Thinking about an Iranian bomb

First Published: 2015-05-11

The sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table should not be removed until a better deal is negotiated

Those who today believe that some have been “born with saddles on their back” to be ridden by “a favored few booted and spurred” are the ones who want to reinforce and extend a system of political favors and privileges for corrupt and corrupted businessmen  — the “crony capitalists” – who are unwilling or unable to honestly acquire the income and wealth they want through the peaceful and voluntary trades of the free marketplace.

And it is we, who believe in the liberty for which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in that war of independence, who must do all in our power to restore that crucial understanding and appreciation of individual freedom and individual rights among our fellow citizens, without which that great American “experiment” in political and economic individualism may be lost beyond recovery.

The Lausanne agreement between the US-led "P5+1" powers and Iran, on the framework of a nuclear deal to limit Iran’s dash to an atomic bomb, has led to fierce debates in the United States about its pros and cons. There are those like the editor of The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn, who (in "Detente will force Tehran to choose compromise or collapse", Financial Times, April 10, 2015) argue that the deal does not go far enough. Mr Heilbrunn argues for a grand US strategy in West Asia "whose goal is an alliance with Iran that can help move the region away from the ravages of war to a more hopeful future". He bases this on the correct perception of a de facto military alliance between the two sides to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because of the intertwining of their geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia he sees as an "unreliable and hostile ally, whose virulent Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam has inspired deadly terrorist acts around the world. Neither country deserves unqualified US allegiance. But reaching an accommodation with Iran would give America a freer hand to play them off against each other, creating a more peaceful balance of power".

Against this, two of the most distinguished US secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, have argued (in "The Iran Deal and Its Consequences", The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015) that if a balance of power between Iranian and Sunni competition were the US aim as it dissociates itself from West Asian conflicts, "traditional balance of power theory suggests the need to bolster the weaker side, not the rising or expanding power". Also, co-operation (as in the battle against the Islamic State) is not enough for a partnership, which "presupposes congruent definitions of stability". But "Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means". Hence, they argue, as Iran has intensified its efforts to expand and entrench its power in neighbouring states, "unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts". They rightly note that "negotiations to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this vey capability, albeit short of full capability in the first 10 years". Even this – as the example of North Korea shows – will be difficult to enforce, despite US President Barack Obama’s claims. In effect, this agreement recognises Iran as a threshold nuclear state.

Does this matter? In a 1995 paper, "Arms and the Man: Cost and Benefits of Nuclear Weapons" (reprinted in my Unfinished Business, Oxford, 1999), I had argued that even though the benefits in terms of military security provided by nuclear weapons remained inconclusive, and despite the axiomatic abhorrence of nuclear weapons, the fact remains that in spite of their apocalyptic potential nuclear weapons have not killed anyone since the end of the Second World War. Also, as Lawrence Freedman noted "what we do know is that since 1945 Europe has been at peace. This underlies the point that nuclear deterrence maybe a viable policy even if it is not credible … The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor" (The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, page 399).

This is a fact that is further strengthened by the recent disturbance of the European peace by Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. This would not have been possible if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by the United States, Britain and Russia to protect its territorial integrity. This shows the continuing relevance of Hobbes’s dictum that "covenants without the sword, are but words, and no strength to secure a man at all".

This dictum is also of relevance because of the nuclear arms race that a Shia Iranian bomb is likely to induce among the major Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. Some have argued that Saudi Arabia already has an implicit lien on Pakistan’s Sunni bomb. But with the recent refusal of Pakistan’s parliament to send troops and planes in support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, this must now be in doubt. Others hope that a nuclear arms race in West Asia can be prevented by a US nuclear umbrella to the Sunni states. But how credible would such a guarantee be, if (as I argued in my last column) Mr Obama has eschewed the use of US military force? As Mr Kissinger and Mr Schultz have rightly argued, "Previous thinking on nuclear strategy assumed the existence of stable state actors … How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of non-state proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?"

When I was a student at Oxford in the early 1960s, a board game called Diplomacy was very popular. This was based on the map of Europe before the First World War, with players being assigned particular countries and their armed forces reflecting the relative strengths of the countries at that time. It was amazing how often the game ended up repeating the pattern of alliances leading up to the First World War. Sometime later this board game was overtaken by a new one invented in America, which was based on the West Asian situation in the late 1960s (which was much more benign than it is now). This version provided nuclear as well as conventional arms to the various players. No matter how often we played the game with different permutations of players and countries, using the rational tactics for a repeated game of chicken, or the tit-for-tat strategy of the prisoner’s dilemma, or no strategy at all, within about half an hour the game usually ended with nuclear bombs having been unleashed on all of the major population centres of West Asia.

It is for this reason that whilst having supported the Indian and been relaxed about the Pakistani bomb, I would endorse the US policy of not accepting an Iranian bomb. This means that the sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table should not be removed until a better deal is negotiated, one which fulfils the goal set out over 20 years by three US presidents (as Mr Kissinger and Mr Schultz note) "that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests – and they were prepared to use force to prevent it".

With the Iranian Supreme Leader’s statement that only an immediate ending of all sanctions with the signing of an agreement would be acceptable, and Mr Obama’s signing of a bipartisan Bill that gives the US Congress the right to veto any removal of sanctions after examining the final agreement, perhaps the Lausanne framework will not lead anywhere. Further future negotiations will then hopefully be able to produce an agreement that truly removes the risk of an Iranian bomb. If not, I fear the apocalyptic outcomes in West Asia of the board game we played in Oxford in the 1960s.

First published at the Business Standard and posted here with the kind permission of the author.


Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, professor emeritus of political economy at University College London, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1963-66) and has served as a consultant to the Indian Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, various UN agencies, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. From 1984 to 1987 he was research administrator at the World Bank. Lal is the author of a number of books, including The Poverty of Development Economics; The Hindu Equilibrium; Against Dirigisme; The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth; Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance; and Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century.

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