Is the Islamic Republic really trying to produce a nuclear arsenal?
If yes, should we worry about it?
Earlier this month, France’s President Jacques Chirac posed the questions, answering both in the affirmative.
Chirac became the first Western leader to drop “ifs” and “buts” by asserting that the mullahs were, indeed, trying to build a bomb.
Even President George W Bush has never been so categorical on the subject.
The significant part of Chirac’s analysis, revealed in a controversial interview, was his claim that we need not worry about the mullahs having nuclear bombs.
Some commentators have dismissed Chirac’s assertions as the rumblings of an ageing politician just before he retires. The journalists who did the interview remarked Chirac’s shaking hands and lack of focus.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss Chirac’s analysis.
The ultimatum set for the Islamic Republic by the United Nations’ Security Council, runs out next month, with Chirac still in charge. If Chirac remains true to his analysis, he would use the French veto to stop a new resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, to allow the use of force against the mullahs.
By paralyzing the Security Council, Chirac could provide the Islamic Republic’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a diplomatic victory that, in turn, would marginalize his opponents within the establishment.
The Security Council would then have to wait at least until June for a new French president to reverse Chirac’s policy.
Chirac’s position also provides cover for Russia that might come out with its own dilatory tactics. The Franco-Russian pas-de-deux could, in turn, enable the Chinese to do a pirouette of their own.
Some commentators claim that French business interests in Iran motivated Chirac’s implicit endorsement of Tehran’s nuclear program. Even if that is the case, Chirac’s analysis has political appeal.
His assertion that we must assume that Tehran is building a bomb is an invitation to all concerned to face the facts.
It is no good saying: we don’t know whether the mullahs are making a bomb, but we must punish them for what we are not sure they are doing!
The United States and Britain assume that Tehran is building a bomb. Thanks to Chirac, we now know that France privately shares that view.
Germany, agnostic under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now tilts toward the Anglo-American position under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Russia pretends to be agnostic but privately endorses Chirac’s analysis. China has no clear position.
Thus, a key aim of diplomacy in the coming weeks should be to forge a consensus on what it is that the mullahs are actually doing.
Chirac’s second assertion, that the world could live with an Iranian bomb, is also important, if only because many people agree with it. After all, the world learned to live with others having the bomb, including problematic states such as Pakistan.
Chirac bases his “‘let’s accept the mullahs’ bomb” analysis on two assumptions.
The first is that if Iran becomes a nuclear power it would be vulnerable to a nuclear attack in case of war against other nuclear powers, notably the United States and Israel. And, since the Islamic Republic is not in a position to destroy the US or Israel in a nuclear exchange, the mullahs would think twice before using their bomb.
Chirac’s second assumption is that the possession of the bomb may put the mullahs’ anxieties to rest, enabling them to review their strategy of confrontation with the West.
Although both assumptions are wrong, in my opinion, they need to be debated.
The cause of Chirac’s error is the parallel he draws between the Islamic Republic today and the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the USSR, lacking a nuclear deterrent, found itself in a position of strategic vulnerability, vis-à-vis the United States.
By developing a nuclear arsenal before Stalin’s death in 1953, the USSR was able to allay its anxieties and embark on a course that led to détente in the 1970s. The world was spared a new war until the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its contradictions.
Could the same happen to the Islamic Republic? The answer is no. The Islamic Republic today is not what the USSR was in the 1950s.
The USSR at the time was a well-established totalitarian state with clear command-and-control structures capable of developing and pursuing coherent strategies.
Although Khomeinism is a totalitarian ideology, the Islamic Republic is not a totalitarian state. Rather, it is a repressive state, using violence at home and terrorism abroad as instruments of policy. The USSR’s behavior was predictable. That of the Islamic Republic is not. There could be no loose cannons in the Soviet Union. The Islamic Republic, however, is full of loose cannons firing in different directions at the same time. The Stalinists would not give nuclear material to terrorists for use in other countries. Even Chirac is not sure that the mullahs would not do that. The structure of the Khomeinist system, allows virtually any adventurer to lead Iran into deadly conflicts.
The USSR developed its nuclear arsenal as a means of protecting the status quo as shaped in Yalta. Stalin’s doctrine of “Socialism in One Country” meant that the USSR, despite a threatening posture, did not seek to export its revolution to parts of Europe allocated to the West in Yalta.
The Islamic Republic, however, is not bound by any Yalta-like agreement, although the partition of the Middle East between Washington and Tehran was discussed during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The mullahs have not developed a doctrine of “Khomeinism in One Country”, and remain on the offensive. It is enough to see Lebanon, where the mullahs are seeking domination through their Hezbollah pawns, or the Palestinian territories, where Tehran is pouring in men and money, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, to realize that the Islamic Republic is trying to carve itself a mini-empire.
The USSR of the 1950s had already won its empire. It had turned eastern and central Europe into part of its glacis and, thanks to the fall of China and North Korea to Communists, did not feel encircled by enemies.
The Islamic Republic, however, feels encircled by foes; the ramshackle regime in Damascus its sole ally. The USSR of the time wanted to prevent adversaries from breaking into its glacis. The Islamic Republic today wants to break out to create a glacis.
In the USSR of the 1950s, the revolution had already become absorbed by the state. In Iran today, the revolution is still resisting absorption by the state. As a state, the USSR acted with the rationality of states, whether democratic or totalitarian. As a revolution, the Khomeinist regime acts with the irrationality of revolutions, whether progressist or reactionary.
For Iran as a state to have a nuclear arsenal, would be no more of a threat than the French force de frappe, to cite just one example. For Iran as a revolution to have a bomb, would be an existential threat to neighbors and others beyond.
The real issue, therefore, is how to prevent the mullahs from acquiring the bomb until Iran absorbs its revolution, and returns as a nation-state.