The Logic of an Iranian Bomb

Firstly let me apologise for this blog post being shamelessly self-congratulatory… but I do have good reason. I promise.

In August 2010 I wrote that attacking Iran over its pursuit of nuclear technology was completely nuts (borrowing a phrase used by former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw). The major point of that piece was that despite Iran’s character, it is a rational actor in global politics. The end goal of its nuclear quest was therefore geared towards deterrence/defensive purposes via a weapons programme (in the worst case) – or it was legitimately a nuclear energy programme (in the best case). I argued that America and Israel must find it within themselves to accept a nuclear Iran, and that Iran would never bargain or genuinely take a deal on its nuclear programme. The reason being that the sore double standards of two nuclear-armed powers discriminating against Iran was a boon for the domestic rhetoric that fuels the Regime’s hard line rhetoric. Iran only enters into doomed rounds of negotiations at strategic moments to bid for time as it continues its dogged pursuit of the bomb.

This point was especially true in the wake of the 2009 Iranian elections when domestic discontent reached something of a pre-Arab Spring summit. Since then that domestic dissent has withered and the Regime has been able to capitalise on the fact that Iran is increasingly besieged by its two great enemies (Israel and the USA) and is being unfairly punished via crippling sanctions. All that is needed to ensure the Regime’s survival for another 30 years is an attack. Instead, the West should stop perpetuating the backwards logic of adversary with Iran.

Moving forward to 2012, I recently co-authored a piece with Professor Jamsheed Choksy in Small Wars Journal. In that piece, we argued that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for almost 40 years, back to a time that pre-dated the Islamic Republic when Iran was run by the pro-West and pro-Israeli Shah. We demonstrated through the use of carefully assembled historical research that modern Iran is most likely pursuing a nuclear programme because of regional politics and for defensive reasons. The logic of that position becomes clear when the historical angle is considered: Iran is in a hostile region, surrounded by enemies. It is in a much worse position now that it was when the Shah felt driven to start developing the ultimate deterrent in the 1970s.

For those reasons, we must take the difficult course of viewing Iran as a rational actor whose national security is threatened. When that position is taken objectively, Iran’s rational need for deterrence become clear. This is not to say that it is a good thing that Iran is developing nuclear weapons … but it is a less dangerous thing to contemplate than any idea of attacking Iran. It would lead to less regional bloodshed and less tragedy for the Iranian people who have already had to endure enough over their modern history. Unfortunately international history has taught that nuclear weapons are excellent defensive bargaining tools. When the chips are down for a country – as they are for Iran, the logic of the bomb-in-the-back-pocket becomes seductive.

The Islamic Regime in Iran is one of the most belligerent and distasteful regimes currently in existence, for all manner of reasons… but that is no reason to attack it. And falling prey to repeated Israeli paranoia that Iran plans to use a nuclear weapon preventively, or smuggle it to Hezbollah is as ‘nuts’ as attacking Iran is. Only one nation has ever used nukes offensively, and I highly doubt Iran would be the second. The implications for the Clerical Regime would be nothing short of suicide. And no rational actor would contemplate that.

Allowing Iran’s nuclear programme to continue is not an easy conclusion. The only other choice is an extreme option involving regime change. Recent American simulations confirm that this is an option unlikely to be ‘on the table.’ As pressure in Washington mounts to back Israeli pleas to intervene in Iran and take out Iran’s facilities by air strike, pausing and considering these points would be a wise course. Preventively attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities will only embolden and strengthen the Regime, and reinforce further the existential need for Iran to continue its quest to harnessing a nuclear deterrent. Tough choices are never easy, but sometimes they are the smart choices.

Read more from Stephen, and others, in UWE Bristol’s Politics in Action blog.

Further Reading on E-International Relations

  • Al McKay

    Good stuff, but I hope you realise that this will not make  Matthew Kroenig happy.

  • Stephen McGlinchey

    I can live with that.

  • MI

    This text, though a bit too general, is a masterpiece compared to Kroenig’s. It follows a non-fiction and clearheaded views on the subject, similar to those of Martin van Creveld, to name one.

