I am not certain. I really struggle with this issue because it is the sternest test out there for a libertarian idealist who also fashions himself a realist. The libertarian impulse is to side with the George Will sentiment that containment is essentially inevitable; sooner or later Iran is going to possess a nuclear weapon, alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and probably others. I think it is consistent with both libertarianism and realism to acknowledge this and to then resort to a cogent and practical containment policy. This worked in the Cold War, so why not apply it to the Middle East? Ah, but Iran and its cadre of certifiably nuts mullahs are a different animal than the godless Communists who wielded their nuclear spear recklessly and maliciously but were nonetheless not suicidal. Maybe. I do not take issue with the notion that the Iranian ayatollahs are irrational actors guided by a fierce and toxic opposition to the peaceful (or any) existence of Israel. I do take issue with the notion that Iran is patently suicidal as a result. Yes, a nuclear Iran will allow the mullahs to dictate policy in the region to a level heretofore unimaginable, but the same could be said (and was, and still is) about North Korea last decade, and yet for all their shenanigans, are the North Koreans really dictating events in the Pacific? Methinks China and the US (with Japan a distant third) will remain the dominant arbiters of sea lanes and territorial island disputes for a long time to come. North Korea’s acquisition of the bomg has done extraordinarily little to alter the balance of power in the Pacific theater.
Oh, but Iran is not North Korea! True again, and yet, also beside the point. Iran is indisputably a bad actor on the global stage, funding as they do both Hamas and Hezbollah while propping up the Syrian regime as it confronts major domestic unrest (to put it lightly). Iran has a vested interest in promoting Shiism in an Arab world largely populated and controlled by Sunnis. In this effort, Iran has created sworn enemies not just in Israel and the West, but in Sunni Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. As much as Khamenei and company hate Israel and wish to see its destruction, they know that by attaining nuclear weapons capability, their Sunni adversaries will commit all their energies to doing the same. The “Arab Spring” has served a clarifying purpose for the world in one important respect: it has revealed that the true cauldron of conflict in the Middle East is not Muslim v. Christian, Arab v. Western, Palestinian v. Israeli or even Islam v. The Great Satan, but is in reality Sunni v. Shia. The Iraq war and its resulting civil strife helped send this message back in 2004-5, but it was largely overshadowed by the dominant narrative of Western, imperial aggression and had been nearly forgotten prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring in early 2011. But if the early stories coming out of Cairo and Tunis were encouraging for their veneer of secular democratic revival, the almost-three year civil war raging in Syria proves that the driving force behind the bloody conflict is less secular, more sectarian. So for all the talk of Iran’s quest to become a threatening and belligerent world hegemon, it seems more likely that a nuclear Iran would be more interested in harnessing its new power to consolidate its position with regard to the Sunnis. Because Iran must certainly know that any aggressive act, particularly nuclear, would be met with overwhelming, and certainly nuclear, retaliation from the United States and Israel. If Iran is so crazy that it sees detonating a suitcase nuke or an ICBM in a Tel Aviv market as its reason for being, then I am just wrong. But if Iran is in fact not so crazy as to engage in a geopolitical strategy that would result in ancient Persia’s being permanently replaced with a radioactive parking lot, then it seems that their desire to acquire nuclear weapons capability is entirely about bluster. Iran knows its influence is waning and the whole shape of the region is in flux, thus is lusts after a nuclear weapon primarily as a status-symbol. Not unlike the North Koreans, if you ask me.
But the realists certainly do have a point about the nature of the ideology that guides Iran. Ever since the U.S. has been involved with Iran, going back to the 50’s, enmity has been the most abundant commodity exchanged between the two nations. The libertarian impulse is to open up to the world via free trade and transparent, honest exchange. The realist counters, correctly, by insisting that only harsh sanctions and an aversion to trade had brought Iran to the negotiating table, desperate for a way out from under their dire, UN-imposed economic hardship. So if you operate from the premise that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, ever, under any circumstances, then of course the sanctions regimen has been wise and appropriate. And that really is the crux of the question for me, one for which I still don’t have an entirely fleshed out answer. But ultimately, despite my strong libertarian preferences for trade and commerce over sanctions and opacity, on Iran I have to slide just a notch over toward the “realist” camp. On Cuba, the U.S. has been slow to evolve from the nasty tensions of early 60’s Cold War machinations, and our stubborn insistence on maintaining trade and travel embargos fifty years hence is theater of the absurd. But as vile and malicious as the Commies were (and still are), the Iranians are indeed a bird of a slightly different feather. I think the realists are wrong when they suggest that a nuclear armed Iran would have no qualms exercising their new power in order to quicker bring about the destruction of Israel or of the decadent West. I don’t think they’re that crazy, as they know a nuclear attack on their end would result in the categorical demolition of their people and culture. And despite an intractable schism between Sunni and Shia within Islam, the mullahs and the Ayatollah are true believers who want to see an Islamic caliphate gradually cover the globe and would thus be reluctant to embark on a course that results in far fewer living Muslims on this Earth than there were before Iran got the bomb.
I side with the realists essentially out of cowardice. It’s scary to consider a nuclear-armed Iran, thus it is easy to wish that they not procure one. And that is pretty much my stance. But I do maintain that, wishing aside, if Iran is able to get the bomb, then the realists need to adjust their posture and forego calls for war by learning to love containment (or something. I really don’t know).