The View From Olympus 23: The Iranian Bomb

Several weeks ago I wrote about a clear and present danger to America’s security, a U.S. Senate Bill entitled The Nuclear Free Iran Act of 2013. Not only would the bill endanger the current negotiations with Iran by applying new sanctions, it would pre-commit the U.S. to war with Iran if Israel attacks that country. You read that right: we would be in not if Iran attacks Israel, but if Israel attacks Iran. In effect, the bill hands Bibi Netanyahu a legal right to declare war on behalf of the United States.

Fortunately, the bill appears to be losing support in the Senate. Senators are facing the fact that their constituents do not want America to fight another war anytime soon.

But some analysis of Iran’s nuclear program may also point to reasons why we should not go to war over it. Does Iran want nuclear weapons? Undoubtedly it does, if they can be had at not too high a price. But it also appears—and this is the conclusion of our intelligence agencies, for whatever that is worth—Iran has decided the price is too high, at least for the foreseeable future. So instead of building a bomb, Iran has decided to learn how to build a bomb as well as delivery systems for it. Then it will halt its nuclear program, beyond what it needs for civilian purposes, mostly power generation. Under international law, Iran has the right to civilian uses of nuclear energy.

All this is fairly well known. Where most current analysis falls short is in its assumptions as to why Iran wants a bomb. It is assumed the purposes of an Iranian bomb are to deter an attack by the United States and either to deter the same from the Israelis or to launch a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack on Israel.

These assumptions are open to question. Not being blind to American politics, the Iranians surely know the only thing that would bring an American attack is getting a bomb. There is zero chance that an American president could ape George Bush and launch an all-out invasion of Iran to achieve “regime change.” The American people would quickly let Congress know what they thought about such an adventure, as we saw when President Obama made noises about attacking Syria. The American people have had it with wars of choice on the other side of the world that send their kids home in body bags or crippled for life and cost trillions of dollars we don’t have. So an Iranian bomb, instead of reducing the danger of an American attack, would create it.

Similarly, were Iran to lob a nuke on Tel Aviv, it would commit suicide. Israel not only has about 500 nuclear weapons, plus delivery systems that would survive an Iranian attack, the Israeli mind-set is such that its retaliation for an Iranian nuclear strike would be annihilating. 3000 years of Persian history and culture would be wiped off the map and out of history. Americans may not be much aware of Persian history and culture, but Iranians very much are. And, as in the case of the U.S., Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would raise both the likelihood and the legitimacy of an Israeli attack on Iran. So once again, building a bomb would reduce Iran’s security, not enhance it.

So why would Iran want a bomb? Because Pakistan has one.

From an Iranian perspective, Iran’s principle threat today is neither the U.S. nor Israel, but Sunni Islam. Iran, as the leading Shiite state, is at war with the Sunnis—real shooting war, not metaphorical war. That is Tehran’s top priority, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni. Shiites are regularly murdered in Pakistan. Sunni suicide bombers sometimes blow themselves up in Shiite mosques in Pakistan in the middle of worship services. Sunnis, many of them, regard Shiites as “worse than infidels,” because they claim to be Muslims but, from Sunni perspective, are heretics. Wars inside a religion can be even more brutal than wars between religions.

And Sunni Pakistan has the bomb. In fact, it has several hundred nuclear weapons, with sophisticated delivery systems for them. From an Iranian perspective, letting the Sunnis have a bomb while the Shiites don’t is a problem. It may be a far bigger problem to them than either Israel or the United States.

I have heard this analysis from area specialists, but it never seems to make it into the American debate about an Iranian bomb. If it is correct, it puts the question of an American attack on Iran in a very different light. Do we need, or want, to involve ourselves in the Islamic civil war between Sunnis and Shiites? To pose the question is to answer it: obviously not. Let them fight each other until doomsday, preferably with vast casualties on both sides. The energy they expend fighting each other is energy they do not have to attack us.

Were the Senate to consider this argument, I think there is little chance it would vote to give Mr. Netanyahu a blank check to take the United States to war with Iran. Is your Senator aware of it? You might want to send him a copy of this column.