This is a risky statement to make, especially in today’s political climate. Certain highly-strung Western-oriented nations are waiting for the incriminating admittance of the existence of an Iranian nuclear warhead, the importune moment, when they can finally say, “We told you so!”
Iran’s nuclear programme is not a secret, nor has the government ever denied it. It began in the 1950s during the Pahlavi era with support from Western governments, and was continued under the present Islamic regime. Iran sees the right to nuclear power as part of its sovereignty, and therefore a national prerogative. The historian could even describe Iran’s nuclear struggle as the 21st century equivalent of its fight for oil. For many years Iran had been enriching uranium for energy, and thus civilian, purposes. Nuclear technology in Iran is not advanced enough to produce anything military. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has made several visits to the Islamic Republic over the last few years. Its findings have been somewhat mixed: although it reported some years ago that Iran had indeed violated some safeguard measures, it has yet to find any conclusive evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, since the invasion of Iraq on the pretext that it had nuclear warheads, which were never found, any accusation and response to Iran’s nuclear programme has to be careful.
As such the nuclear issue very much remains an existential threat, particularly so for Israel. But let us say, for a moment that Iran is very close to producing its first nuclear warhead and the imagined threat has become real.
For all its belligerence and hostility towards Israel and the West, Iran will probably behave like any other country that has a nuclear weapon, and not use it. Part of the power of a nuclear weapon is in its possession. In a way, it is a status symbol for a lot of nations. Possession does not mean that a country like Iran would use it to eliminate threats; it is understood that if a nuclear war were declared, all parties involved would essentially be signing their own death warrants. After all, even during the arms race of the Cold War, both the Western and Eastern blocs had nuclear weapons that they never used; but the threat alone was enough. Similarly, in a situation where Iran has a nuclear weapon, it would never actually be used in warfare. Instead, it would be used as a bargaining token and as a way to protect Iran’s position. In a relatively small region where very few countries are believed to possess nuclear weapons, Iran would probably not initiate a nuclear war in which the Republic and its enemies would mutually assure the other’s destruction.
Regardless of whether or not Iran would ever use nuclear weapons, even though there is no recent precedent of a nuclear country doing so, the question on the lips of Western nations would be, “Will we ever feel safe again?” This is the unfortunate reality that we live in where the Western world, led by the United States, determines who can join the nuclear family. This has led to much criticism and often, questions arise over why Israel’s weapon of mass destruction are tolerated but countries like Iran and North Korea are not seen as suitable members to the so-called nuclear club. In the scenario where Iran does have a nuclear weapon, one can expect two possible reactions by the West: they would call for immediate disarmament, or they would forcibly remove it by invasion or by sabotage.
However, peaceful coexistence is an option. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, despite some tension and close calls, were able to monitor the other’s possession of nuclear weapons. As such, it could serve in the interests of Western nations to not be too startled if Iran joined the nuclear family: measures can be introduced to moderate and ensure a responsible attitude towards nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, nuclear weapons serve a symbolic role. In all likelihood, Iran would possess it to serve certain figurative roles: as part of its national right, to psychologically assure the safety of its people and borders, and to remind the Western nations that economic sanctions have not hindered progress. As said earlier, despite its seemingly hostile attitude, even a country like Iran does not want war, especially since the Republic is no stranger to conflict. Perhaps indeed, it is time that we took a cue from Dr Strangelove, and stop worrying and love the bomb.