In contemplating an Iranian bomb, some claim not to be “that” concerned. After all, we learned to live with the Soviet bomb, didn’t we? Thus, we can learn to live with the Iranian model simply by again practicing basic deterrence. And, these observers often add, it’s one thing to have the knowledge to build the bomb, and even the materials, and quite another to build it. They go on to say, further, that transforming the “device” into a weapon is still one more challenge. They like to cite a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which many experts do not believe, that claims that Iran stopped part of its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.
What to make of this? If we examine the optimists’ optimism, part by part, we find it does not amount to much.
First, deterrence. Yes, we deterred the Soviet Union under the rubric of MAD - mutually assured destruction. There was no nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow. But, while we had no nuclear war, we had a series of small, vicious wars - Korea, Vietnam - that were not deterred by the huge nuclear stockpiles on each side of the Cold War struggle. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran might actually make conventional Iranian military adventurism more, not less likely. Iran could probe around, threaten, sponsor terrorism, even launch attacks with little fear that anyone would respond strongly against the Iranian homeland, and risk nuclear retaliation. At least, that could be the Iranian leaders’ thought. After all, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June of 1950, sponsored by Moscow, occurred only a year after the Soviets exploded their first nuclear device. That was not a coincidence. The Russians knew that their having the bomb made it much less likely for us to attack their native soil in response to any action they might take or sponsor.
Nor is it certain that the principle of deterrence, practiced successfully by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., would stop Iran from using a nuclear weapon. The Soviet Union, with all its horrors, was rational. It had fought World War II and suffered ghastly casualties. There is no evidence that either the Soviet government or its people looked forward to another world conflict. But Iran is a theocracy, where martyrdom is revered. We do not actually know if the mullahs would reject a nuclear exchange if that exchange meant achievement of a religious goal - like the destruction of Israel. In World War II we were shocked when Japanese pilots crashed their planes into American ships. Soldiers, after all, were supposed to have a desire to survive. We cannot be sure that a nuclear-proportioned kamikaze attack would be ruled out by a nation guided by an extreme religious doctrine.
The actual construction of the bomb is an engineering project, not a scientific one. The theoretical knowledge of how to build a nuclear bomb existed before World War II. If the Iranians can enrich the uranium fuel needed, they can probably build the bomb without too much difficulty.
Unfortunately, the western press pays too much attention to something called “weaponizing” - the process of turning a device into a weapon. An example would be placing a nuclear explosive on the tip of a missile, inside its warhead. But nuclear-tipped missiles should not be our greatest fear. When the United States exploded the world’s first nuclear device in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, the apparatus was known to the scientists who built it as “the gadget.” And that is exactly what it was. It was not a bomb. It was not mounted in an artillery shell or atop a rocket. It was a large sphere, with much of its wiring held in by tape. But at the appointed moment, it changed the world. On August 6th, barely three weeks later, a weaponized version, in the recognizable form of a bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima. The explosions at Hiroshima and New Mexico did not look notably different.
Iran doesn’t have to weaponize anything. All it needs is that sphere, that gadget, to explode. A device put aboard a ship and sailed, undetected, into an American harbor, and then set off by a suicide crew, could inflict more fatalities in a few seconds than we have suffered in all American wars put together. Sailed into Haifa harbor in Israel, it could destroy most of the city. In the hold of an Iranian airliner, flown off course by the same kind of operatives who destroyed the World Trade Center, it could create a disaster that would dwarf 9-11. Depending on the sophistication of the plot, we might not even be able to determine which nation or group carried it out.
The fact that Iran could have that capability, even if it had only one or two gadgets, would alter its relationship with the entire world. Intellectual arguments would come down from on high, of course, insisting that the Iranians could never use the devices, for this reason or that. But most intellectual arguments are based on the assumption that people act rationally, that they calculate. What happens, though, if Iran does not act rationally? And what happens if we fear that it won’t? The fear that an Iran with only one or two gadgets could spin out of rational control could start to dictate our policy throughout the region.
Some seek to assure the Israelis that they need not worry about the Iranian bomb because Israel would be placed under the American nuclear umbrella. First, it must be noted that this has not been done. Second, what precisely does it mean? Presumably, it means that, if Israel were largely destroyed by Iranian nuclear weapons, we would largely destroy Iran. But would we? If Israel were gone, would we really kill tens of millions of Iranians, plunging us into a war with Muslim civilization, simply because we had promised it? It is more probable that an American president would simply tell the nation that deterrence had failed, but that we were not going to commit genocide over a promise to a nation that no longer existed.
There are many myths about an Iranian bomb. The greatest myth is that we can live with it because nations act rationally. We can also die with it, because sometimes nations do not.
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