Dealing with Iran: for better (and not) for worse
In the last few weeks, the international media has been flooded with articles asking "What is Iran thinking?” This is indeed an important question and I certainly don’t have an answer nor does my article intend to provide one. However, this article suggests that somewhere debates have lost sight of what I believe is the core problem and therefore to even try and understand what Iran is thinking, we need to put its actions in a social and political context of the non-proliferation regime and its norms and the existing nuclear reality of today’s world. I suggest that the discourse on ‘Iran and nukes’ should bring to the forefront an old but significant question regarding the relevance or rather the irrelevance of nuclear weapons as deterrents and how fearful and threatening even their ‘potential existence’ can be leave aside their ‘use’. I believe that we should take the current political situation with Iran as an opportunity to question not just Iran’s rationality but also the very rationality of nuclear weapons.
As I write this article, I am well aware that much has already been written or heard in the news. So what am I doing new? As much as it sounds like ‘old wine in a new bottle’, indeed it’s more than that and my intention is to take the current debate (just) a little further. Given the debates around Iran’s nuclear status, a deeper question I argue is the problem of nuclear weapons itself and the motivations of nation-states to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place; the legitimacy that nuclear weapons have come to acquire in the military discourse of major nations serving as important ‘deterrents’ and in turn a furthering of the belief as Richard Price states ‘ Nuclear weapons don’t kill, Rogues Do’. This dimension needs to be added to the current debates and requires as much attention as the main agenda which is currently on top of the list of “things to do” for world leaders, which simply put is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This article addresses three main problems with the ongoing debates, i) the focus on the ‘actor’ more than the problem of nuclear weapons itself, ii) the understanding of rationality and iii) the lack of focus on the loose normative framework of the non-proliferation regime that also play an enabling alongside a constraining role in how they affect actors behavior in that context.
Firstly, the focus of most of the arguments has been more the ‘threat from an irrational actor’ than the threat of the main problem: namely nuclear weapons and the problem of proliferation itself. Of course one might argue that non-proliferation is the underlying motive but I believe it should be the overt and primary motive of this agenda. My problem with the current debates around Iran and Nuclear weapons is that it has moved in a direction that tends to remove the focus from nuclear weapons themselves as the referent of threat and transfers it to particular potential possessors and users of the threat’, which contradicts the very foundation of a nuclear regime (with the NPT at its core) that has regarded nuclear weapons as non-conventional weapons and thus inherently illegitimate. The Second point which follows from the first is the understanding of rationality as employed in the current discourse (dominated by media interpretations) which I argue has been limited to merely explaining what kind of behavior is and should be termed rational. Few like Fareed Zakaria have acknowledged an alternate understanding of ‘rationality’ arguing that Iran is a rational actor as ‘rational’ in international affairs or economics is used to describe someone who calculates costs and benefits but not necessarily with the same goals or values as we have. I take this point a little further to argue that in order to understand the rationality of nation states and to ultimately deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation, we need to understand rationality beyond a cost-benefit calculation and combine it with a cultural approach that does not deny rational/purposive behavior but moves beyond it to include the interpretations of the situation by the actor. A cultural approach emphasizes the extent to which individuals turn to established or familiar patterns of behavior that are taken for granted. In this sense, it requires to understand Iran’s interpretation of the nuclear regime and in this light Iran’s behavior also expresses a desire to prove its potential to be that ‘rational’ actor as understood by the western powers, who is capable of handling nuclear weapons as well as any other state. In such as scenario, Iran should be approached with a different political tone, along with the imposition of sanctions. By sending the message that Iran is being prevented because it cannot handle nukes ‘responsibly’ I believe has led Iran to justify and prove why it can do so. Something New Delhi has done in the past and has been able to accomplish successfully. For after 30 years of sanctions, the US-India nuclear deal in 2005 called for nuclear trade with a country that was now labeled a ‘responsible nuclear power.’
