A flurry of recent media articles gives the clear impression that Iran is making apparently rapid progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, other articles highlight steps that other nations are taking to prevent that. These steps include heightened economic sanctions (pushed by the U.S.), assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientists (for which no nation has claimed responsibility but Israel seems the most likely candidate), belligerent rhetoric about the Straits of Hormuz (the U.S. and Iran), and expressions of concern (Russia).
None of these steps seems likely to be effective. The sanctions are pinching Iran economically, driving down the value of Iran’s currency against the dollar. This, in turn, is making life less affordable for many Iranians. In response, they are more fervently nationalist than before. Russia, one of Iran’s largest trading partners, has agreed to price that trade in a currency other than the dollar. This move will ease some of the economic pain that Iranians now feel.
These results illustrate why nations often perceive effective economic sanctions as an act of war that does not require direct military actions. Similarly, these results also illustrate why economic sanctions frequently fail and why ethicists question the morality of sanctions. In Saddam’s Iraq, for example, the sanctions affected the average Iranian but not the lifestyle or position of the ruling elite.
The assassination of nuclear scientists is unlikely to prove any more effective. Ethically, assassinations are at best a gray area. An assassination that ends great evil, and perhaps thereby avoids war, is arguably morally justifiable as the lesser evil. Assassinations that may slow but not derail evil are more problematic, e.g., Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders, soon replaced by equally able and determined leaders who use the targeted killings in their propaganda.
Killing four scientists seems unlikely to bring the Iranian nuclear program to a halt, to make recruitment of new scientists impossibly difficult, or even to slow the program significantly. Instead, the killings seem certain to increase animosity and harden Iran’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons.
How can western nations constructively respond to the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons?
First, accept Iran as an important member of the global community. Iran’s threat to shut the Straits of Hormuz poses a greater danger for the west than for Iran. Making a relatively narrow channel too hazardous for commercial traffic is easier than keeping that waterway open and safe. Oil companies will probably not want to ship a quarter of the world’s oil through a channel in which even Iran sinks even a tenth of the transiting tankers. The economic disruption to world markets and economies from this move, coupled with the financial costs of a military response, surely would exceed the harm to Iran of any military attacks on that nation. The U.S. assuredly does not need to invade and conquer a third Muslim nation.
Second, give Iran as many and as strong reasons as possible to avoid war and to value international cooperation. Trade is the most important of these reasons; respect is a close second. The more prosperous and educated a people, the more that people values freedom and democracy. U.S. and western initiatives against Iran have generally backfired, promoting Iranian nationalism at the expense of democracy and isolationism at the expense of economic prosperity.
For half a century, a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) produced a standoff between two nuclear superpowers with negative feelings (ideological opposition, fear, etc.) of at least the same magnitude as the animosity between Ian and Israel. Why should a similar policy of MAD fail between Iran and Israel?
MAD a high stakes option, far from ideal. However, MAD may be the best bet for stability in the Middle East. Preemptive strikes by Israel appear destined to fail. Iran has too many nuclear facilities that are too dispersed and too far from Israel for anything but multiple nuclear strikes to be effective. The U.S. waging war against Iran seems a prescription for another war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, in which quick victories give way to slow, agonizing no-win predicaments. Either Israel or the US acting would have huge adverse consequences for global prosperity and stability.
The Cold War ended when the USSR eventually collapsed. Iran’s theocracy seems destined for a similar collapse, unable to keep an increasingly prosperous people in shackles.
Why not allow Israel and Iran to have their own cold war? This may be the best of a set of poor choices. Thankfully, both Iran and Israel have much to lose in a nuclear war, both nations value survival, and so MAD is perhaps reasonably but unfortunately the best option for peace.
From a Christian perspective, peace is impossible unless people genuinely respect one another. Current US policies lack respect for Iranians and their legitimate national aspirations. But the ideas incorporated in tis blog do not reflect simply Christian ethics. Recent articles in Foreign Affairs provide much of the background: Hooman Majd, “Christmas is No Time for an Iranian Revolution;” Suzanne Maloney, “Obama’s Counterproductive New Iran Sanctions;” Cart Brown’s review of Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr’s Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty; and Jon Alterman’s review of Vali Nasr’s Free Markets, Free Muslims.