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Bush Overstates Threat Posed by a Nuclear Iran
Strength is often judged by how you carry yourself. Are you cocky and shouting? Or measured and calm? The Bush administration is acting more cocky than calm, not like the leaders of a superpower but like unsure freshmen.
President George W. Bush (and others) argue that Iran is evil (because its leaders support terrorists) and that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it might use them (because they are fanatics, and Islam invites martyrdom). According to the Bush administration, we have to do everything in our power—not excluding a military attack—to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
There are three flaws with this position.
First, nuclear weapons are not that useful. When we had a monopoly on them, it didn't prevent the Soviet Union from taking over Eastern Europe or risking war by cutting off our access to Berlin. They didn't help us win the Korean War or prevent us from losing in Vietnam.
And these failures aren't because we're nice guys and a democracy. Nuclear weapons didn't prevent the Soviets from losing in Afghanistan, either. Nuclear weapons could not prevent the British or Russians from losing their empires.
In the Middle East, nuclear weapons did not prevent Israel from being attacked in 1973. They do not prevent terrorists from attacking Israel day in and day out. The Bush administration fears that a nuclear Iran would dominate the Middle East. If nuclear weapons confer such enormous power—such as the ability to dominate the Middle East—why haven't they conferred this power on Israel?
Second, leaders rarely self-sacrifice.
Osama bin Laden has never undertaken a suicide bombing. Nor have the heads of any other terrorist organizations that I know of. None of Iran's leaders stepped forward to volunteer for the largely suicidal "human wave" attacks during the Iran-Iraq War.
Whether they believe in Islam, Christianity or some other faith, leaders are mostly focused on getting and maintaining power. They are not eager to demonstrate their holiness by getting killed. Iran's leaders are unlikely to risk an action (such as using nuclear weapons) that might result in their own deaths.
Third, Iran is unlikely to expose its shrines and cities to a catastrophic counterattack.
Iran considers itself the cradle and center of Shiite Islam, one of Islam's two main branches. Many of the holiest Shiite sites are in Iran (at Mashhad, Qom and elsewhere), and about 90 percent of Iranians are Shiite. Keepers of the faith are unlikely to risk doing something (such as using nuclear weapons) that might make people so appalled and angry that they either destroy the country with bombs (conventional or nuclear) or invade, take over and ban the sacred religion.
Iran's leaders support organizations that use terror, it's true. But terrorism is a loser's strategy. People who have real power use that power—they don't kill children and old people with car bombs in markets. It's only those who are powerless, who are unable to win or keep real political influence, who resort to terrorism.
Hannah Arendt,, the renowned philosopher who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, made the point that violence is not an extension of political power; it is what you turn to when politics fails. Terrorism is one of the least effective forms of violence. A study based on work done at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs shows that terrorism achieves its goals as little as 7 percent of the time.
Some fear that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon through Iran. But Iranian officials would be highly motivated to prevent that, given that everyone would presume that any bomb that went off in the Middle East came via Tehran—whether it was delivered by a missile or a terrorist—and would respond accordingly.
It makes sense that the Bush administration would be upset about Iran. Its own mistakes have led to a significant increase in Iran's influence and power. By invading Iraq, the United States destroyed Iran's chief military rival, and by installing a Shiite-dominated government there, the Bush administration has increased Iran's real influence in the region.
Threatening a military strike against Iran, however, is a dangerous way of distracting attention from your own mistakes.
The Bush administration is good at inciting fear. But stirring up a false hysteria only gives Iran more prominence than it deserves. Iran is a middling power that sometimes behaves badly. If its leaders do things that are wrong, you take appropriate steps.
Treating a nuclear-armed Iran like the end of the world exaggerates the importance of nuclear weapons and confers on the Iranians just the sort of attention they crave. Let's hope the next administration takes a more measured and mature approach.
Ward Wilson is a scholar living in Trenton, N.J. He writes regularly at www.rethinkingnuclearweapons.org