Initially, Bashar al-Asad had developed his chemical weapons programs as a deterrent against Israeli and Western aggression—lately, he has discovered that these arms are more of a liability than an asset, nearly provoking the very invasion they were intended to ward off.
For its part, Iran has been unyielding in their condemnation of the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and for good reason: they were the victims of a heinous series of attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with the tacit approval of his Western patrons. Few understand as profoundly as Iran how truly abominable these armaments are—the same impetus which drives the Europeans to abolish these weapons also motivates the Islamic Republic.
And yet, in his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a number of dire warnings related to Iran’s nuclear energy program. As part of this tirade, he recalled how North Korea made a similar bid to have sanctions reduced in exchange for deconstructing their nuclear program. He correctly reminds us that once these embargoes had been sufficiently lifted, the regime “sprinted” towards finishing and testing a nuclear weapon, now menacing the region, and indeed, the world. He warned about a similar outcome should sanctions be lifted “prematurely” on Iran.
Of course, the obvious flaw in Netanyahu’s “logic” is that Iran has no desire to be another North Korea pariah state— instead, to transform into the economic and geopolitical superpower they are destined to become once international sanctions are lifted. And they hardly need nuclear weapons to achieve this end.
A Burgeoning Superpower
Worldwide, the Shia comprise a minority (about 15%) of Muslims. This is because most of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs living outside the Middle East—they were introduced to Islam largely by Sufi traders who drew from the Sunni tradition, albeit non-Orthodox interpretations. Within Islam’s ancestral homeland the dynamics are much different: about half of the population of the greater Middle East are Shiites—most of them (around 85%) are “Twelvers” who, while religiously diverse, generally recognize the Ayatollahs as the highest living religious authorities until the Mahdi arrives. Because these religious leaders serve at the head of the Islamic Republic, Iran has and will continue to be the ideological center of gravity for much of the greater Mideast. This has broad geopolitical implications.
Economically, in defiance of the incredible campaign to keep Iran down—efforts which have been waged incessantly since 1979 (long before WMDs in Iran were a stated concern) and have continued to expand—Iran is already the world’s 17th largest economy (by purchasing parity power). Despite the strains international sanctions impose on its economy, Iran’s nominal GDP (ranked 21st in the world) continues to grow. They are diversifying their economy in order to work around the extraordinary sanctions regime, and have been making extraordinary gains in science and technology. However, because Iran does not want to end up like Saudi Arabia, nuclear energy is a big part of this long-term vision:
The KSA has built its entire economy around oil, and they don’t really have much else to offer. Accordingly, they don’t have much of a future. As the oil from Libya and Iraq begins hitting the market in earnest, the price of crude will drop substantially. Moreover, as the United States ramps up its energy production and exports (to include becoming a net-exporter of petroleum), and as much of the world moves off of fossil fuels and into renewables—even if the sanctions remain in place on Iran, the Saudis are running on borrowed time. They will still be able to sell to emerging markets, particularly India and China, but at a much lower premium. Now, if Iran’s fossil fuels also go to the market—given that they possess more than 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves, 15% of its natural gas reserves, and 1.9 billion short-tonnes of coal reserves—the price of fossil fuels will drop significantly. Simultaneously, these energy sources will likely be subject to a host of new environmental regulations aimed at limiting their use, or increasing their cost (to encourage developing nations to decrease their reliance). Accordingly, Iran’s future cannot be viably built around fossil fuels.
This is one of the major reasons Iran seeks nuclear power as a more sustainable, and likely more profitable, alternative means of energy production. This is also why Saudi Arabia is struggling so hard to keep Iran on the margins: an economically-integrated Iran poses an existential threat to the Wahabi Kingdom, already under immense and growing internal strains. The United States would be well-advised to extricate itself from this ill-fated ally who shares neither its interests nor its values. In the meantime, there should be no doubt: Iran’s nuclear ambitions are strictly peaceful (although the same cannot be said about Saudi Arabia).
“Haram” under Islamic Law
In August of 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa against the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons—pronouncing unequivocally that they are forbidden under Islam, and that the Islamic Republic of Iran would never acquire, let alone deploy, these weapons. This ruling should not be taken lightly; certainly, it is not taken lightly in Iran:
In virtue of their dedication to Islam, and of God’s beneficence upon them, the Ayatollahs are held to possess ismah, or divine guidance and protection from error. This blessing forms an integral part in justifying the “Rule by Jurist” political system in Iran, as conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini (peace be upon him). Accordingly, if Ayatollah Khamenei were to permit the construction of nuclear weapons in defiance of his unequivocal edict, his religious authority would be called into question—and with it, the entire political and ideological framework of the Iranian state.
Not only does this edict bind the Ayatollah, but all those who defer to him for guidance. Accordingly, if the religious authorities wield total control over every facet of the state, as Western mouthpieces are fond of claiming, then the chances of Iran developing a nuclear weapon are virtually non-existent for so long as the Vilayat al-Faqih system remains in place. In fact, regardless of Iran’s political system, so long as its citizens remain predominantly Shia and continue to defer to the religious authority of Ayatollah Khamenei, they will continue to reject the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons indefinitely. The persistent paranoia among Western policymakers is based in their near-total ignorance of Shiism and their xenophobic distrust of Muslims.
A Nuclear-Free Middle East?
President Rouhani is working to overcome these cultural challenges through increased transparency and a more congenial tone. The West should reciprocate by dropping its own “tough guy” posturing, and negotiate to resolve these longstanding issues directly and in good faith. Following the example of the Supreme Leader, the Obama Administration must defy the enmity, suspicion and cynicism of U.S. hardliners and certain European allies. They must ignore their toxic “allies” in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who seek to undermine Iran for a host of reasons unrelated to weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, if the United States and the international community are truly so concerned with nuclear non-proliferation in the greater Middle East, their efforts would be better spent on Israel and Pakistan–both of whom are known to possess weapons of mass destruction, and both of whom act as radically destabilizing forces in the region. Iran has long been on the forefront of calling for cooperation towards this end. God willing, the day may soon arrive when these pleas fall on ears which are no longer deaf.
Fun fact: Iran’s nuclear program was actually started by the United States in 1967 at part of President Eisenhower’s retrospectively ironic “Atoms for Peace” initiative. One more: the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) that Iran signed onto actually affirms it as a right for all signatories to enrich uranium and develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. Accordingly, it may be the U.S. and its allies that are violating international norms and laws through sanctioning Iran—especially given that their own intelligence confirms unequivocally that Iran has not made the decision to pursue nuclear arms and has been hitherto compliant with the terms and conditions of the NPT.