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Be nice or we'll blow you up
How to win friends overseas

All content Copyright © 2006, P. Lutus

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It is now common knowledge that Iran is working feverishly to produce nuclear weapons. It is also obvious that this project jeopardizes stability in that volatile region.

What are the Iranians thinking? Do they actually think they can justify creating these dangerous weapons on the ground that someone might use nuclear weapons against them? That's totally irrational, isn't it?

The world community should do all it can to assure Iran that there is no reason to create and possess these weapons, that the project is a waste of money with no compensating return. An enlightened diplomatic policy would combine firmness with credible reassurances that these weapons have no imaginable purpose.
Enter George Bush. In New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh writes that the Bush administration is actively planning a nuclear strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, to force a stop to their nuclear ambitions.

A group of prominent US physicists, including several Nobel Prizewinners, have written a letter protesting the administration's plan, calling it "gravely irresponsible."

For himself, Bush has said that the Hersh article is speculation, but that he will not rule out the use of nuclear weapons to stop Iran's nuclear program.

What's the big deal? Aren't nuclear weapons like ordinary weapons, only more powerful? Or do people (and nations) regard nuclear weapons as a separate category that deserves special treatment?

Well, as it happens, it's a very big deal. Nuclear weapons have historically been treated as especially dangerous, and international diplomatic efforts have tried to discourage the perception that they are just another kind of weapon.

As time passes, however, and as more and more countries possess nuclear weapons, the notion that they are "special" is gradually evaporating.

There are a number of forces that could drive a country to consider building and possibly even using nuclear weapons. In order of importance, they are:

  1. That nuclear weapons exist at all.
  2. That nuclear weapons have been used during a war.
  3. That an adversary possesses these weapons.
  4. That an adversary might credibly use nuclear weapons in particular circumstances.
  5. That an adversary is proactively planning, and training for, their use to resolve a diplomatic crisis outside of war.

In international diplomacy, a bedrock principle states that one should evaluate an adversary's capabilities rather than his expressed intentions. The skepticism in this policy is unfortunately vindicated again and again by history. Which leads me to wonder how our threat to use nuclear weapons could have been interpreted by Iran as anything other than an incentive to continue developing their own.

Most people agree that Iran's nuclear ambitions are dangerous and should be addressed. That is a given. The remaining question is what response is appropriate. It seems to me the most effective response would be a clear program of incentives and disincentives, a show of international unity and consistency, plus reassurance that the project cannot address any credible kind of threat.

But the worst imaginable response would consist of international discord, plus evidence that a superpower is prepared to use this same class of weapons to resolve a diplomatic crisis outside of war.

To put this in the simplest terms, the basis for objecting to Iran's nuclear program is that nuclear weapons are not ordinary weapons, and they should be treated as separate from all other kinds of weapons. But the administration's stated policy — refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons to resolve a diplomatic crisis — argues that nuclear weapons are ordinary weapons after all.

It is one thing to decry how the U.S. is caricatured in that part of the world, but it is quite another to live up to the caricature, or embellish it as Bush is doing. The administration's policy, which one assumes was designed to help Bush deal with his poor standing in the polls, has backfired — instead of creating the hoped-for political windfall in the U.S, we have instead given the Iranians a tangible incentive to push ahead.

This is the most dangerous kind of hypocrisy, and it is breathtakingly shortsighted.


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