The reasons why a country chooses to go nuclear are simple, and often have nothing to do with mad mullahs.
A scan of the who’s who of nuclear powers reveals that none of them are the crazy, drooling at the mouth murderers that popular media portrays Iran to be. So why are there so many great power nations that keep stockpiles of nuclear weapons, such as the United States, but so few of the outsiders?
Because the little countries, those with fragile economies or fledgling democracies, can not be trusted, we are told. Especially not if they are countries with significant Muslim populations in their midst. Reason? God forbid a band of crazy Muslims gets a hold of a Nuclear weapon!
Even ignoring the fact that the only country to ever drop atomic weapons as a first strike is the United States, a decision that most Americans still stand by, there is a particular argument that is never elaborated in the pop media – That the little country is going nuclear because it is afraid of the big powers, such as United States.
Let’s take the example of India, a country that performed a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998 even though it had been forewarned that America would punish it with crushing sanctions. Why did India, the nation of Mahatma Gandhi and home to an ancient culture that continues to draw rock stars to inner peace, need to have nuclear weapons?
Well, the answer is pretty simple. India did not trust the U.S. or any other Nuclear Club nation’s promise of securing its borders.
It is important to note here that India had already conducted atomic weapons tests in Pokhran in 1974. Its decision to do so was largely due to concerns regarding its own safety, having faced a brutal border war with China in 1962 (China tested nuclear weapons in 1964), and also having been forced to pull punches in the 1971 war with Pakistan, with the United States sending a none to subtle signal to the Indian government by sending in the Sixth Fleet, including the USS Enterprise, a nuclear ship, into the Indian waters.
Regardless of the 1974 tests, the Indian security establishments continued to feel threatened by the expansion of the Chinese weapons program, and the acquisition of nuclear technology by Pakistan. One Indian security analyst told me that they had clinching evidence of Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear bomb as early as 1987.
As a journalist, I was subject to a ridiculous exercise of misinformation in 1995 when an American “expert” met with Indian journalists to convince us of the useless nature of a nuclear deterrent. That year, the Indian government came close to a weapons test but decided otherwise. Ultimately, the deterrence argument won, but it took three years and a Hindu-nationalist government to impose that verdict.
“There was a growing realization that the strategic environment in the neighborhood was worsening,” another prominent Indian analyst told me in the Spring of 2000, “The nuclear relationship between China and Pakistan was particularly alarming. More and more evidence was coming out about this relationship and Pakistan’s capabilities, including the missile testing of Ghauri just before India conducted its tests. Similarly, with China, the degree of cooperation with Pakistan in terms of Chinese strategic thinking made it clear by 1998 that they wanted to pin India down to South Asia and that they were using Pakistan as an instrument to balance India so India would not have out of region aspirations or that India could never come out as a challenger.”
If one is to admit that there was an element of rationality to India’s decision to test its nuclear weapons, and thereby establish the proof of its ability, then one has to concede that such rationale is not merely limited to South Asia but, indeed, is theater wide.
“One can debate whether India should or should not have a nuclear option,” noted one security analyst, “but in terms of India’s deterrent capability – the capability was eroding over time. In terms of the perceptions of not just the international community but also the Indian armed forces, the scientists and the strategic community a deterrent which your own public can not have great confidence in can hardly deter the enemy. There was a loss of confidence and I think India needed to conduct these tests to reassure its public as well as to build a nuclear deterrent which could be a useful instrument of foreign policy.”
These are the kinds of pressure that Iran is facing. The Iranians suffered their first jolt when the Bush administration decided in 2001 to unfreeze America’s nuclear weapons production and announced it was going to work on smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons (whatever that means). This, along with the Bush administration’s decision to draw Iran into its axis of evil made clear to Iran the intensions of the American pre-emptive strike regime.
The cuddling of Israel along with the building of better security ties between the U.S. and Russia after September 11, 2001, exposed Iran to two nuclear powered neighbors who now had strong ties with America. Let’s not forget that many powerful Iranians still view America as the nation that stood by the slaughter of thousands of Iranians under the Shah, and then worked aggressively to destroy Iran through Saddam Hussein. During that war, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988 killing 290 Iranian civilians.
To most Americans, thanks to our pop media, Iran is the country that grabbed U.S. embassy officials as hostages and then embarked on a series of terror strikes against U.S. targets. Most Iranians believe the Khat e-Imam took the American embassy to destroy its network of spies and put an end to American plans to launch a military coup in Iran.
To these powerful Iranians, America remains an enemy that has repeatedly expressed its desire to overthrow the Iranian government. Therefore, these Iranians will stop at nothing to preserve their homeland – the taking of hostages, terrorism, and nuclear weapons are just instruments for them to scare America out of their backyard.
The question we should examine, therefore, is whether Iranian ambitions are really designed for securing anything more than their backyard. Our pop media, of course, tells us that the Iranians want to occupy the entire Middle East, including Israel. That suggestion, for most serious security analysts, is laughable.
Given the fact that North Korea, a nuclear weapon state with credible deterrence, was able to force the Bush regime to back down, provided Iran with another incentive to build a weapon. This became all the more imperative after the pre-emptive strike on Iraq quickly demolished Saddam Hussein’s regime because he had no credible weapons to deter the American strike.
While European trade concessions may well lead to a postponement of the Iranian program, there exists a global security imbalance that currently inspires all borderline nuclear states to build weapons. This security imbalance exists because of the Unipolar nature of the American military strength, and its ability to impose its military will in preemptive actions without any considerable repercussions in the international community.
Unless the international community can design safety valves to check American aggression, more and more nation states will opt for a nuclear deterrence capability. And then the next American war could well be a nuclear war.
Abhinav K. Aima is Instructor of Journalism at the University of Minnesota.