Whether it is simply a product of political jockeying associated with the US presidential election season or a "real" concern of the institutional networks that constitute the US foreign policy establishment, there has been a marked increase in the rhetorical—and even the practical—mobilization around Iran`s potential nuclear capabilities. Initially, such mobilizations centered on the question of whether and to what degree Iran would grant weapons inspectors access to its nuclear program. Lately, the discussion has shifted to a debate about which set of coercive measures can prevent Iran from acquiring weapon-grade nuclear technology. Importantly, this shift has occurred without a definitive conclusion to the question of whether Iran is indeed weaponizing its nuclear program. This fact speaks to a broader trend in US foreign policy, particularly since the launch of its “Global War on Terror,” wherein the burden of proof is now on the accused (i.e., Iran) and not the accuser (i.e., the United States). In other words, the dominant discourse and the process of policy making in Washington (and Tel Aviv) seems to proceed on the idea that it does not matter that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is developing a weapons component to its nuclear program. Rather, what matters is that Iran has not proven that it is not developing such a component. The awkwardness of the previous double negative sentence speaks to the absurdity of mainstream expectations of such a burden of proof.
However, to dwell too much on the issue of evidence is to miss a deeper problem with both the mobilization to “do something” as well as the prevailing critiques of the beating of the drums of war. On the one hand, anyone with a critical sense of US domestic and global political logics would be unwise to take any "evidence" at face value—should evidence ever in fact become available. One need only remember the build-up to the war on Iraq–and the disaster that the subsequent invasion and occupation unleashed on the Iraqi people. Simply put, the US government is not beyond completely misreading intelligence (in the best-case scenario) or even intentionally fabricating it (in the worst-case scenario).
On the other hand, what if Iran genuinely was in fact developing a nuclear weapons program and was on the verge of accomplishing said goal? This is the problem with countering the war drum with claims—rational as they may be—about the lack of evidence of the existence of such a program. Should Iran actually be developing a nuclear weapon, the basis of the majority of existing opposition to military action against Iran would be undermined. Therefore, if the goal is a principled stance critiquing US aggression against Iran, we might want to consider a more robust basis for sustaining such a critique—one that speaks to the realities of the balance of power, both globally and regionally.
Much of the discussion surrounding Iran`s nuclear program has been centered on one of two issues. The first is the relationship between Israel and the United States and how mobilizations against Iran`s nuclear program factor into that relationship. Here, I am specifically referencing the debates about who is playing lead in the beating of war drums as well as the potential consequences for the “special relationship” should views on how to "deal with Iran" diverge. The second is the question of alternatives to military action, in the form of political isolation, economic sanctions, and—in rare instances—positive incentives, so as to halt the alleged countdown to a nuclear-armed Iran. Missing from these discussions is the question: So what if Iran has a nuclear weapon? On one level, the "so what" might appear irrelevant, insofar as the debate seems to have shifted away from whether or not the United States and/or Israel should attack Iran and, instead, moved towards whether or not the United States and/or Israel can attack Iran. Put differently, irrespective of the "so what," an attack on Iran is assumed to be inevitable if the United States (or Israel) determines that the required political and military capacity to implement such a strike—one that would definitively end Iran`s alleged nuclear weapons program—exists. On another level, when the "so what" question is actually raised, the dominant image of a clerical (read irrational) regime whose strategic calculations are based on heavenly rather than earthly concerns is everywhere to be found. The decision to use a nuclear weapon by the Iranian regime, we are told, would not be based on any rational calculation of self-preservation but on the allegedly impending scenario of either a whimsical tantrum or a spiritual calculation.
