Iran's symbolic nuclear weapons

What really motivates Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations?

By Ward Wilson
Iran's symbolic nuclear weapons
In this official presidential photo, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announces to the Iranian national press that a deal has been struck by Iran and six world powers to curb the Iranian nuclear program with initial sanctions relief, during a press conference at the presidential palace in Tehran, Iran on November 24, 2013. The six world powers involved in the negotiations were the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia. UPI | License Photo

TRENTON, N.J., Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Iran recently signed a six-month agreement with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia to enrich less uranium and submit to weapons inspections. In exchange those countries will lift some $7 billion in sanctions.

The agreement is only an interim step limiting Iran’s ability to produce weapons, but lawmakers are already looking for ways to undermine the “dangerous” deal. Israel’s current government, too, has criticized the deal, saying it does not go far enough toward disarming Iran now, and leaves Iran with the ability to build nuclear weapons in short order.


But the danger from Iran’s nuclear arsenal was and is overblown for two reasons. One has to do with the weapons themselves, the other has to do with Iran’s ambitions. An Iranian attack on Israel is far-fetched not because we can trust the Iranians, but because nuclear weapons are not very good weapons. They are so big and blundering that any attack on Israel would create three serious practical problems for Iran.

First, while there’s no love lost between Persians and Palestinians, a nuclear attack on Israel that also killed 50,000 Palestinians would not enhance Iran’s political power in the region.

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Second, Iran couldn’t really do a thorough job of wiping out Israel without attacking Jerusalem. But Jerusalem happens to be home to one of Islam’s holiest shrines.

The Iranians are Shia and would like Shia Islam to be the dominant branch. Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians and most other states in the Middle East are largely Sunni. They see Shia Islam as wrong-headed. Blowing up the third holiest shrine in Islam wouldn’t lend much support to Iran’s claim that Shia Islam should be the legitimate form of Islam.

Third, and most important, the Middle East is a relatively small place, and the wind blows. Drop nuclear weapons on Israel and you could have radiation in Damascus, or Amman, or Cairo. Again, not likely to earn Iran respect and admiration in the region.

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All of these problems grow out of characteristics of the weapons. They don’t take into account the political consequences in horrified states in Europe or beyond. And they don’t take into account potential retaliation from the United States or other states.

The second issue is question of intentions. I’ve always felt that Iran was, in fact, working toward having the ability to build a nuclear bomb, but not an actual weapon. We in the United States think about nuclear weapons as weapons. As military tools you could really use. But the rest of the world -- particularly in the last twenty years -- is starting to see them differently. They see them primarily as symbols, not as weapons. They are useful for diplomacy, for threats, and for status.


Iran is an emerging power, and status is a big deal to emerging powers. Iran is the largest nation in the greater Middle East, they have the largest military, and as their economy has grown over the last twenty years, they have increasingly wanted recognition of that power.

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Iran’s foreign minister said what Iran wants at the signing. “The Iranian people deserve respect from the West,” he said. Iran wants respect. It makes more sense to think about Iran’s effort to get a nuclear capability as part of the drive for respect, rather than a drive for power.

Iran is more like France than, say, Pakistan. France acquired nuclear weapons because it had a long tradition as a center of civilization, culture and learning. It hoped that nuclear weapons would maintain its image as a world power. Iran, too, has been a center of civilization for a thousand years. Iran, too, wants to be seen as an important player in the Middle East.

Iran is not chasing after nuclear weapons because it feels sure it would be overwhelmed by the conventional forces of a neighbor, as Pakistan does by India. It’s much more likely they looked around and saw that nuclear weapons are the currency of power and concluded that having them would be a mark of technological sophistication and world power status. And respect.

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So why would they surrender that capability now?

The deal appears to be a recognition by Iran’s policy makers that they have largely gotten what they want. If Iran never really wanted the weapons, but just wanted the respect and influence that the capacity to build them would give, then they’ve got that.

I sat in a diplomatic roundtable meeting this spring and listened to former Iranian diplomats argue that “We already have the bomb -- effectively. We’ve shown that we can build it.” Iran can “give up” its nuclear weapons program because they’ve already demonstrated they have the capacity to do it. They already possess the symbol.

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Iran has always walked a fine line with nuclear weapons. Their supreme leader issued a fatwa declaring that developing or possessing nuclear weapons was illegitimate under muslim religious law -- effectively declaring a prohibition against building them. But nations increasingly appear to be tempted, perhaps even eager, to acquire the symbolic value of nuclear weapons without actually building the weapons.

Strategists in nuclear-armed states continually say that nuclear weapons “are never really going to be used” and that they are actually “political weapons” not military ones. Iran’s behavior is consistent with that view. They want the symbolic value -- the political value -- without having to break their moral rules against actually building the weapons.


And can you blame them? Imagine a weapon that is never going to get used, but that if you possess it, it will give you enormous prestige and political clout. There’s no risk in acquiring the weapons. After all, they’re “never really going to be used.” But there’s an enormous upside to possessing these symbols of power: a seat at the big table, respect from nuclear-armed states, and influence in the region.

Of course, Iran is wrong. Nuclear weapons are not just symbols of power. They are real weapons that can be used and will one day be used, if we are not careful. Betting that nuclear deterrence will work perfectly forever is betting against human folly. Only people who don’t know anything about history ever bet against human folly.

Nuclear deterrence requires that no one lose his temper, lose his head, go insane or simply make a mistake. We’ve been lucky so far. Don’t count on that luck holding forever.

That’s why the Iran deal is a good deal. Because nuclear weapons aren’t just symbols, they’re not “political weapons,” whatever that is. They’re real weapons -- real weapons that can really kill people. A lot of people. So any work that stops their spread is good work. The deal with Iran is not the final deal, but it’s a good first step.


Ward Wilson is a Senior Fellow at BASIC, a security policy think tank in Washington and London. His recent book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will be available in paperback in January.

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