A theory on Iran

Apparently, every couple years, we need to worry about Iran getting nuclear weapons. This trend persists despite the fact that the US intelligence community concluded in 2007 (under Bush!) that Iran had suspended their nuclear program in 2003 (pdf, see “Key Judgments”). I know of no contradictory report since then, and if anything, Iran’s security situation has improved in the interval — the U.S. has pulled out of Iraq and is likely to begin pulling out of Afghanistan somewhat soon (look at a map to see why Iran might take our invasion of precisely those two countries kind of personally).

The reason that we are supposed to be worried about the prospect of an Iranian nuke is that they would presumably immediately start a nuclear war with Israel — so passionate and insane is their devotion to anti-Semitism that the leadership would effectively commit national suicide in order to kill a lot of Jews.

I’m going to suggest that such an outcome is… unlikely. Further, I’m going to suggest that the appropriate metaphor for the Iranian regime is not the suicide bomber, but the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Yes, they’re devoted to a kind of crazy project that they may be coming to realize is unlikely to work over the long haul, but they’re fundamentally rational. The goal is basically to keep things going for as long as possible — ruling out options like spite-induced national suicide.

If we assume that they are fundamentally rational in the sense of being self-preserving, then that opens up the possibility to consider another fact that’s long been in the public record: Iran has sought the technology for nuclear power generation across basically all the postwar regimes. Why might this be? I may be missing something, but maybe it’s because if they can generate power by other means, they’ll have more oil left over to sell on the world market. This would have the rationally desirable outcome of giving them more money.

Hmm… self-preservation and greater wealth, or some obscure religiously-induced desire for self-destruction — which is more plausible, do you think?

(One might also say that they would want a nuclear weapon in order to deter a U.S. invasion or Israeli attack, etc., but that presumes that their policy is to pursue a nuclear weapon, for which I know of no clear evidence other than the assertions of opinion columnists.)

5 thoughts on “A theory on Iran

  1. And, in comparison, Israel demonstrates itself not to be fundamentally rational — being willing to commit national suicide on the basic assumption that they have a backer for their insanity, who will step in and take the heat with no questions asked because we always have. What happens to Israel if we don’t? What would we have done if an ally in the Cold War had decided it was worth starting a hot war with the Russians? We would have actively worried about WWIII, and we would have shut them down.

    Hell, we’ve been a party to a cold war with a notional Islamic international for decades now. And we fight skirmishes on the edges of the real problem, because Iraq and Afghanistan are safer — just as Korea and Vietnam were safer. Protecting our interests in the region, fighting terrorism, spreading democracy…

  2. Also I continue to think it’s brilliant that an OPEC member would want to get out of using petroleum products — and would have a rational interest in pursuing power generation by means other than fossil fuels that its customers don’t. After all, who will peak oil affect worst? The customers who can’t buy it but still have money, or the salesman who runs out of product?

  3. Adam

    You’re correct in saying that no one has directly contradicted the claim you cite from the 2007 NIE, but the IAEA reported suspicions last November that Iran has been testing explosives at Parchin in a manner consistent with a nuclear weapons program. The blasting chamber referred to in the allegations was constructed pre-2003 and inspectors have been denied access to the site during their last several visits to Iran.

    That having been said, no one’s intelligence indicates that Iran has made the decision to actually develop a weapon. In fact, Khomenei has repeatedly claimed that Iran is firmly against the development of nuclear weapons. It seems Iran wants to keep the international community guessing.

    I think the main reason they continue to give the international community reason to suspect them of seeking a nuclear weapon is to extract perks as part of some kind of negotiation. This has been their strategy over the past several years, and so far it has backfired—I think Iran was unprepared for the US’s rejection of the Brazil-Turkey plan. I also think the advancement of this strategy has been stifled by domestic squabbling among Iranian political factions seeking to outflank each other to the right—if Iran’s leaders openly reached out to the West and accepted one-sided P5+1 preconditions for talks, they would be inviting accusations of weakness from their opponents.

    The broader reason they’ve toyed with developing a nuclear weapon has more to do with regional geopolitics than anything else. As you say, it’s incredibly unlikely that Iran would launch a nuclear war against Israel, but nuclear weapons capacity–that is, the ability to quickly build nukes if doing so would be a strategic asset–gives them deterrence capacity vis-a-vis Israeli aggression. Once Iran poses a credible threat of being able to leak nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, etc., the more sane members of Israel’s leadership will think twice before pummeling Beirut with cluster bombs or dropping white phosphorous on Gaza. If Iran can check Israel in this way, they radically enhance their popularity domestically, on the “Arab street”, and with new “soft Islamist” governing parties emerging from the Arab spring.

    I can’t really speak to your thesis about nuclear energy and Iran’s oil supply, but it’s an interesting one I haven’t heard before. You might want to look up some of Vijay Prashad’s recent articles on Iran in the Asia Times and elsewhere, as he seems to view the issue through a similar optic.

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