The Ayatollah With the Bomb

Appreciating the horror that would be a nuclear-armed Iran

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April 23, 2019

In recent weeks, several Democrats running for president have vowed that, if elected, they would reenter the United States into the nuclear deal with Iran. The accord, they argue, was working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, until President Trump scrapped it last year, potentially provoking Tehran to withdraw from the agreement as well. The main problem with this argument is the main problem with the deal itself: the accord paves, rather than blocks, Iran's path toward nuclear weapons.

Forget about Iran cheating or the insufficient inspections for a moment. The regime can produce the world's most powerful weapons if it simply abides by the deal, under which the key restrictions on Iran's nuclear program expire over the next 12 years. Beginning in 2026, for example, Tehran is free to enrich uranium using advanced centrifuges, which make the enrichment process much more efficient, and to install and operate more of its older models. Then, in 2031, restrictions on the amount and level of enriched uranium that Iran can stockpile disappear. So, in about a decade, the Islamic Republic will have the international community's blessing to build as large a nuclear program as it wants—while, if the United States re-implements the deal, enjoying relief from sanctions.

In a twisted irony, the deal is itself a ticking time bomb, and cannot be allowed to run its course. Yet the accord has created inertia in some circles in Washington, where many of its supporters seem content touting the deal's benefits and handing off the problem to tomorrow's leaders and thinkers. But there is more to their thought process than indifference, or an unrealistic view of what the deal will do, or whatever else motivates their stance. Those presidential candidates who promised to re-join the nuclear deal, and like-minded supporters, have made a choice, whether they know it or not: the cost of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is not worth the benefits. In other words, it is not worth striking Iranian nuclear facilities, and thereby risking a war, to stop the Islamist theocracy's march toward the bomb. Which is worse: Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, or going to war, if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining them? This is the fundamental choice that underpins many observers' views of the nuclear deal, consciously or subconsciously. Understanding this point makes the debate over the deal, and over Iran's nuclear program more generally, much clearer.

Champions of the nuclear deal, those who describe it as a panacea (for example, Barack Obama), of course recognize that a nuclear-armed Iran would be dangerous. They know that a cruel and oppressive regime, one both anti-American and anti-Semitic, that is willing to stone women and execute homosexuals should not have nuclear weapons, especially when that regime practices a belligerent foreign policy. But their words and actions show that they, if put to a choice between military action and acquiescence, would choose the latter, believing that they can live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

There are many ways to show why this view is wrong, and why Americans should not accept a world where Tehran has nuclear weapons. One way to illustrate the point is to compare the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to global security to the threat that a nuclear-armed North Korea currently poses. Any sane person recognizes that North Korea, a totalitarian state run by a murderous, delusional savage committed to reunifying the Korean peninsula, is a grave threat. In fact, Democrats in Congress who support the Iran nuclear deal have actually chided President Trump for being too nice to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Yet a nuclear-armed Iran would be far more dangerous than a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Iran is an imperial, expansionist power seeking preeminence in the Middle East. The regime exerts heavy influence on four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sana'a—supports Palestinian groups, seeks Israel's destruction, incites the Shi'ite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to subvert their governments, and is trying to expand its influence in Afghanistan and beyond. Tehran sends its soldiers across borders and creates proxy forces to do its bidding, competing against similarly powerful countries for regional influence in multiple conflicts that could easily trigger war. If Iran obtained nuclear weapons, other Middle Eastern states—certainly Saudi Arabia—would seek the same capability. Imagine the consequences of a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region. The Islamic Republic is also a theocratic regime, driven in large part by the desire to spread a revolutionary form of Shi'a Islam. And, sanctions aside, Iran is a major player in the global economy, exporting oil and gas. Deterring Iran from using nuclear weapons would be a murkier prospect, not to mention that the United States is not obligated by any treaty to protect its Middle Eastern allies.

North Korea, meanwhile, is not an imperial, expansionist power in the same way, in large part because of geography. To the south, the North Korean leadership sees a more powerful South Korea, which the United States has promised to protect. To the north is China, a purported ally and, more importantly, a far more powerful country. To every other direction: water. And beyond: Japan, which is, again, a stronger country, and one to whose security the United States is unambiguously committed. Pyongyang simply cannot pursue a belligerent foreign policy in the same way as Iran even if it wanted to. Indeed, North Korea is contained by virtue of its location and lack of resources. For these same reasons, it is not involved in a regional competition for supremacy that can devolve into war like Tehran. Moreover, Pyongyang does not try to export an ideology, revolutionary or otherwise. And North Korea has nothing of value to offer the global economy, just the black market. Deterring North Korea is more straightforward, even if the North Korean leadership seems more unpredictable than their Iranian counterparts. Not that the United States should accept a nuclear-armed North Korea—far from it—and obviously North Korea's nuclear program is, currently, more menacing than Iran's. But that could very well change in the foreseeable future.

Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is truly a nightmare scenario, one that the United States—regardless of who is in power—should do everything it can to prevent. Unfortunately, and dangerously, most of the Democratic presidential candidates would do the opposite, showing Iran a path to the bomb. Americans, both leaders and citizens, need to appreciate the horror that a nuclear-armed Iran would present to the world. Maybe then more people would support the aggressive posture that is required to deter and counter Iran's deadly ambitions.