Re-evaluating the Iran Threat

During the presidential campaigns, Iran’s nuclear program was one of the most important issues raised. It is widely accepted that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear warhead would be doomsday, but the fear exhibited may be unwarranted. First off, Iran may not possess a nuclear weapons program, but even if it did, it would pose far less danger than it is claimed to be capable of.
Many experts see no reason to believe that Iran is building, or can build, a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Association notes that Iran has been cooperative and that it has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program, while the CIA, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, believes Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003. However, its intentions remain unclear. The IAEA’s response to the National Intelligence Estimate summarized the former’s views as follows: “Although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.” Not the stuff neo-conservative nightmares are made of.
Unfortunately, many policymakers and analysts have held to the belief that Iran does have a weapons program or that it wants to revive its abandoned one.
Let us entertain the hypothetical that Iran has an active nuclear program, which would mean that, according to the CIA, it could produce a nuclear warhead sometime after 2011. In such a scenario, Iran would still not be a threat to the United States. Yes, this goes completely against conventional “wisdom.” However, we must not blindly accept that Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is automatically a major threat.
One of the reasons an Iranian nuke is deemed such a threat is Iran’s hostile stance toward Israel. Despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s incendiary remarks, Israel is exaggerating the “existential threat” Iran’s weapon would pose. One must realize that Ahmadinejad has little power and that most of the power rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has “served” in that capacity since 1989.
Ironically, Khamenei, a cleric, has been more skillful in diplomatically presenting Iran’s foreign policy. After Ahmadinejad was reported to have advocated Israel’s “destruction,” Khamenei covered, saying “the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country.” Another thing to note is that Iran’s domestic situation is deteriorating and that Ahmadinejad can easily deflect his country’s attention to Israel for political reasons.
Iran supports Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and this is cited as further evidence that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an “existential threat” to Israel. This evidence is only slightly more convincing. If Iran wants to eliminate Israel as a political entity and see the Palestinians receive land which is currently part of Israel, then Iran wouldn’t nuke Israel in order to advance the Palestinian cause because doing so would destroy or harm the land that Iran wants to go to the Palestinians. One must also consider that Israel has its own nuclear deterrent and could easily defeat Iran in a conventional war. It’s more likely that Iran would have defense and not offense on its mind in pursuing a nuclear weapon. Thus, ironically, security would be promoted by deterring Israel from bombing Iran.
Americans must abandon the notion that Iran is led by a bunch of crazies who would think nothing of martyring their country. If that was the case, they very well might have gotten moving a long time ago. One conveniently overlooked tidbit is that Khamenei issued a fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons in Islam. Not necessarily a particularly compelling bit of evidence, but Iranians can’t be crazy religious zealots if they ignore the supreme leader’s edict, can they?
Instead of trying to predict Iran’s actions on the basis of false premises, a little empiricism would be helpful. Recent experiences suggest that Iran is rational and strategic, as well as willing and able to use both diplomacy and subversion to maintain its national security. This can be gleaned from U.S. diplomats who have recently worked with Iran and observed the way Iran has preserved itself while being the object of international scorn.
One has to believe that Iran is fully aware of the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction; that it too would be wiped out if it decided to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. It knows it wouldn’t even survive to witness the destruction of New York, or wherever it chose to hit. The idea that this scenario would be acceptable for Iran has no basis in reality.
The real crazies are those who see an apocalyptic threat in a country that spends less on defense than Singapore; a country that has lent essential support to the Karzai regime and that has been quite cooperative in engaging the IAEA. The truly insane are those who believe that Iran genuinely wants to take over the world and that it has the power to do so. That’s not to disparage the more sober voices who are wary of Iranian intentions, but they aren’t quite justified either. Whenever a politician harps on the threat a nuclear Iran would pose, one has to wonder if they truly missed all of the above, or if they just want votes. Either way, there’s a problem.

Samier Saeed is a first-year international studies major. He can be reached at