The US and Israeli regimes have had over three decades to observe, interact with, and learn about the Iranian regime, even if within the context of an adversarial relationship. Public pronouncements are replete with assertions of the Iranian regime’s proclivity to deploy a nuclear weapon should it acquire one, and there are indeed a chorus of commentators and analysts who genuinely believe in the truthfulness of such pronouncements. However, there should be no doubt that the US and Israeli regimes understand the fallacy of such a dominant characterization. This has never been about the potential for an unprovoked first strike use of nuclear weapons by Iran. Such a fear is unwarranted, as demonstrated by the empirical record of every other nuclear-armed country. It is also unwarranted by virtue of the dynamic role the Iranian regime has played with regard to "stabilization efforts" in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a role required a particular degree of back-channel passive (and at times active) cooperation between Iran and the United States as a means of addressing common interests in the region as well as in those two countries.
Claims of insane leaders, theocratic regimes, and links to non-state actors thus fail to appreciate that the underlying logic of any regime is survival, both biological and political, both at home and abroad. There is no doubt amongst any institutional and collective interests within the Iranian state that the use of a nuclear weapon is both political and biological suicide. Claims to the contrary are grounded in Orientalist, racist, and—quite literally—ignorant understandings of the Iranian regime or any other regime. Is it possible that in a moment of miscalculation, the regime would use such a weapon? Yes. However, the probability of such an occurrence is equal across all cases, western and not, US-allied as well as US-opposed.
This is not to claim that a nuclear-armed Iran is simply a boogieman for different sets of US or Israeli interests (both foreign and domestic). A nuclear-armed Iran does indeed represent a threat to the United States and Israel, but not the type of threat that is being publicly acknowledged. At the heart of the discussions about Iran`s nuclear program is something much more rudimentary than a neoconservative agenda to remake the Middle East or one regional/international power imposing its hypocritical will on other states. The stakes are much higher. This is about the political and military status quo of the region. This is about a collective effort on the part of the United States, Israel, and a bundle of Arab states at preventing that status quo from being forever altered.
To understand the mobilizations against a nuclear Iran—which go beyond just the United States and Israel, even if they are the most powerful and vocal actors—one has to ask what is to be gained and lost by such a development. In considering this issue, it might be helpful to describe the regional status-quo during the approximately two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, This collapse inaugurated the transformation of the global political-military order from one defined by bipolarity to that of unipolarity. One could talk about the domestic status quo across Arab states in terms of incumbent regimes, economic privileges, and the dynamic between Islamist and non-Islamist socio-political forces. One could also talk about the Arab-Israeli status quo as it pertains to Palestinians in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and in neighboring Arab states, as well as to both the Golan Heights and Shib’a Farms. But these status quo issues are not directly at stake in terms of a “nuclear” Iran, although they would be affected.
In terms of international relations, affairs, or whatever phrase is to our liking, the regional status quo is defined by the capacity of the United States and Israel to wage elective strikes/wars whenever and wherever they choose. Such a capacity is indeed varyingly constrained by specific domestic concerns within the United States and Israel, the degree of international permissibility for such acts, and consultations with unequal allies in the region. However, it is nonetheless far greater than was the case during the Cold War, or is the case in other regions with states labeled adversarial (i.e., North Korea).
Consider the following sample in terms of the United States: Operation Desert Shield (1990 deployment of US air and land military presence into Persian Gulf); Operation Desert Storm (1991 airstrikes and ground invasion of Iraq); Operation Desert Fox (1998 airstrikes in Iraq); Operation Enduring Freedom (2001 invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq), Operation Odyssey Dawn (US military operations as part of NATO intervention in Libya). Also consider the following sample in terms of Israel: Operation Accountability (1993 week-long airstrikes in Lebanon); Airstrike on Lebanon (1994 airstrikes in Lebanon); Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996 ground and air military operation in Lebanon); Operation Just Reward (2006 month-long air and ground assault on Lebanon); Operation Orchard (2007 airstrike on Syria). The ability and willingness to wage these and many other strikes/wars in the Middle East is a function of an immense disparity of power between, on the one hand, the United States and Israel and, on the other hand, regional players. While the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis—present conditions in Syria not withstanding—posed the only challenge to US and Israeli hegemony in the region, we should not confuse the existence of this resistance in and of itself with anything approximating an actual balance of power.
