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What If Iran Had Nuclear Weapons?

Dangers of an Iranian Bomb v. Dangers of Western Presumption


Iranian missile

Not nuclear-tipped (yet): An Iranian surface to surface Zelzal missile, with a range of 100 km to 200 km, parading within range of a portrait of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in Tehran in 2008 in Tehran.

Majid/Getty Images
We are constantly reminded—or told or warned or yelled at—that Iran should not get The Bomb. “The world,” even the fashionably reactionary New York Times wrote on in 2007, “should not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Why not?

The world should not allow the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel to have nuclear weapons. But it does, not because the world wants a nuclear club, but because those nations never bothered asking permission to include mass destruction in their foreign-policy arsenal.

Nuclear-Club Hypocrisy

The United States (which spent $7.2 trillion building and maintaining 7,000 nuclear weapons) and the former Soviet Union (ditto), two old hands at mass extermination abroad and at home, came close to wiping out the planet over a couple of mindless standoffs during the Cold War. India and Pakistan came close to nuking each other a couple of times since 1998.

France and Britain through brutal colonialism or China through totalitarian repression at home each have the blood of millions on their conscience, even if by conventional means only. Israel has launched four offensive wars of choice since 1982 (three against Lebanon, one against Gaza), killing tens of thousands and diminishing prospects of a lasting peace in the region. None of these nations has standing to play nuclear cop in the world.

When Indian Detonated Its Nukes

“I often think back to the morning of May 12,” wrote the Indian writer Amitav Gosh in 1998, referring to the day India carried out its first series of nuclear tests since 1974. “I was in New York at the time. I remember my astonishment both at the news of the tests and also at the response to them: the tone of chastisement, the finger-wagging by countries that still possessed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. Had they imagined that the technology to make a bomb had wound its way back into a genie’s lamp because the Cold War had ended? Did they think that it had escaped the world’s attention that the five peacekeepers of the United Nations’ Security Council all had nuclear arms? If so, then perhaps India’s nuclear tests served a worthwhile purpose by waking the world from its willed slumber.”

"Now We Are All Sons of Bitches"

I’m not justifying the possession of nuclear weapons—by anyone. As Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test (the first atomic blast, in the New Mexico desert, in July 1945), put it immediately after the explosion: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

I just don’t buy the presumptions that the nation with the greatest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction on the planet, a demonstrated history of using them offensively, an ongoing addiction to waging unnecessary, pre-emptive and mass-destructive conventional war, has any say in Iran’s or any other country’s right to nuclear weapons. Disarm first. Or at least move towarddisarming. Then lecture.

Any nation that decides to acquire nuclear weapons will do so. It’s no longer a matter of if or how but of when. And any nation that acquires the weapon will live by the same calculus of deterrence that nuclear powers have lived with since the 1950s. As William Langewiesche wrote in The Atomic Bazaar, “it is a matter of record that nuclear weapons have thus far proved to be better political than military tools, and that not since their original spread from the United States has any national leader been able to make sense of firing them off.”

Non-Proliferation as Racism

Opposition to Iran’s nukes reveals more than conventional hypocrisy or a refusal to concede that the chain reaction started by the Manhattan Project is unstoppable. The opposition, at heart, is racist.

It’s an unveiled judgment that claims white Americans (or Israeli Jews) can be trusted with the bomb, Muslim Iranians cannot. Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bullying bluster about wiping Israel off the map is bandied about as proof—as if Iran’s 70 million people wouldn’t be wiped off the face of the map should so much as a nuclear firecracker graze Israel’s environs. The only thing more obscene than Ahmadinejad’s posturing is the posturing it provokes in the United States and Israel.

Nukes as Post-Colonial Redress

This attempted long-distance colonialism explains why Arabs danced in the streets as far away as Cairo when Pakistan detonated the first “Muslim” bomb in 1998, and why India’s ruling party handed out sweetmeats on the streets of Indian cities and planned a “shrine of strength” at the mouth of the crater from its own nuclear test.

Post-colonial nations are tired of white bullying, for good reason. Their nuclear pageantry is fanatical and mad, but it differs from its Western equivalent only idiomatically, not substantially. In these young nuclear powers’ minds—the warped minds of the nuclear age birthed in the United States—it restores the dignity and respect the whitish West still denies the browner East. The bomb, for all its universal foulness (a term Kenneth Bainbridge also used at Trinity within moments of the first blast), is an insurgent symbol of redress.

Insanity? No question. But the insanity is a late flowering of colonial blowback —and in the case of America’s relationship with Iran, a very recent flowering. Short of regaining a few isotopes of credibility by disarmament, there’s nothing the West can do about it, least of all these bombastic United States.

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