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Tehran Debates the Bomb

Tehran Debates the Bomb

Friday, 26 August, 2022 - 04:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

After more than three decades a debate that started during the Iran-Iraq war seems to be making a comeback in Tehran: Should the Islamic Republic take the final steps towards building a nuclear arsenal?


The original debate that took behind the scenes was prompted by the revelation that, with French help, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had been trying to build a nuclear capacity around Osirak, a nuclear power station and research center which was wiped out in a surprise attack by the Israeli air force using jets with Iranian colors.


Those urging a quick revival of the Shah’s nuclear program included Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a junior mullah but a senior adviser to Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mohsen Reza’i-Mirqaed a drop-out student who became commander of Khomeini’s newly created parallel arm: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.


Khomeini, however, was loath to admit, even implicitly, that the Shah might have been right on any issue.


The Shah, of course, didn’t want to build a bomb but was determined to provide Iran with the scientific, industrial and technological means to do so. Khomeini, however, wasn’t interested in complex geostrategic issues and believed that reviving another of the Shah’s ambitious projects would undermine his legitimacy.


After more than a year of indecisions, Khomeini finally agreed that his newly-minted Islamic Republic ought to have a nuclear capacity. But unlike the Shah he was not interested in a broad-based nuclear industry; he wanted a shortcut to the final stage before making a bomb, something that Pakistan had done with success.


After almost 30 years of zigzags Iran is now in a position to build nuclear warheads; It has also developed a rudimentary capacity for delivering the bomb to a range of 2,000 kilometers.


In the current debate; those who advocate a jump to the “threshold” or the final stage of bomb making, argue that the Biden administration in Washington provides a chance for Iran to seize the opportunity initially provided by President Barrack Obama but rejected by “hardliners” in Tehran.


The advocates of a full Monty policy claim that only the possession of nuclear weapons would guarantee the regime’s safety as it has supposedly done in North Korea.


There are many problems with that argument.


To start with, all the nine nations that developed a nuclear arsenal did so against clearly defined foes and in specific circumstances.


The US built and used the bomb to supposedly shorten the war against Japan and avoid “casualties in millions”. The carnage in Okinawa had shown the high cost of capturing the Japanese archipelago island by island. Today, however, we know that even without Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedies Japan could not have prolonged the war.


The USSR under Stalin built its own bomb in response to the US emerging as the sole possessor of a nuclear arsenal in the context of the Cold War.


Next, China built a bomb in competition with the USSR when Mao Zedong denounced the new leader of Kremlin as revisionists and traitors to Socialism.


More importantly perhaps, Mao was shaken by China’s military inferiority when the Soviets invaded and annexed large chunks of Chinese territory across the two nation’s long borders.


The next nation to go nuclear was India which did so in the wake of a border war with China in which Mao’s army seized large chunks of Kashmir and Ladakh. India could not sit back and wait for what a nuclear-armed aggressive neighbor might do next.


Once India had the bomb, Pakistan began to feel even more insecure. After the loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh), Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistani generals believed that they could curb India’s irredentist ambitions in any conventional war. But dealing with a nuclear-armed India was another story.


Finally, Israel developed a nuclear arsenal, which it denies having, presumably to counterbalance its demographic and territorial disadvantage compared to hostile Arb nations.


Whether or not any of the calculations mentioned above were correct is a matter for debate.


The US increased its nuclear arsenal a hundredfold but couldn’t use it either in Korea or Vietnam to secure clear victories.


Possession of the bomb didn’t save the Soviet Union from collapse.


Mao built the bomb but Maoism had to die in order for the new China to be born warts and all.


Nuclear-armed India has not been able to regain territory lost to China or to snatch another inch of land from Pakistan.


Israel has won all its wars with Arab neighbors without nuclear weapons. In fact, Israel’s successes in normalization with several Arab nations and others beyond are fruits of diplomacy backed by conventional military capabilities.


In all that, North Korea is the exception as it is in almost every other walk of life.


Those who advocate building the bomb in Iran should tell us which nation is the supposed foe against whom it is to be targeted. None of Iran’s 15 or 16 neighbors are likely to attack it, including the only two, Russia and Pakistan, with nuclear arsenals.


Some mullahs designate Israel as “foe” to justify building the bomb.


Rafsanjani once said that in a nuclear war with the “Zionist entity”, a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic could wipe out Israel by losing only 10 million of its own people. (He forgot his supposedly beloved Palestinians living alongside Israelis who would also die if the mullahs dropped their bomb.)


Interestingly, none of the problems that nation-states might have with one another, problems such as border disputes, competition for sources of raw materials and markets, water-sharing disputes, irredentism, maltreatment of kith-and-kin, and bitter historic memories exist between Iran and Israel.


No Iranian leader, even under the present regime, could rationally explain why Israel should be regarded as Iran’s enemy.


Unable to designate Israel as the foe some mullahs see the US as the enemy against whom Iran needs a nuclear deterrent.


Here we are back to the North Korean model. But Iran isn’t North Korea, a backyard swamp that needs to attract attention, and get some aid, by supposedly challenging the “Great Satan.”


In any case, Iran is safer without a nuclear bomb.


For in a conventional war its territorial size and current military capabilities could save it the day.


Nuclear-armed nations cannot attack non-nuclear ones. So, neither the US nor anyone else can drop the bomb on our heads. But if Iran has the bomb others who also have it can use it against us.


The danger is that the mullahs might regard the bomb as a status symbol, using Biden’s weakness as an opportunity to humiliate the “Great Satan.”


That could lead, or mislead Iran into an even more dangerous historic labyrinth.


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