Thus it seems plausible that the opposite of what officials, analysts, and pundits claim is true. A nuclear Iran seems poised (in some ways, though not in all ways) to decrease international conflict and Middle East wars rather than to unleash Armageddon. This is true at least in so far as direct acts of aggression are concerned on the part the United States and Israel, which represent the overwhelming majority of the existing record of Middle East wars. Though mainstream US officials, analysts, and pundits would be hard-pressed to admit this fact given that they are unwilling to acknowledge the hubris, aggressiveness, and consequences of US and Israeli strikes, invasions, and occupations throughout the Middle East. At a minimum, the balance of power produced by a nuclear Iran would constrain those actors that are currently most powerful (i.e., the United States, Israel, and to a lesser degree their regional allies). A nuclear-armed Iran would have to be taken into much greater consideration than any other current regional actor when the United States or Israel decides to strike at, invade, or occupy a regional state. Such a calculation would come into play even when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mobilizes to intervene militarily, say in Bahrain. While the region has no shortage of violence, military or otherwise, we should be clear that the large death tolls, miserable living conditions, and population displacements that have characterized the region over the past sixty-five years have ultimately been caused by those very powers that are mobilizing to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran.
The claim is not that a nuclear Iran would necessarily be conducive to resolving outstanding regional issues such as authoritarianism, the Question of Palestine, and the US-Israeli-Saudi attempt to establish hegemony across the region. Furthermore, just as Israel should be condemned for the racism and violence inherent to both its settler colonial project and its hegemonic military policies, the Iranian regime should be condemned for its homegrown brutality, authoritarianism, economic exploitation, and social discrimination. However, there can be little doubt that a nuclear-armed Iran would fundamentally alter the US and Israeli calculus of launching strikes and waging wars in the region, as the stakes of such conduct would be far greater.
The argument offered herein is not a celebration of the existence of nuclear weapons or their proliferation. Even if the United States and Soviet Union never militarily engaged one another directly, historians and other scholars have amply documented how bloody, traumatic, and costly the "Cold War" really was to the millions of bodies and lives, as well as tens of countries, upon which the Cold War proxy wars played out. Ultimately, it was "cold" only for the United States and USSR, while it was hot, bloody, and disastrous for the rest of the world. This is to say nothing of the “side effects” associated with the establishment and management of a nuclear facility, both for the staff as well as the surrounding civilian population and environment. Similarly, a nuclear Iran would not necessarily reduce all conflict and violence in the Middle East as both could very well be channeled into particular types of (proxy) warfare that are just as disastrous. However, this is not what those currently advocating “dealing with Iran” are concerned about, given their already existing penchant for proxy wars.
What is at issue vis-à-vis a nuclear Iran is not simply a question of the United States selecting who gets to have a nuclear weapon and who does not. Its ambitions, and those of Israel (and to a lesser degree the Saudi-led GCC), are much more fundamental and much more principled (vis-à-vis power and the status quo) than that. The goal here is to protect the capacity of the United States and its regional allies to fight wars of choice at will. If a nuclear Iran renders such wars more difficult, it must—the logic goes—be preempted, if necessary by initiating another disastrous regional war.
If the "international community" were really interested in a nuclear-free Iran, it would be wise to consider the underlying motivation for Iran`s nuclear pursuits: parity. If a nuclear Iran is such an unacceptable prospect to the United States (laypeople, commentators, and government officials alike), then the only realistic guarantee of preventing the realization of said prospect is a nuclear-free Middle East, if not a nuclear-free world. Some would claim that such suggestions are idealistic and unrealistic. I would simply respond by saying the following: believing that the United States, Israel, and other Western and regional allies can possess nuclear capabilities, wage elective wars wherever and whenever they want, while at the same time expect Iran—and other adversaries—neither to pursue nor attain nuclear weapons is equally unrealistic and just as ideological.