Iran and the nuclear question


By Alex Bryan

The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has come out in public saying that whilst British forces have succeeded in thwarting Iran from developing nuclear weapons up to this point, it is highly likely that the Iranian government will acquire them by 2014. With Iran’s nuclear programme, which has been in the ascendency since 2006, seemingly coming to a conclusion in the next couple of years, questions about what this means for global security are once again being asked.

The U.S. has responded quickly; on Thursday, already severe sanctions on trade with Iran were increased, with 11 companies and 4 individuals being barred from doing business with U.S. companies. This suggests that the pattern of sanctions increasing as Iran gets closer to gaining nuclear weapons will not change. America’s policy on this is perhaps still best encapsulated by John McCain’s neo-con adaptation of The Beach Boys song ‘Barbara Ann’; the temptation is simply to ‘bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’.

However, this is 2012, and it two important truths must be recognised in order to form a coherent message to send to Tehran. Firstly, the sheer difficulty of keeping technology and (to a lesser extent) materials controlled and guarded must be acknowledged. Even with enormous resources pledged to stop Iran gaining nuclear materials or technology, there would be no guarantee that they would not gain them.

Second, we must come to terms with the declining influence of America on the world stage. This has become evident in a number of ways, from Uruguay’s drugs policy  to China’s increased economic stature. America’s influence over other nations is waning, and an aspect of this is that it no longer has the means to regulate nuclear material in an effective way.

If we accept both of these statements, then it seems that a different path must be chosen to the one of high-sanctions and possible military threats which is being embarked upon at present. It is too late to prevent Iran from becoming the world’s tenth nuclear power. It is also too late to revert to the twentieth century paradigm which put an emphasis on only the most economically developed nations having nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the idea that we can regulate who has nuclear weapons and put sanctions on those who try to get hold of them without international permission is very strange. The west does not have exclusive rights to nuclear technology, and it is a dangerous strategy to attempt to defend ourselves from nuclear attack by stopping other nations from getting hold of the weapons. Not only is it doomed to failure, but it results in increased resentment towards the west within the nations hoping to assert themselves as significant on the world stage.

So, perhaps we should change tact. Instead of attempting to resist the desire of growing numbers of states to own nuclear weapons, we must come to terms with it. We must remember that the desire to have nuclear capability is not the same as the desire to drop the bomb; Mao was wrong to say that the bomb is a ‘paper tiger’, but his description of a nuclear state without a solid economic base as a ‘beggar who walks out in a beautiful suit’ is apt. It demonstrates how the bomb is a status symbol, an assertion of importance.

Obviously, this should not be used to diminish the immense fear of nuclear potentiality, which is both genuine and rational. The way we talk about nuclear weapons should have changed since the cold war though.

We should no longer think of nuclear weapons as a level above all others. It is not ‘The Bomb’.. Gregory Corso may have been right in 1958 when he described nuclear weapons as ‘Death’s extravagance, Death’s jubilee, Gem of Death’s supremest blue’, but over fifty years on we would do well to think of them in more ordinary ways, more as an aspect of modern war.

We must accept that which is tragic; that nuclear weapons are becoming an established part of modern military equipment and that it is inevitable that more and more states end up in possession of them.

The real threat of nuclear attack comes from the same source as the real threat of non-nuclear attack – non-governmental forces. The fear that Iran may pass nuclear technology onto Hezbollah is the frightening aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme. It is this we should be focussing on.

Iran will soon have nuclear weapons capability, but as long as it is only states (even ones like Iran) which possess this power, it is likely one which will be used sparingly. In the hands of groups which have no public accountability, are more radical than governments and have little to lose, nuclear weapons look terrifying.  It is this we must guard against, and there are more effective ways of doing this than by attempting to prevent states from developing nuclear technology.


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