December 8, 2010

Vim of Pride and Fear: Iran’s nuclear ambitions and global security

    Wednesday, December 08, 2010   No comments


Two matters are intimately connected: security and economic power. How countries leverage economic power to maintain security and how security is used as pretext for monopolizing power show the interconnectedness of economic development and global security. For the three cases that I will examine (North-South Korea, India-Pakistan, and Iran-West standoffs), I argue that pride and fear are the ultimate driving forces that hold the key to peaceful resolutions or further confrontations.

It is not a coincidence that the five nations with permanent seat on the UNSC are nuclear. Anyone of these states can exert a veto to dismiss any UNSC resolution that it does not like. All five states are also economic powers hardly in need of more leverage to protect their interests. Being the elite club that it is, many nations are working hard to acquire nuclear technology thinking that their ability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons would not only allow them to protect their interests but also allow them to demand a place at the table in the UNSC. President Obama’s declaration of support to India’s bid for a permanent seat on UNSC feeds this perception. Ambitious regimes who prefer short cuts over time demanding economic growth think that going nuclear can elevate their status even if they are poor.

The Middle East is moving towards nuclear confrontation unless this trend is reversed. Although Israel is believed to be the only nuclear nation in the region, the rise of Iran after the 1979 revolution created a new reality. Many observers characterize the tension in the region as the direct outcome of Iran’s development of sophisticated weapons (and possibly nuclear ones) to counterbalance the Israeli might. The reality, as the US Embassies’ cables suggest, is about an ideological and historical dichotomy splitting Iran and the rulers of its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Israel is being used by all parties for public consumption but the distrust between Iran and the Gulf States’ rulers who helped Saddam in his eight year war against Iran is insurmountable.

With Iran and the super powers meeting for another round of negotiation in the last two days, one ought to think about the reasons and potential of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a time when secret recipes for a lethal bomb—just like that for an exotic meal—is just few keyboard strokes away, it should be obvious for everyone that if a country is stubbornly determined to build nuclear weapons, there is no certain way of stopping it from achieving that goal. It can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped.

The practical and long-term solution is to make such a country realize that there are other enduring and practical solutions than developing dumb weapons of blackmail. This can be done first by listening and understanding the fears and needs that push a community to embrace weapons that do not discriminate.

Second, the countries who have these weapons must work to eliminate them not gloat about them. It is utterly counterproductive to argue that nuclear weapons are dangerous only if they are in the hands of non-democratic countries. Evidently, a democracy is bankrupt if it is dependent on weapons of mass destruction to exist and spread.

Iran is a state founded on a Shi`i ideology. Shi`is, throughout history, were subjected to genocidal persecution on the hands of many Sunni regimes. The fact that Iran is not ethnically Arab adds to the wall of mistrust between Iran and its Arab neighbors ruled by non-representative regimes.

Moreover, Iran is a proud nation: proud of its long history as a former empire, proud of its religious heritage as the heir of the grievances and faith of members of the household of the Prophet, and proud of its revolution. All these factors together propel Iran to dream of a leading role in the world today.

However, the ambitions of greatness and the threats from its neighbors place Iran in a tough balancing act. They must rely on themselves without being isolated from the larger Muslim community. For this reason, Turkey, the only Sunni democratic powerhouse in the region can play a major role not only in bringing about reconciliation between Iran and its neighbors but also in bridging the trust deficit between Iran and the West.

In all cases, however, Iran’s strategy has been and can only be defensive not offensive. Since 1979, Iran did not occupy or threaten to occupy its neighbors despite the fact that it was attacked by Saddam’s Iraq which was aided by the Gulf States rulers.

Iran, as a Shi`i state is about preserving the first Ja`fari-run nation in the history of the Islamic civilization. Iran is also about supporting the rest of the Shi`i minorities elsewhere and the Lebanese Shi`is are an indispensible part. For this reason, Iran cannot and will not use nuclear weapons against Israel given that such weapons are indiscriminate. If Iran were to bomb Tel Aviv with nuclear missiles, or if missiles fall off target, Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims, especially those living in southern Lebanon (Shi`is) will be wiped out as well. Nuclear weapons are not smart weapons; they cannot be controlled; they do not discriminate between Shi`i and Sunni or between Muslim and Jew.

Moreover, even if we were to suppose for the sake of argument that Iran would use nuclear weapons in support of the Palestinians, then one would think that this threat can be rendered moot by finding a solution for the Palestinian problem, which in turn will render the nuclear threat altogether academic. After all, if the Palestinians were to settle their dispute with Israel in a satisfactory way, what reason would Iran have for continuing to threaten Israel? Keeping in mind that, as recently as last week, Hamas leaders indicated that they would accept a viable Palestinian state over the 1967 borders, Iran too will accept that to which the Palestinians agree.

For this reason, the ongoing negotiation between Iran and the West must include this issue as a path towards ending the logic of nuclear weapons. The Middle Eastern conflict must be part of a broader strategy of disarmament. In order to achieve this goal the West should rely on Turkey, especially, to build confidence and create a permanent channel of communication between all parties. In doing so, Iran will not only leave its fears, but will preserve its pride as it finds a Sunni ally in Turkey. Arab nationalist such as the leaders of Egypt and Sunni fundamentalists such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia cannot offer Iran the confidence to look beyond the legacy of persecution.

In short, Iran can and would abandon its ambitions for nuclear weapons if its fears are alleviated and its pride is preserved. The West cannot and should not fight on behalf of rulers without public mandate, such as the rulers of the Gulf States and Egypt. It should focus on working for building lasting peace, not preserving illegitimate rulers. A first step in this direction is to invest more political capital in the coming negotiation rounds with Iran.


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Islamic Societies Review Editors

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