Melbourne, Australia – Consider this: you are a willing outcast, with few longstanding and stable friends and a number of formidable enemies. How do you survive? By trying to convert your enemies to friends, or by instilling fear in your many enemies?
To the extent to which states may choose how they are perceived by others through their strategic posture and actions, when it comes to the matter of nuclear deterrence, critics of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions (note that I quite deliberately said “alleged”) might best calibrate their position in view of Israel’s own longstanding nuclear capability (note the acknowledgement of an existing “capability”).
Isn’t this just a string of obvious points? Maybe.
|People & Power – Iran and the Bomb|
But if the criticism of the “bomb Iran” rhetoric is to have any traction, it must be taken further still: as I see it, Iran is just the new Israel.
Primarily in the way by which Iran’s rhetorical posture has combined with its foes’ manufactured narrative to serve as a form of deterrent, despite no fresh evidence of it moving to acquire a nuclear arsenal.
The glaring differences
To be sure, there are manifold and critical differences in Israel and Iran’s nuclear policies.
Israel has possessed a nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s, and remains outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – an international treaty obligation that would place all civilian facilities under the purview of international monitoring and safeguards, and force the abandonment of existing nuclear weapons programmes in return for various security guarantees.
Iran, on the other hand, most certainly does not possess a nuclear weapons capability. It is a signatory to the NPT and is subjected to – despite some resistance – international verification and safeguards standards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a way that Israel is not.
That is to say nothing of the strategic alliance Israel enjoys with the United States and many of its allies, or the complex network of historical tensions that Iran faces with regional neighbours such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
However, to the degree that the complexity in any Iran-Israel comparison is readily apparent, the similarities between the two states’ nuclear rhetoric will no doubt be too long a bow to draw for many, I’m sure.
But bear with me.
The subtle similarities
Whereas the differences I have identified have chiefly concerned actions and, to use the IAEA’s own language, “activities”, the similarities that justify the headline – “Iran is just the new Israel” – are limited to policy rhetoric.
Israel has famously employed a policy of “nuclear ambiguity” (that is, neither confirming nor denying the existence of such a capability) regarding its military capability since it was first acquired in the late 1960s. Indeed, the policy is embedded within its strategic alliance with the United States and by extension, other prominent allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia.
In recent years, Iran has categorically and emphatically stated that it has no intention of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and yet a significant amount of Western intelligence, including that by the peak UN nuclear watchdog in November, has contended for some time (to the chagrin of Tehran) that it does.
Iran’s posture must be viewed as “opaque” if only because of the external noise surrounding its supposedly civilian atomic energy programme, but also because of the combative nature of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Indeed, sensationalistic pressure is emanating from the governments of Israel (which in some circles want to “pre-emptively” strike Iran) and the US (which appears to be open to military action, but worded as a more “preventive” measure); the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, who have acquired significant amounts of conventional armaments in recent years, and who would see the strategic balance shift out of their favour; and many prominent commentators and institutions, such as think-tanks.
The rub is this: no one knows for sure whether Iran is presently working to acquire the atomic bomb or not. Scant fresh evidence was presented in the watchdog IAEA’s report, and some of what was presented was of questionable credibility.
We’re left with an untenable situation not too dissimilar to that which Iraq faced under Saddam: prove that you don’t have what you claim you don’t have!
Put another way: Iran is under a greater level of scrutiny for several years of on-again off-again nuclear weapons development than Israel has been for possessing a nuclear arsenal for over 40 years.
To some extent, Saddam chose to play this dangerous game for years and lost (to a very greater extent, he was just simply taken out).
Furthermore, Iran’s foes are leaving it little room to move: either develop a nuclear weapons programme to protect the country from future attack, or exploit the disconnect between the state’s purely atomic energy intentions and the more sinister motives of the regime espoused by the “bomb Iran” narrative.
In my view, to the extent it can choose, Tehran has opted for the latter.
Why turn the pressure up?
Without doubt, Iran must be able to acquire nuclear energy without undue international pressure. Yet, unlike his predecessor, Ahmadinejad appears to favour the US and Israel-led pressure that comes from his foes touting that he has in fact resumed a nuclear weapons programme. This is because it highlights the Janus-faced nature of these countries’ broader dealings with Tehran, as well as a proxy deterrence in lieu of any foreseeable nuclear weapons capability.
Iran’s mantra has thus become, as it was at the 2011 IAEA General Conference, “Atomic energy for all, Nuclear weapons for none”.
That is, the effect of Iran’s nuclear opaqueness serves to instill fear and promote public indignation from its existing enemies – and meanwhile, Iran can be said to be playing by the rules as a party to the NPT.
One only has to review President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent statements on the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability to give this possibility some credence. For instance, in his official response to the IAEA report, Ahmadinejad made plain that:
“This nation won’t retreat one iota from the path it is going.”
“Why are you ruining the prestige of the [UN nuclear] agency for absurd US claims?”
“The Iranian nation is wise. It won’t build two bombs against 20,000 [nuclear] bombs you have. But it builds something you can’t respond to: ethics, decency, monotheism and justice.”
Thus, despite the differences between Iran and Israel’s nuclear weapons’ postures and activities, there are more commonalities than is typically suggested.
Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity has it denying a capability it is widely known to possess. Iran’s policy is to vehemently deny having nuclear weapons ambitions, in the face of ongoing statements by its foes that it does. Importantly, in both circumstances, the actions of external actors is based on the strong belief that Iran and Israel are, or are soon to be, nuclear weapons states.
Of course, in many more critically important ways Iran is nothing like Israel at all! But that’s a much easier point to make. And it certainly doesn’t help to foster new ways of thinking about a situation that we can safely say is not going to go away anytime soon.
NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Queensland, writing on the practice of environmental and humanitarian harm in modern warfare.
Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor