Nuclear Mullahs

Written on September 13, 2012 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

by Bill Keller, The New York Times Op-ed Columnist

IRAN has returned to the front pages after a summer hiatus. Negotiations aimed at preventing the dreaded Persian Bomb have resumed their desultory course. Iran, although suffering from the international sanctions choreographed by the Obama administration, keeps adding new arrays of centrifuges while insisting the program is strictly nonmilitary. Israel is — or maybe isn’t — edging closer to a unilateral strike. The U.S., we learn from The Times’s reliable David Sanger, is considering more and bigger bouts of cybersabotage. Meanwhile, the mullahs are shipping arms to their embattled fellow despots in Syria.

This strikes me as a good time to address an unnerving question that confronts any concerned student of this subject: Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Given a choice of raining bunker-busting munitions on Iran’s underground enrichment facilities, or, alternatively, containing a nuclear-armed Iran with the sobering threat of annihilation, which is the less bad option? As the slogan goes in Israel: “Bomb? Or The Bomb?”

The prevailing view now is that a nuclear Iran cannot be safely contained. On this point both President Obama andMitt Romney agree. They can hardly say otherwise; to even hint that a nuclear Iran is acceptable would undermine the efforts aimed at preventing that outcome. But I tend to think they mean it.

However, there are seriousthoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran, kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction. If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?

Anyone who has a glib answer to this problem isn’t taking the subject seriously. Personally, I’ve tended to duck it, taking refuge in the hope that the tightening vise of international pressure — and a few cyberattacks — would make Iran relent and spare us the hard choice. But that could be wishful thinking. So I’ve spent some time reading and questioning, trying to report my way to an opinion.

Let’s assume, for starters, that Iran’s theocrats are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Western analysts say there is no evidence yet that the supreme leader has made that decision. But if you ruled a country surrounded by unfriendly neighbors — Persians among the Arabs, Shiites among the Sunnis — a country with a grand sense of self-esteem, a tendency to paranoia and five nuclear powers nearby, wouldn’t you want the security of your own nuclear arsenal?

Let’s assume further that diplomacy, sanctions and computer viruses may not dissuade the regime from its nuclear ambitions. So far, these measures seem to have slowed the nuclear program and bought some time, but Iran’s stockpiles of enriched fuel have grown in size and concentration despite everything a disapproving world has thrown at them so far. So, then what?

Continue reading in The New York Times


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