Iran and the Bomb

11 Dec

The Iranian nuclear situation is nothing if not fascinating. The sheer level of anger the thought of an Iranian atomic bomb causes ‘the West’ is remarkable, but not unprecedented. Recent developments have been described as a “provocation” by the French government, amongst others.

Similar concerns were apparent in the late 1960s and early 1970s when India was progressing her weapons programme.(1) Likewise in the 1970s, U.S. ally Taiwan had serious plans for nuclear capability, but was ‘dissuaded’ by American pressure and the promises of an atomic security umbrella.(2) Yet, eyes were turned away when Israel developed capability. By 1974 at the latest (and probably much earlier – some documentation seems to indicate that there was an awareness of the Israeli bomb project in 1968), Israel was known to have a nuclear arsenal.(3) As an interesting sidenote, the same document that accurately assesses the Israeli and Taiwanese programmes also categorises South Africa as more of a danger regarding the proliferation of nuclear materials (such as uranium) rather than as a nuclear weapon state (which it became by the early 1980s, albeit in a very limited fashion.)

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the backbone of our legal stance against Iran, a signatory of the treaty. Regardless of the problems with the treaty itself (and there are many of those), one of the key issues is that signatories should be given assistance with civilian nuclear programmes by the (admitted) Nuclear Weapon States. One of the fundamental issues here is that the line between civilian and military nuclear applications is blurred to the point of non-existence. Yet, why should Iran be denied nuclear capability?

There is an argument (generally stemming from the “more is better” thesis of international relations scholar Kenneth N. Waltz) that allowing states to develop nuclear weapons enhances security. Look at the case of the People’s Republic of China. Post-1964, the state became more ‘rational’ in its relations with the rest of the world and developed a confidence in dealing with both ‘the West’ and the Soviet Union. It had been locked between two nuclear weapon powers, both of whom seemingly had aggressive intent. Now, it had the same capability and felt less threatened. There are also many cultural factors at work here was well: pride in achievement, standing up to the ‘white’ powers, showing technical capability, and so forth. Indeed, these were many of the arguments also used by India after their test.

Iran is faced with aggressors on all sides. Israel is nuclear armed and, to be charitable, is slightly less that friendly towards the Islamic Republic. The United States is also nuclear armed and has a long history of interference in Iranian affairs (Mossadegh, anyone?) Ditto, the United Kingdom which has an even longer history of interference in Iranian affairs. Are we rationally worried about Iran getting the bomb? Is there a genuine threat? Or, is much of this rooted in cultural assumptions rather than in Realist concerns about security and interests? Does all of this rest on an ethnocentric fear of the ‘irrational other’ that has poor impulse control and is bound up in a religious dogma that we fail to (or are unwilling to) understand? To my mind, it’s a combination of both security and cultural aspects. Not wishing to bash the United States (but as the pre-eminent global and nuclear power, they are a useful touchstone), but the most recent Bush was a religious fundamentalist who launched two major wars and was armed with a nuclear arsenal. But the bomb wasn’t used. Will a state break the ‘nuclear taboo’?(4) I doubt it very much. But, in a nuclear armed world, maybe there are reasons for letting states develop the bomb that are more convincing than the reasons for aggressively preventing them. And if we do want to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability, the last two states who should be loudly proclaiming intent from the rooftops are Britain and the U.S. The weight of history suggests that the Iranians are right to wary of us.


(1) Admittedly, this lack of warning regarding the test in May 1974 represented a skillful use of diversion and concleament on the part of the Indians and a massive intelligence failure on the part of the U.S. intelligence community, most notably the CIA/a lack of concern regarding proliferation on the part of Nixon and Kissinger. See Jeffrey Richelson, Spying On The Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence From Nazi Germany to Iran and Noth Korea (New York, NY, 2006) for more on this point.
(2) See
(3) See
(4) See Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge, 2007)

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