Freshman GOP Sen. Tom Cotton and the 46 cosigners of his poison pen letter to Iranian leaders were subjected to a firestorm of criticism last week. Yet all the opprobrium directed towards Cotton was perhaps premature. Maybe President Obama and Secretary Kerry shouldn’t pursue a deal with the Iranians. Cotton’s letter might spur the administration to think outside the parameters of the current negotiations; there is, after all, another option. And Obama and Kerry might consider exploring it in lieu of haggling over centrifuges and permissible levels of uranium enrichment.
The volatility that seems to be the Near East’s constant companion has many dimensions: tottering regimes, corrupt authorities, unimaginably misogynistic societal norms, terrorism, ethno-religious animosity all contribute to the region’s instability. Contributing to the mix is the fact that there exists a great imbalance of military might in region; there is only one regional nuclear power, and it is Israel. By some estimates it has between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads. We cannot know the number because—among other things—Israel and the U.S. both deny the existence of the Israeli nuclear program.
It is the existence of this nonexistent program that, more than anything else, is probably the main motivating factor behind Iran’s effort to join the nuclear club, whose members are, as of this writing: Pakistan, India, North Korea, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France. Though, in fairness to the Iranians, it isn’t actually clear whether it’s a club they want to join. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has every right under international law to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes. It should be further noted that even some Israeli officials have ceded that Iran isn’t (quite yet anyway) pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Note this exchange from a January 2012 interview with then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak:
Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?
Barak: … confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control [inspection] regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible. Apparently that is not the case.
In other words, in Barak’s view Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program is, as opposed to Israel’s, actually nonexistent.
One way, perhaps, to make the region marginally less volatile would be to ease the insecurity generated by Israel’s large nuclear weapons stockpiles. How?
It might make sense for the U.S., rather than pursuing a deal with Iran that would dissuade them from pursing nuclear weapons capability, to provide Teheran with enough weapons-grade enriched material to build two nuclear weapons. What might conceivably develop is a bipolar Cold War-type peace between Israel and Iran like that which existed between the U.S. and the USSR for four decades.
It needs to be kept in mind that nuclear weapons are essentially defensive in nature. If the Iranians (and this is still a big ‘if’) are pursuing the enrichment program for the purposes of weaponization, their ultimate goal is to protect Iran against external, existential threats like those posed by the nonexistent Israeli nuclear arsenal, or the all too real U.S. nuclear stockpile.
And while it is certainly true that some cultures/movements have an apocalyptic agenda (see: ISIS) it is a real stretch to lump the cosmopolitan Persian civilization into the same category. Iran is not—despite all the rather intolerant rhetoric that emanates out of some of the more theocratically-minded theocrats—going to wipe Israel or America or Europe (yes, Europe, that’s why we need missile defense installations in Poland after all) off the map. A nuclear balance in the Near East may be just the thing the region needs.
So, I say: hats off to Sen. Tom Cotton and his 46 cosigners for attempting to scuttle the administration’s attempt to find a compromise with Iran. There really are other options out there, and we should carefully consider each and every one.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.