President Barack Obama has said that it is time to reduce speculation about war with Iran. But who’s been doing the talking? American warships have been controversially sailing around the Strait of Hormuz for months, leading our president to declare publicly that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from developing the capacity for nuclear weapons. We all know what that means.
I yield to none in my distaste for the theocrats in Iran. Apart from ourselves, they are the chief state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East. Their human rights record is appalling — they execute their citizens even more zealously than we do.
All these things make them untrustworthy. None of them justify war. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate found no indication that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Similar reports in 2007 and 2010 came to the same conclusion. So why is everyone talking of war?
The drive behind the American conversation is that Israel is wound up about the prospect of an Iranian bomb, and they have proper cause for concern. Any time a nation of 75 million repeatedly proclaims its intention to wipe a nation of 6 million off the map, especially after the antagonist develops a nuclear capacity, anxiety understandably heightens. However, the Israelis have more than Iran to worry about. Its own nuclear arsenal is the only ultimate guarantee of its survival. If Iran acquires a bomb, there will be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. An Israel equipped with a regional nuclear monopoly is a true Doomsday deterrent. An Israel surrounded by hostile neighbors similarly armed is just a sitting duck.
To make matters worse, American military aggression has caused even more trouble. George W. Bush attacked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the pretext of destroying its secret weapons program. There was no such program, which Bush knew, but he proceeded anyway. It is clear that the U.S. was prepared to attack anyone it chose simply based on the claim, substantiated or not, that it was developing nuclear weapons or even unapproved conventional ones.
Saddam was later blamed for bluffing. Had he permitted U.N. weapons inspectors to carry out their work, the absence of any prohibited weapons program would have been demonstrated. But Saddam faced a catch-22. Defenseless, a bluff was the only deterrent he had. Uncle Sam could always have manufactured “evidence” against him, no matter what the inspectors said. That, in fact, was exactly what Bush’s intelligence chop shop did.
Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, seeing himself as a next target, unilaterally dismantled his own nuclear program in the wake of Saddam’s fall. For this he was welcomed back into the international community. He came to New York and spread his tent. He fantasized about Condoleezza Rice, who told him he was a good boy.
That era of good will came to an end with the Arab Spring. Obama saw easy pickings when some Libyan tribes revolted against Gadhafi. Ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, he intervened to prevent the recapture of Benghazi, the rebels’ last remaining stronghold. The result was crippling. It prolonged a civil war by six months, caused uncounted thousands of casualties, and, as in Iraq, replaced an authoritarian state with a failed one.
This story had a moral, too. If you feign possession of weapons of mass destruction, America will attack you. If you publicly disarm yourself, America will attack you anyway. In other words, if Gaddafi had kept his nuclear capability, he would be alive and well today.
If America has you in its sights, you better have the bomb. If you’re Iran, you might not be able to hit the U.S. directly, but you can blow away its proxy, Israel. As a deterrent, that would be nearly as good.
Iran’s position is that it needs a bomb to protect itself against the world’s military colossus, even if it is American policy that has created the situation. However, Iran might want the bomb for other reasons: for example, to assert itself as a regional hegemony. It is much less likely, if at all, that it would wish to destroy Israel, although that is a bet Israel is understandably reluctant to make. But it is dramatically clear that a peaceful Middle East is the only way to avoid a nuclear war. That, of course, is a very tall order , but it begins with restraint, starting with the world’s only superpower. America needs to end its occupation of Afghanistan stop its saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf. It needs to restrain Israel, which is already launching cyber warfare and targeted assassinations with Iran. It needs to stay out of Syria, whose rebels, with the precedent of Libya, are banking on American support.
This is not to say that other regional actors are innocent. It is not to say, either, that diplomacy can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them. The brutal fact is that in a world of nuclear anarchy, no resourceful power that wants the bomb can be denied the bomb. Iran will certainly want it if it feels threatened. The choices are all bad, but some are much worse than others.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at email@example.com.