The ongoing negotiations related to Iran and its nuclear program reflect the realities of the diplomacy of nuclear weapons. A current scholar of international relations observed that Iran learned a valuable lesson from the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That lesson is that a state cannot directly oppose the United States in a violent fashion without possessing nuclear weapons. It was the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that formed the justification for the U.S. invasion of the country and the subsequent removal of Hussein’s regime. It is important to note that the U.S., as well as many other countries, categorizes weapons of mass destruction to include chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. In terms of foreign policy or military application, the use of a chemical weapon is the same as a nuclear weapon to the U.S.
The mullahs in Iran were carefully watching the interaction between the U.S. and Iraq. It is true that aspects of the Iranian nuclear program pre-date the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it can be argued that this event cemented the desire in the Iranian leadership to pursue a nuclear capacity of their own and to accelerate the process of acquiring it. Iran sees itself as a powerful player in the Middle East and seeks to expand that power further. They claim to represent the Shi’a sect of Islam and stand in opposition to Sunni regimes in states such as Saudi Arabia. The possession of nuclear weapons would offer Iran a valuable “shield” against possible aggression from the U.S.
Nuclear weapons have always been more valuable for the threat of their use rather than their actual deployment. The entire foreign policy of the Cold War confrontations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was based on the fact that both states possessed a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying civilization several times over. This made direct confrontation between the two super powers almost impossible to fathom, and indeed the one time it did nearly occur during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is perhaps the closest the world has ever come to annihilation. This is another lesson in the language of nuclear diplomacy that Iran has learned during its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Another more contemporary example would be that of North Korea. The belligerent state constantly flaunts its nuclear capacity and uses it as a negotiating tool in order to extract concessions from the international community. When they need additional food or energy imports, they will conduct a nuclear test or reopen a closed nuclear facility and then tell the world community to give them more goods in exchange for shutting down or scaling back the program. The fact that the North Korean regime possesses some functional nuclear devices forces more powerful actors like the U.S. to deal with them differently. The U.S. is vastly more powerful than North Korea, but it must acknowledge the North Korean nuclear capacity and the potential possibility of such weapons being used against local allies like South Korea or Japan.
It is this “latitude” that Iran is seeking by pursing a nuclear program of its own. Despite the rhetoric from Iranian leaders regarding the destruction of Israel, it is almost unthinkable that Iran would deploy a nuclear device against Israel, either directly or through the use of a terrorist organization as an intermediary. Such an action would almost assuredly result in retaliation from the world community that would destroy the current Iranian regime, if not the entire country itself. The question must then be asked about the stability of the Iranian regime. Would they essentially commit suicide by deploying a nuclear weapon against Israel, or do they seek the diplomatic and foreign policy protection that a nuclear capability provides?
This is not to say that a nuclear armed Iran would be a positive development for the Middle East or the world. An Iran with more diplomatic latitude would be a danger not only to the region but the rest of the world. Furthermore, other Middle East states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have stated that if Iran develops a nuclear capability, they will seek nuclear weapons of their own. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East would not benefit the world at all. But this is the language of diplomacy for Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer