Should Iran Get the Bomb?

Presidents Ahmadinijad and Chavez embrace (AFP photo)

The problems that arise if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb are many. The most often cited problem is the possibility that Iran might actually try to launch a nuclear missile against Israel or a Western European country.

While both of these scenarios are possible, they are unlikely. Missile launchings are traceable which means that either Israel or a European country could retaliate against an Iranian missile strike. Also, an Iranian missile would need to survive an anti-ballistic missile system that is capable of intercepting it in flight.

A more practical (and sinister) method that Iran could use for attacking Israel, or another country, would be through a proxy element such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or al Qaeda. This would seem to be the more likely scenario if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb. The Iranian government could pass a nuclear bomb in secret to one of these groups who could then smuggle it into an Israeli city.

After the bomb exploded, Iran could claim it did not do it. If the bomb or the nuclear signature were traced back to Iran, the Iranian government could claim that the bomb had been stolen or illegally passed along to a third party without its knowledge. Given Israel’s relatively small size, two or three well placed nuclear explosions could cripple the Israeli state indefinitely. If these explosions occurred in unison, Israel would have no opportunity to retaliate even if it suspected Iran.

Another problem with Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon has to do with the general problem of nuclear proliferation, or the spreading of nuclear technology. There are two basic kinds of nuclear technology. The first is for peaceful nuclear energy and is a less technological. The second kind of nuclear technology involves enriching uranium to such a degree that it can be used to make a weapon. It is an extremely difficult and time-consuming process that Iran has yet to master.

Unfortunately, the spread of nuclear weapons often occurs in pairs. For example, the US got its nuclear weapon and the USSR followed because it was a US rival and believed that it needed to check (or keep pace with) US military strength. Likewise, India got its nuclear bomb and Pakistan followed. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, then its regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, would likely seek their own nuclear weapons.

If Iran gets the bomb then nuclear weapons also could spread to non-state actors in the Middle East, due to Iran’s relationship with militant groups. Given the rise of extremism and general instability of that part of the world, the odds of a militant group obtaining a nuclear weapon increase with any Middle Eastern state that acquires nuclear weapons, particularly a rogue state such as Iran.

A rational observer might be inclined to think that militants would be self-restrained in the use of nuclear weapons since so many civilian lives would be lost if just one bomb were detonated. However, the pattern of Islamic militants is that they often target civilians with violence, and accidental civilian casualties from suicide bombings or IEDs, when foreign troops are targeted instead, are viewed as unfortunate but acceptable losses to achieving militant goals. While Afghan and international security forces on occasion accidentally take innocent Afghan lives, their attitude toward such tragic events is quite different than that of militants. Put simply, the loss of civilian life on a large scale generally is not an impediment to militant violence.

If Iran gets the bomb there is also the real possibility of it passing the technology to Venezuela. Venezuela already has some nuclear technology, the kind associated with low uranium enrichment that is used for peaceful purposes. However, given Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ regional and global foreign policy ambitions and his hatred of the West, it makes sense strategically that he would also want nuclear weapons.

Iran and Venezuela developed a close relationship during President Bush’s second term that was based on both governments’ hatred of the West and the benefits that both got from mutual investment and trade. Chavez also personally helped the Iranian government establish ties with other left-leaning Latin American states in 2007. The result of this diplomacy was that Iran pledged aid and signed billions of dollars in trade and cooperation agreements with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

Venezuela and Bolivia both have uranium deposits although Bolivia has more. There is evidence that Iran is actively seeking Bolivian uranium. In fact, last May a classified Israeli government report alleged so. Also, Iran is working with Venezuela to locate uranium. Chavez himself strongly supports Iran’s nuclear ambition although he claims that it is for peaceful purposes. While Iran appears to be the primary beneficiary of Bolivian and Venezuelan uranium today, it would come as no surprise if in the future it is revealed that Chavez and Ahmadinijad had made a secret nuke deal that Chavez will help Ahmadinijad acquire uranium in exchange for Iran giving Venezuela a nuclear bomb, or the technology to make one, at a later date.

Chavez has been spending billions of dollars on his military since the Bush presidency in order, as Chavez alleges, to protect Venezuela from a US invasion. If Chavez is building his conventional forces then why not add nuclear weapons to guarantee his country’s safety? Chavez is using the US as a cover in order to build up his military, but if he views himself as the leader of the Latin left-leaning states then why not acquire nuclear weapons like so many of the other great nuclear powers? The UN Security Council members need to consider the possibility of nukes spreading to Venezuela as they wrestle with the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Clearly, it is in the Middle East’s interest (and the world’s) that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. However, stopping Iran’s nuke quest is not easy as is evidenced by President Bush’s failure to prevent it, and President Obama is already stuck in the same quagmire of pushing for sanctions against a reluctant international community and a defiant Iran.