme, arguing that Iran–even though awash in oil and gas–would need a nuclear program to meet its future energy needs. This plan was to be the first nuclear deal with Iran and would have been extremely lucrative for US corporations such as Westinghouse and General Electric “which stood to earn $6.4 billion from the project.” (The plan to lead Iran into the Nuclear Age was supported by Kissinger although the offer to involve Pakistan was not to his liking, hence his reluctance to propose the plan to Bhutto.)

    Furthermore, an article in the Washington Post–written by Dafna Linzer and published on March 27, 2005–confirms “US involvement with Iran’s nuclear program until 1979” which involved “large-scale intelligence-sharing and conventional weapons sales.”


    Hussein bombed the Bushehr power plant three times. Iran rebuilt it and opened it recently, and yet so many pundits can imagine no other reason for Iran to have nuclear power plants than to manufacture fissile materials. Being a nation with few resources other than a whole lot of oil and needing to import most foodstuffs and building materials can’t be it, it must be the desire to threaten Israel with a nuclear weapon, because the whole nation just hates Israel so much that it is willing to commit suicide for the chance to kill a lot of Jews.

    • dan


      Your characterization of Iran as “Gaza” – only heavier – in that it needs to import the basics is utterly bizarre, and bears no relation to reality. Overall, its the most resource-rich country in the region.

      Iran is a not-too-shabby food exporter, and apart from rice, is largely self-sufficient in its agricultural production; it’s also the LEAST oil intensive economy of the middle eastern OPEC nations. One of the abiding ironies of the Iraq occupation is that much of the building material for the blast walls that got erected everywhere was imported from, yes, you guessed it, that concrete-free zone called Iran.

      At some point, people are going to have to get to grips with the fact that Iran is a G-20 sized economy with a diversified and growing industrial base, and it is in this context, as much as crude security strategy, that its nuclear developments need to be situated.

      • O.K. I had the wrong impression. How is that “bizarre” rather than simply being mistaken?

        • dan

          Because it the contemporary world of air travel, google, book-publishing and the general free flow of information, it’s quite straightforward to actually do the basic checkables.

          That otherwise smart people don’t do the checkables is sad; that propaganda, disinformation and lies become reified into conventional wisdom – no matter how erroneous and how at variance to observable reality – is bizarre. We really do live in Karl Rove’s world.

          • Some “otherwise smart peoples” are quite busy and even take time here and there to read a post and comment while working at home, and being a caregiver, and being an artist, and being a partner, and so smart people choose wisely to limit the amount of time looking things up on the internet for the purpose of an argument that said person has no particular interest in “winning”, because the possible time one could spend looking things up is infinite, and the day is surely not.

            • And now, that dinner is done, the kitchen is clean, and my work day is over; I’m relaxing with a glass of Pinot Noir from the Williamette Valley and a handmade cigar. If something should really whet my curiosity, I’ll look it up. Otherwise, I’ll just catch up on my cyberpals’ websites and the comments on the new posts here, before I start working on my pet project.

  • Nonproliferation advocates will lie about the terrors of unrestrained proliferation because they do not want anyone to shift focus to the manageability of a post-nuclear Iran.

    That is harsh, I don’t think it is bad faith. I’ve argued that it will set off a domino effect that will spiral out of control and make disarmament incredibly difficult. If you are right, and I’m wrong (I don’t think this is true), sole Iranian proliferation would probably make late multi-lateral negotians easier, not harder. It would create more incentives to get the Israelis to the table.

  • wengler

    This whole charade is an attempt to cover up the real geopolitical story in the Middle East-the US flipped Iraq from a staunch anti-Iranian oil power to a nominally pro-Iranian one.

    Saudi Arabia is right now-after pummeling protesters in Bahrain- supporting the overthrow of Assad in Syria. Such an influence on any post-Assad government will likely cause further destabilization and an outbreak of war with Iraq, Israel, Iran, Lebanon and any number of others.

    Iranian nuclear weapons are the sideshow that US policymakers choose to focus on to distract from their absolute stinking failure.

  • cpinva

    the cuban missile crisis was, ostensibly, about a communist dicator, in a country located 90 miles from florida, having nuclear warheads and delivery sytems. supposedly, the US was willing to start wwIII, if that was required to remove that threat. all of which was utter bullshit. this was more political theatre than actual concern about our national security, pushed by the shrieking of the goldwater/birch rightwing.

    castro, is/was irritating, but far from a stupid man. he is a trained lawyer after all. he, and the USSR, both knew that even one launch would result in cuba being a 100,000 year patch of black nuclear glass, as did the kennedy administration. the nukes were simply bargaining chips with the US. considering the bay of pigs, and the various failed attempts by the cia to kill him, castro have every legitimate reason to be suspicious of US motives, on pretty much anything. add the embargo to that, and it’s shocking that he wasn’t more of an irritant than he actually was.

    i suspect iran’s motivations, if indeed they are working on nuclear weapons development, are similar. again, considering our black history in the region, i can’t fault them. and again, we have the shrieking rightwing pushing for an “iran missile crisis” response.

    don’t ever underestimate the tenacity of the rightwing: they’ll never go away, they’ll never, ever quit, and they’ll never, ever admit they might be wrong. really, the only effective way to rid ourselves of them is to kill them. it’s the only way to be sure. of course, by doing that, their whole position would be validated.

    • It was just another move in the chess game that was the Cold War in which one side made a logical move, then the other side cried Threat! Hegemon! We put missiles in Turkey, the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba. We removed missiles from Turkey, the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba.

      It was important that the people of both states see the whole thing as a drama of competing ideologies of Good and Evil, when it was, on both sides competing threats to gain more capability to annihilate one another for the sake of the game itself— keeping their populaces afraid of the other and keeping the military industrial complex flush with enormous sums of money.

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