It is widely believed that the ruling regime in Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons.
Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps the ruling regime in Iran is merely seeking to persuade everybody that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons. A country's political leverage is maximized when it is nearly able to acquire nuclear weapons but has not yet done so. Its neighbors and the world's great powers then have powerful incentives to persuade it not to do so. It can, theoretically at least, extract significant concessions in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions. And because it does not yet have nuclear weapons, it is not yet an imminent threat to the survival of its neighbors, and very far indeed from being an imminent threat to the great powers.
Let us hope that the ruling regime in Iran is merely seeking to persuade everybody that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons in order to extract concessions in return for abandoning nuclear ambitions that it does not have. But let us not bet on that hope: it is a hope that is likely to be in vain. It really does look as though the ruling regime in Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.
This is too bad. If Iran's ruling regime were thinking straight, they would not want to have nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons do provide an element of deterrence, yes. A country with nuclear weapons is unlikely to suffer an all-out attack by a neighbor aimed at conquering it and overthrowing and hanging its government. A country with nuclear weapons is unlikely to suffer a surgical attack by a great power--an attack either endorsed or not endorsed by the Security Council--that has lost its patience and seeks cheap and easy "regime change." A country with nuclear weapons will find that its soldiers, diplomats, heads of state, and heads of government will be treated with extra respect. These are all advantages to the regime of possessing nuclear weapons.
But there are also disadvantages to the people and to the regime of possessing nuclear weapons. If your internal decision-making processes become deranged enough to carry you to or over the brink of pointless war--as Egypt's did in 1967, Pakistan's did in 1970, Argentina's and Israel's did in 1982, Iraq's did in 1979 and again in 1991, Israel's did in 2006, and so on--then the situation is much more dangerous and much more likely to end in genocide or near-genocide if you have nuclear weapons than if you do not. You also need to fear your own majors and colonels with their fingers on the button. And if you acquire nuclear weapons, your neighbors will too. Then you need to fear not just your own internal decision-making processes and your own majors and colonels but their internal decision-making processes and their majors and colonels as well.
Most of the time things will go well when neighboring countries are able to shatter if not destroy and inflict megadeaths on each other in less than half an hour. Human beings, after all, live in close contact with and are nearly all capable of using deadly force on each other. Yet very few of us are killed by our next-door neighbors. Most of the time we live out our lives in peace with our neighbors even though every kitchen in the world contains weapons of personal destruction. Can't we comfortably expect nations to do the same? If Khrushchev and Kennedy and Eisenhower, Nixon and Brezhnev and Mao could have but not use nuclear weapons on each other, can't we be comfortable with a world of mass proliferation and multilateral mutual deterrence?
Perhaps not. There are two reasons to fear. The first is that countries are not run by normal people. Many countries most of the time, and all countries some of the time, are run by extremely aggressive individuals who are at the extreme edge of human personality types: testosterone-crazed devil-apes whose aggression is not their servant but their master. Almost all humans live in peace with their neighbors. Leaders of nations are not "almost all humans."
Second, many people in our world today are God-maddened. God-maddened people do strange things. Cast your mind back 420 years to 1587. Back then the world's preeminent military superpower was trying to suppress a stubborn insurgency of religious fanatics. A neighbor of the insurgents wondered if it should stick its oar in: provide arms and money and special forces and perhaps even "Revolutionary Guards" to the insurgents. They decided to go ahead--that they ran next to no risk from thus tweaking the world's then-preeminent military superpower. Why did the Privy Council of Elizabeth I Tudor decide to aid the revolt of the Protestant Netherlands against Spain? One reason was confidence that God was on their side: that if Phillip II Habsburg were to, in response to English intervention, send an Armada into the English Channel, that Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael would come down to fight for the English alongside Sir Francis Drake, Richard Hawkins, and Lord Howard. And ther Privy Councxil of Elizabeth I Tudor were some of the canniest poiticians of any age, presided over by the canniest ruler England ever saw.
We are very likely to lose a city to nuclear fire over the next half century. There will be some stupid miscalculation--most likely the confidence of some God-maddened colonel that divine intervention will protect him and his people or the fear of some general that such a God-maddened colonel is about to press the button. The city--hopefully only one--is likely to be named Tehran or Islamabad or Delhi or Tel Aviv or Washington or London or Paris or Moscow or Beijing or Pyongyang or Seoul. For a small country, the best way to get your capital city off that list, the best way to protect your people, is to not have nuclear weapons in the first place.
The best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for all powers in the region--India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel--to do what makes their people safest: for all to give up their nuclear weapons programs. The second best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for Iran to do what makes its own people safest: for it to give up its nuclear ambitions, whether or not it receives substantial security guarantees that deter the possibility of attacks on Iran in return. Even if Israel and Pakistan keep their nuclear weapons, the devastating consequences for Israel and Pakistan of using nuclear weapons against Iran is a more effective deterrent than an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be.
But we are unlikely to get to a good resolution.
In a world without George W. Bush we could argue that abandoning its nuclear ambitions is safer for both the people of Iran and the current Iranian regime. But George W. Bush proclaimed an "axis of evil" consisting of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. The first did not have a nuclear weapons program, and its regime was overthrown. The second did have a nuclear weapons program, and its regime survives. The Iranian regime can do the math, and the math says that a nuclear program is a source of safety for the regime, especially as long as Israel holds onto its own nuclear weapons.
Our best shot is to have the world's great powers bind themselves to oppose any change of regime in Iran other than through peaceful, democratic, internal means, and then to argue that Iran should abandon its nuclear ambitions for the sake of its people. But our best shot is not a very good one.