  • Al McKay

    A splendid analysis from Robbie Shepherd of the Henry Jackass Society;) It even has a map just in case you don’t know where Iran is.


  • Zachary Keck

    I vow to write a rebuttal to this entitled “logic of bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” which I will dedicate to Kroenig. Professor Kroenig is an excellent scholar on nuclear proliferation and as anyone who read that piece can vouch for, it was truly difficult for him to make the case for bombing Iran. He had to dispense with logic but he perserved and I will too.

  • Stephen McGlinchey

    one should never disagree with logic! It only ever got Spock in trouble..

  • Al McKay

    After much consideration, I have changed my position and now feel that the dogs of war must be unleashed. The passage which changed my mind was this gem from the highly rational, and not at all deluded or nuts, New Atheist Sam Harris. 



    “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith pp. 128-129).

  • Joe Sutcliffe

    These New Atheists scare me. It’s not so much their take on religion (admittedly I don’t find their arguments convincing) but the political extremism which appears to accompany it. You’re right Al, ‘highly rational, and not at all deluded or nuts’…

  • Stephen McGlinchey

    this kind of thinking is the product of increasing distance between the American political scene (and academia) from the reality of the world.

    back to Kroenig, his conclusion in the FA article is the point where he fails – no matter who he is and what personal pain he has endured to write that piece:

    Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war.

    This is a falsehood. Neither will be the outcome of Iran’s nuclear development [unless America induces a conventional conflict or Israel induces a nuclear one!]. That’s the fallacy at play here. If you go by Kroenig – you just perpetuate the self-fulfilling nonsense that gets me back to my first sentence that I typed above.

  • Al McKay


    To be fair, that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Sam Harris’ ridiculous statements. In addition to proposing pre-emptive nuclear holocausts, Harris has also defended torture, suggested that it would be ethical to kill people for what they believe, stated that the Fascists are the ones who speak most honestly about Islam, declared war on Islam and millions of Muslims, asserted that the cause of terrorism is Islam, suggested that bin Laden is a true Muslim, defended US military interventions, stated that anti-western sentiment in parts of the Muslim world has nothing to do with US-foreign policy and so on and so on. In addition to often producing zero evidence for his claims, what is breathtakingly irritating about Harris is that he proclaims himself to be a liberal and centre left. Also, despite being an ‘Atheist’ and a ‘scientist’, Harris has defended studies into the supernatural, Buddhism, Eastern mysticism, and belief in reincarnation. In short, he is not only a hawkish fear-monger but also a hypocrite, and it is baffling that he is seen as a rational public intellectual.  

    Anyway, here are some interesting quotes about Iran and nuclear weapons. In 1992, the then prime minister of Israel, and current president, Shimon Peres, said the following:

    “Iran is the center of terrorism, fundamentalism and subversion and is in my view more dangerous than Nazism, because Hitler did not possess a nuclear bomb, whereas the Iranians are trying to perfect a nuclear option.”

    In 1996, Peres once again told the world:

    “I believe that in four years they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons…”

    In 1995, the current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote the following in his book, entitled Fighting Terrorism:


    “The best estimates at this time place Iran between three and five years away from possessing the prerequisites required for the independent production of nuclear weapons.”


    In 1999, a “senior Israeli military official”, said:


    “Unless the United States pressures Russia to end its military assistance to Iran, the Islamic republic will possess a nuclear capability within five years, a senior Israeli military official said Sunday.”


    In 2001, the then Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, thought he’d chime in with a good bit of fear mongering:


    “I mentioned to our friends, the Turkish leadership, that we are more than worried about the very rapid development taking place regarding nuclear weapons.  As far as we know by the year 2005they [Iran] will, they might, be ready.”

    In 2009, Netanyahu (yes, him again), said the following to an American congressional delegation:

    “…our experts say Iran is probably only one or two years away from acquiring nuclear capabilities.”


    In the ominously ironic year of 2012, a year associated with other dubious predictions, and still there is no Iranian nuclear weapon!

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