Monday, December 08, 2008

Debating Iran's Nuclear Program

The editors of my school’s biweekly Communiqué asked me and one of my colleagues to write two Op-Eds on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Below is my contribution and you can also find it, along with that of my colleague’s on pages 2 and 3 of the pdf version of Communiqué here.

Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is not a new source for concern. Dating as far back as the 1950s, several countries in the region have sought to build nuclear programs and ultimately, to acquire nuclear weapons.

As is the tradition in the Middle East, countries are suspicious about their neighbors’ power potential, particularly when it comes to achieving a nuclear breakthrough, even if that means just a few weapons could be produced. This suspicion is logical. Nations in the region are relatively small and only have a limited number of urban centers and no vast or redundant industrial infrastructure. In my country for instance, an attack on Baghdad and Basra with one nuclear warhead each would incinerate or irradiate a third of the population and simultaneously strip Iraq of 90% of its national income. This is one reason why we tend to be wary of nuclear weapons in the hands of neighbors, perhaps more so than people elsewhere.

Iraq and Iran fought a long war during which both countries worked furiously to build nuclear weapons. During the fighting, both countries attacked each other’s nuclear facilities. It took Iraq several air strikes over a span of five years to cripple Iran’s program. Iraq’s reactor was only slightly damaged in an Iranian raid in 1980, but was dealt a grave blow in the Israeli Operation Opera of 1981. Looking back at all the havoc Saddam Hussein wrought, many in Iraq were not unhappy with that attack—nuclear weapons in the hands of impulsive militarist dictators are more likely to undermine national security than reinforce it.

Tensions between Iraq and Iran may have eased now as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but not as much as you’d think. Iraq and Iran are officially not hostile to each other and they maintain formal diplomatic relations. Moreover, the current government in Baghdad is friendly towards Tehran, largely due to the fact that both are Shiite Islamists. However, this does not mean that things are rosy between the two neighbors.

Interests conflict quite often and when that happens, tensions and the possibility of conflict lurk in the background. Iran needs to understand that its pursuit of total security brings with it a sense of total insecurity among its neighbors. In other words, in the Middle East as in other places, states have neither perpetual friends nor eternal enemies. Iraqis are no exception to this rule. Despite their limited experience, Iraqi leaders understand this intuitive balance of power and do not put full trust in anyone. This is exacerbated by the fact that Iranians have played the factions of the Iraqi Shiite majority bloc against one another at different times. As for other Iraqi groups, Kurds don’t really trust Tehran either and consider Washington their main ally. On the other hand, many Sunni Arabs, whether pan-Arab nationalists or Islamists, consider Iran their number-one enemy – even ahead of Israel and the U.S.

To put it bluntly, Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and it will continue to be perceived as such until proven otherwise.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not the challenge, per se. Nuclear power doesn’t threaten people—people threaten people. In fact, I would not have any objection to a guaranteed peaceful nuclear program that can be subject to unconditional inspection.
The problem is that with the current system in Iran, that guarantee is all but impossible. For those Iranians who aspire to the pride and benefits of technological advances in nuclear energy, a clear choice must be made: the regime or the nuclear program, but not both.

Iraqis simply don’t trust Iran and we don’t have a reason to do so. Even if our current leaders in Baghdad seem to befriend Iran, the state and the people are not willing to be hostage to Iranian preponderance. If the goal is nuclear weapons, which I believe to be the case, then we in Iraq and others in the region have justified concerns.

As a student of international security policy, I was taught that threat is a function of the potential adversary’s capability multiplied by his hostile intentions. I’m a realist—that is I believe relations among states are governed by power and interests—and therefore believe that intentions are neither measurable nor do they matter: what matters is capability.

Complaints about “double standards” that tolerate Israel’s nuclear capability, but not those of Iran, do little to convince. Conflict of interests and the potential for hostilities between Iraq and Iran exist, whereas those between Iraq and Israel don’t. Additionally, nuclear weapons in the hands of Israelis have always been for deterrence on the regional level whereas in Iranian hands, they will be used as to coerce others. In any case, Iraq doesn’t want to be in the crossfire between a crazy regime in Tehran and a wary Washington or Tel Aviv. We have had enough.

The solution to this crisis is in Tehran’s hands. If the Iranians decide to avert catastrophe, then they must come clean and let the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors do their job. By obstructing inspections, Iran appears to be hiding something fishy. Tehran needs to reverse course and honor the Non- Proliferation Treaty it signed and begin implementing the obligations the document entails.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Iran will wise up and spare us yet another war in the Gulf. The signs are ominous and there is a striking resemblance between the way Tehran acts today and the way Baghdad did under Saddam. The missile tests, the gloating about military industrial breakthroughs, the work of Quds Forces and yes, talk of annihilating Israel sound all too familiar to me. As we say in Iraq, “I’ve seen this movie before.”