I believe that the question of why exactly Iran wants the bomb is the essential question of the whole discussion/debate/controversy. The answer will guide us to the sensible policy vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran’s ambitions are purely nefarious, and the ultimate objective of the program is one of violence, then I don’t question the force with which Prime Minister Netanyahu and the rest of the pro-Israel community are pushing for continued and increased sanctions as part of a tough response to the regime. If, however, the desire is simply a response to a “long train of abuses” (if I may so bold as to use the legendary words of Thomas Jefferson), then I question that ferocity expressed by Netanyahu, and would lean towards the benign, diplomatic approach that is being pursued by President Obama. The question therefore, must be evaluated with the utmost sincerity and fairness.
Let us start with Netanyahu’s claim, that Iran’s intention for the bomb is solely for violent purposes. In his 2015 speech to Congress, Netanyahu quoted from the Iranian constitution, which declares a universal duty of jihad. This is indeed exclusive to Iran; no other relevant Islamist state constitution has such a clause. Thus, I don’t believe one would be fair to dismiss it as empty rhetoric. Furthermore, the Mullahs who hold power in the regime, most notably the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, is vocal in his wishes to see a destroyed West, the representatives of course being Israel and the United States. His predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared the US the “Great Satan” and Israel the “Little Satan.” This kind of rhetoric is rather mainstream among regime leaders, including the current and past Presidents, so ignoring it as inconsequential is ill-advised.
Then of course there is the issue of Iranian terrorist activity, most notably among its proxies Hizbullah and Hamas. Charged with the task of harassing Israel in Iran’s stead, both groups clearly state and act upon their intention to destroy the Jewish State, regardless of Israel’s borders or policies. Iran is clearly in charge, supplying not only manpower, money and weapons, but also serving as the training ground and command center for the groups’ activities.
Ergo, the claim among the pro-Israel camp lead by Netanyahu and AIPAC is two fold, or two pronged. The more unlikely claim (even with Iran’s possession of ICBM’s) is that the bomb will actually be used against Israel or the US. The second, and more plausible claim is that the bomb will empower and embolden the already aggressive regime. Hizbullah and Hamas will only step up their hostilities against Israel and possibly the US, knowing that the new nuclear fatherland is virtually impervious to the threat of foreign invasion.
The other side of this argument is much less convinced of this claim of the innate or inevitable violence attached to the Iranian regime. This camp, perhaps lead by President Obama, but in reality probably lead by neorealist political theorists (ex. Kenneth Waltz) and skeptics of the pro-Israel and American neoconservative (war-hawk) movements, argues that Iran’s desire for the bomb is perfectly rational. There is, in fact, a long list of abuses and injustices against Iran at the hands of the US, for which a nuclear bomb may serve as a remedy and deterrent.
Let’s start from the beginning. The US, in conjunction with Great Britain, overthrew the country’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, and imposed a highly unpopular, yet pro-Western dictator: Mohammad Reza, the Shah. As you can imagine, the Iranian people were incensed with the West, the head of which was the US. In 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini took power, the US, which had provided sanctuary for the fleeing Shah, refused to extradite him to Iran for trial, only enraging the county further (and forcing it to hold on to the 52 hostages from the overrun embassy). When Iraq invaded Iran unprovoked in 1980 and continued a bloody war for close to a decade, the US supported Iraq with money and weapons, including biological and chemical weapons that were used against Iranian troops. Estimates of Iranian losses lie between 200,000 and 600,000. To make matters worse, in 1988, the US Navy shot down an Iranian jetliner, Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 on board. While acknowledging the accident, the US never formally apologized.
Then, in his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush declared Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, part of the Axis of Evil. The US Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq in October of 2002, and the invasion began early 2003. The Hussein regime was subsequently toppled. North Korea left the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) right then in early 2003, ultimately proceeding with a successful nuclear test in 2006. The US has not, nor will probably ever invade North Korea and topple its regime.
Doesn’t this story portray Iran’s nuclear ambitions as imminently rational and understandable? Iran has put up with hostile and aggressive US behavior for decades. It has seen the US topple one of the three regimes in its Axis of Evil, and stop in its tracks only once the other obtained a nuke. If you’re an Iranian citizen or a regime leader, why would you not get a nuke at all costs?
This is why Iran has spent much of its resources trying to acquire nuclear weapons, with the explicit intent to stymie any possible invasion or military threat to the regime. Iran has no reason to trust the US given the unfortunate history.
But aside from the anti-American element to their nuclear ambitions, there is also the Israel piece. Currently, Israel is the undisputed regional hegemon, being a nuclear power with an incredibly powerful and sophisticated air force and tank corp. Israel and the US are very strong allies (for better or for worse, and the discussion about the alliance can best be evaluated in another piece). Iran can’t like being second to a hegemon allied with its key aggressor. Therefore, simply in the name of the balance of power, Iran’s nuclear ambitions seem legitimate.
It is difficult to know what the answer is to this ultimate question. I feel like the only man who truly knows is Ayatollah Khameini himself. But it’s also difficult to swallow the reality that perhaps Israel and the US have very different paths to take vis-à-vis Iran. The Iranian threat to Israel, whether it be direct of indirect, is very real. I’m not convinced that Iran’s interest in becoming the regional hegemon will subside once a nuke is attained. There’s no reason to think that both Hizbullah and Hamas will cease their anti-Israel military operations simply because the nuclear playing field between Israel and Iran is more even. Hence Israel’s interest in stopping a nuclear Iran is dire, and a military campaign may be the best or only option at this point.
The US on the other hand cannot ignore the relevant history. True, Iran has been aggressive, both in words and actions towards the US. But as we’ve seen, this conduct is only rational given the host of grievances the US has bestowed upon Iran. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, from an American standpoint, should serve as a wake-up call about it’s own actions, not a threat of violence. It may serve in the US’s interest to pursue a diplomatic approach, acknowledging Iran’s legitimate worries and fears about US invasion and regime-change tendencies and apologizing for years of injustices. I think this alternative to another senseless war is the best option. But again, Israel is a different story. I hope the Iranian issue does not serve as a breaking point in the solid relationship between the US and Israel, but I predict much tension between the two allies in the near future.