This leads to us to the third and final point that seeks to draw attention to the normative looseness of the non-proliferation regime and a weak nuclear architecture of a regime formed to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote nuclear disarmament by the exiting nuclear powers. The point being that the norms within the nuclear regime and the ‘rhetoric of peaceful use’ have been used, interpreted and manipulated by Iran in a similar way as New-Delhi has done in the past and in turn the norms have enabled Iran to justify its nuclear behavior. This points to loopholes of the nuclear normative structure. I argue that the potential threat posed by Iran’s claimed peaceful nuclear programme (going anything over 20% uranium enrichment, which has been defined as the ‘Red Line’ by the Obama administration), should also be understood in context of the unintended consequences of the norms and rules (of the regime itself) and the ways in which nations both ‘good’ and ‘rogue’, ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ have come to and been enabled to define their own rights and obligations within a nuclear regime. The norms and rules laid down by the NPT has had important implications for Iran, which has claimed that its nuclear program is in consistent with the Article IV of peaceful use thus denying any military dimension to its nuclear program. Iran has further claimed that it is being discriminated against and given that it is a NPT member it has an ‘inalienable right’ as incorporated in Article IV, to engage in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
As I write this article, PM Netanyahu has already visited Washington and President Obama has reaffirmed that the US has Israel’s back while Israel claims Iran will soon enter what is called a Zone of Immunity, after which most of its suspected military nuclear facilities will be moved underground thus becoming immune to any external attack. Therefore, both Israel and the US officially stated the recognition of Israel’s sovereign right to attack Iran’s facilities (even) by itself, if Israel deemed necessary. Recently, Iran has sought to open talks and has expressed a willingness to renegotiate and sit across the table but only if the IAEA agrees to a revised and a new approach in its dealing with Iran. In many ways, Iran is doing what New –Delhi has done for a while, the difference being that Iran is viewed as irrational and rogue, whereas as New-Delhi has been endorsed as responsible and rational. I am not (yet) questioning the difference between the two for there are might be a few legitimate reasons to not treat a New-Delhi like Tehran. However, I believe Tehran is trying to acquire legitimacy for its program in a similar way as New Delhi has in the past. The process if one thinks ‘rationally’ is that first you make attempts to acquire the technical know-how, then you demonstrate it by testing it or at least creating enough suspicion about testing it (even as the success or the magnitude of the tests remain under question) and once the international community ‘recognizes’ your capability of developing a sufficient deterrent you begin negotiations! The ideology is ‘sit on the table with a nuke (or at least possess the capability to develop it) in the backyard’. The contention that Iran is suspected of moving towards a sufficient capacity of building that nuclear deterrent (identified as anything above 20% and close to reaching 90% enrichment), but this has to be put in context of the nuclear reality of today’s world as all the critical players in this story already possess a nuclear deterrent be it: US, Israel, UK, Russia, China and of course India. Moreover, Iran has been a NPT signatory (and therefore is seen in violation of it), unlike an Israel or India, two of the three nations that have never signed the NPT and continue to remain outside it (Pakistan being the third one).
In conclusion, this piece is not in defense of Iran’s nuclear posture NOR is it about judging Iran’s good/bad attention, but it is as titled, about employing the kind of understanding one needs to have in ‘dealing with’ lets say an Iran today and any other nation tomorrow. The main problem then is Nuclear Weapons and therefore we should (also) be questioning the very ‘rationality of nuclear weapons’ themselves and not just WHO and HOW they are employed. To deal with the problem, indeed we need to understand it better and employ a rationality that goes beyond the existing one. Moreover, the Iran scenario has further shown how nuclear weapons of the major players be it the US, Israel, UK, France clearly have not ‘deterred’ Iran from doing what it is suspected of and this makes us question even the ‘deterrent value’ of these weapons. Finally, the existence of nuclear weapons cannot be taken lightly for unlike any other weapons, their very use, if ever, would only lead to what Arundhati Roy has called “An End of Imagination”.