The international community has suspected for a while now that Iran has been developing nuclear technology for purposes other than peaceful electricity production, as it claims. It asserts its reticence to use its oil reserves to fund development (preferring to sell its black gold to the rest of the world) and so is turning to nuclear power to serve the needs of the Iranian people. The West, however, doesn’t believe it for a moment.
The United States has led the call for Iran to disband its nuclear programme due to concerns it will be used to develop military technology that will be used against other nations, most probably Israel. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly stated his desire for Iran to “wipe [Israel] off the map”, noting that “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury”.
In this light, it seems fair that the West is suspicious of Iran’s supposed good intentions regarding nuclear power. The bomb has played a major role in shaping geopolitics since the atom was first split and the Manhattan Project utilised nuclear fission in a meaningful way. The bomb was the major player in the Cold War, which saw the US and Soviet Union in a state of constant paralysed aggression due to the potential for ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD), in which the deployment of nuclear weapons would result in the total annihilation of both attacker and defender, rendering a war with no victor.
Once the United States had the technology to build a weapon so powerful it could instantly wipe out entire cities, other states coveted the tool that ensured international respect, if not outright deference. The devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki sealed the fate of nuclear technology as the tool to cement a country’s international standing.
Iran has consistently maintained that it has the right to develop nuclear technology, and Ahmadinejad has stated his intention to transfer this technology to the Islamic world due to “its need”. His position reflects broader debates within international relations that see developed countries pitted against their developing counterparts. This phenomenon isn’t new: the rise of emerging economies such as China and India have spurred the developing world to argue for the right to develop along whatever lines necessary. In addition to arguing for the right to utilise fossil fuels and nuclear power, for example, some states want to push the boundary and develop their own nuclear weapons.
In terms of ‘fairness’ regarding access to the technology to cause mass destruction, the nuclear question is decidedly dissimilar to that posed by those who argue, for instance, that developing countries deserve to develop via the use of fossil fuels. While climate change is an issue that requires urgent attention from the international community, the phenomenon does not pose the same immediate risks and devastation that an exploded nuclear warhead does.
Thus, do developing states have the right to develop nuclear technology for geo-strategic reasons? Do they have the right to perpetuate apparatus that could effortlessly eradicate half the world’s population in one fell swoop? Should they be allowed to ‘protect’ themselves with this technology? Is it fair that only a few have access to the source of such immense power and influence? In this light, it seems fair that the West is suspicious of Iran’s supposed good intentions regarding nuclear power.
As an example, in issues of climate change and emissions targets, the argument that developing states have the right to develop via whatever necessary means seems somewhat valid. The developed world has had their time in the sun, it is argued, and so while they reduce their emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change, developing economies should be allowed to play catch-up. Nuclear warheads would undoubtedly level the playing field in many ways.
But should this be extended to nuclear technology? Given the total destruction that could be wreaked by even an accidental push of the proverbial big red button, is it worth the risk? Should the world really concern itself with questions of ‘fairness’ in this case? Some developing states already have the bomb; most notably India, Pakistan and North Korea. While all of these states have yet to deploy a nuclear warhead, the mere threat is enough to cause major instability in their respective regions.
Instead of preoccupying ourselves with notions of fairness, we should be pushing for the total eradication of nuclear warheads. The bomb served as a deterrent during the Cold War, but with a swiftly changing international regime, marked by the rise of emerging economies like China and India, the world should sit up and take notice when yet another state attempts to secure such power. Unlike North Korea, which prizes self-preservation above all else and so is reluctant to deploy nuclear weapons, Iran might just be tempted to use its bomb, if Israel does not launch a preliminary strike first. The situation could quite quickly tumble into something resembling a trigger for a third World War.
Pragmatically, it might be a pipe dream in this nuclear age to advocate for the total elimination of the bomb. Complete eradication is unlikely, although still a worthy goal. In the short- to medium-term, the world should be wary of claims Iran is only interested in its development. The risks of allowing the development of more warheads that would not be regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency is too great to accommodate questions of fairness. Churchill probably did not realise the prescience of his words when he said “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce”.