international analysis and commentary

Of Nukes and Governments: Taking the Long View on Iran


My sister in West Africa asked if I could help her purchase a video game subscription for her son’s birthday by using her credit card. The game company could detect that she was using a computer in Africa and wouldn’t process an American credit card. So she needed me to make the purchase with her card from my PC here in the US. However, after I had trouble accessing my nephew’s gaming account, she decided to get someone with sophisticated masking technology to place the order by deceiving the game company’s computers as to the location of the purchase.

“It’s a great system,” she fumed. “The only people who can make credit card purchases here are exactly the ones who pose security threats – those with the equipment who don’t care about the law. People like me can’t use their own credit cards.”

And that’s pretty much the situation today with nuclear weapons: those governments that don’t care about the costs of economic sanctions and international opprobrium to their people are exactly the ones that pose security threats.

One of the basic themes in the US debate over the Iranian election has been the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But Iran’s nuclear capability isn’t the problem – its government is.  No one really believes that the Iranian regime is going to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons – even Mousavi supports this objective. As for President Obama’s apparent conviction that a more-reasonable-seeming US could coax other nations into deeper sanctions when Iran balks, it hasn’t made much of a dent in China’s and Russia’s position on supporting democracy anywhere or sanctioning Kim Jong-il; there’s little reason to expect them to be more supportive of democracy in Iran or sanctioning Ayatollah Khamenei.

Consider another rising regional and potential global power with nuclear technology:  no one’s worried about the bellicose Brazilians. In fact, Brazil’s former dictatorship secretly pursued nuclear weapons in response to Argentina’s own nuclear program, but both nations abandoned these efforts after reversion to civilian rule. Similarly, South Africa became the only nation to obtain the Bomb and then give it up when it transitioned to a real, if troubled, democracy. In short, while it would be great to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle, it’s not nuclear weapons that threaten to kill people but bad governments with nuclear weapons. Our best hope is not the nuclear disengagement of the current regime in Iran, which is unlikely to occur, but the democratization of Iran – which, suddenly, could be a real possibility.

On that, Obama has been savaged by conservative commentators as a servile idealist for not taking a harder line. The President and his supporters have defended his cautious approach as warranted by the need to avoid giving the hard-line regime an excuse to blame Iran’s pro-democracy movement on foreign intervention – an argument that lost whatever force it might have had after day two, when the authorities, predictably, started blaming the whole thing on Western governments anyway.

That Republicans would accuse a democratic president of appeasement is about as predictable as a repressive regime blaming the democratic sentiments of its subjects on Voice of America broadcasts. In their view, Obama is too busy genuflecting to Iran in apology for the CIA overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 to stand up to the bad guys. This comic book caricature of Obama is unfair: as perhaps the most nuanced of the neo-conservatives, Robert Kagan, recognized, Obama’s calculus is much more subtle – if not more uplifting.

It’s not so much that Obama believed he could negotiate with the ayatollahs but that, at the end of the day, no matter what, he’d have to. Kagan’s assessment – “once Mousavi lost, however fairly or unfairly, Obama objectively had no use for him or his followers” – is eerily similar to Newsweek’s recent take on the expendability of staff and allies when they no longer serve Obama’s needs. This isn’t exactly a portrait of a dewy-eyed idealist.  “But this is what ‘realism’ is all about,” Kagan notes approvingly – although he sows doubt as to whether Obama is indeed cynical enough to follow through: “Republicans have traditionally been better at it than Democrats,” he sniffs.

The rest of the conservative commentariat has been raking “realist” Obama over the coals for being less Machiavelli and more Neville Chamberlain. Other than deplore developments, however – which, of course, Obama did, if somewhat belatedly – it’s not clear exactly what else his critics would have him do. Many simply want the US to take military action against Tehran, but this is hardly realistic. Most military assessments suggest that the Iranian nuclear program is so sufficiently dispersed and “hardened” that we could not really take it out at this point.

If you don’t undertake regime change the Bush way, however, it will take considerable patience. The nascent democracy movement needs to be kept “in the field” for a long time. We’ll need to give these courageous individuals a reason to continue to brave their regime’s violence and repression – and give the average Iranian reason to join them. Despite the crude vote rigging, there is no doubt that roughly half of Iran’s population actually supports Ahmadinejad. The potential lever is the very nationalism the regime uses against the West: conditionally recognizing Iran’s claims to national respect and regional influence, including the right like other similarly advanced societies to pursue nuclear power – but only under a government that is both democratic and pledged to peace.

An evident message that with the right kind of government theirs will be accepted into the ranks of leading nations, might not only provide the support necessary to ultimately undermine the current regime, it would also add needed moral clarity to the world’s muddled approach to nuclear technology by linking its spread specifically to the preconditions for its safe development: democracy and disavowal of offensive aims.  And it would become apparent that America’s quarrels are not with other peoples – but with their governments.


Further reading:
Non interference is back by Marta Dassù, Corriere della Sera