So, I was talking to myself about this Iran business, and I used the term nuclear Iran, as in we’re closer to a nuclear Iran than we were last month, and then I asked myself: what do you mean by that? And I had to admit I didn’t know. So I lost that argument, didn’t I?
In some seriousness, I have been seeing a fair amount of discussion about the US abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—OK, wait a minute, because if I am writing a note about the definition of terms, I should probably start by saying that I don’t know what any of the terms really mean, and that they probably have quite specific meanings in international law and diplomacy. So. The JCPOA is not, quite, a treaty, but an international agreement nonetheless. The US isn’t, quite, withdrawing from it. As far as I can tell, we’re imposing sanctions that we had agreed not to impose, claiming I think that we are not obligated to fulfill the agreement because the conditions laid out in that agreement were not met. Is that right? Our government is using words like leave and exit, but I think the Treasury Department’s cease participation is maybe closer, and Russia’s unilaterally refuse to carry out commitments has an unfortunate ring of truth. I have tentatively settled on abrogate myself, as I think it has a connotation of formally and unilaterally announcing the end of the thing being abrogated, without necessarily implying the violation of the agreement. But that’s not necessarily a correct description of what’s happening, and I don’t know that anyone would be inferring what I mean to imply by it anyway. Anyway.
I’ve been seeing a fair amount of discussion that talks about a nuclear Iran, in that exact phrase or various versions of it, and I think it’s probably a good idea to at least think about what we mean. On some level, a nuclear Iran is an Iran that has nuclear weapons that it can use—an Iran with a stockpile of missiles. That’s probably the A-level nuclear Iran. Then there’s the nuclear Iran that has a single nuclear weapon, which is like, an A minus. Then there’s the nuclear Iran that has all of the knowhow and most of the stuff, and could put together the remaining materials in a month or two, which is, what, a B? That’s where we seemed to be before the JCPOA was put in place—as I understand it, which is probably wrong, the JCPOA was supposed to keep Iran at that B level or slightly below B level for fifteen years. Technically, it was supposed to go down to what I guess is B minus, where it would take them a year to make the material from scratch, and then ease back up to a B over the course of the agreement. Except that it would probably be more of a B plus at that point, where they could make a bunch of nuclear missiles in a couple of months, not just a single weapon.
Then a C is, I guess, an Iran with nuclear power plants and a functional economy, such that they could presumably decide to either build the infrastructure or purchase the material, although it would take a significant investment and probably take a long time. And a D would be an Iran that was a total mess, complete economic and political disaster, where we couldn’t really imagine that there was the money, capability or competence to get a nuclear program running within five years.
So: when we say that we can or cannot live with a nuclear Iran, are we talking about, oh, a B plus level nuclear Iran? Or is anything more than a D level a nuclear Iran? Because if we can’t live with a C, then we are essentially saying that we can’t live with Iran as a sovereign nation. But if we’re saying that we’re OK with a B level nuclear Iran but not an A level nuclear Iran, that’s a different matter, and I would think one that can be negotiated, at least in the B minus to B plus area. It’s a big difference, innit? One thing to say: you can aspire to be Norway or Greece or Canada. Another to say that if you poke your head up over Burundi we will chop it off.
I grew up in the outlier over the top. There was nothing any other nation in the whole round world had that we didn’t have first or best, bigger and shinier and deadlier and of course far more trustworthy than anyone else. We talked about the possibility of choosing to denuclearize (or reduce CO2 emissions or stop dumping plastic in the oceans) as the free choice of a free people—we didn’t do it, but we talked about it—never under pressure from other nations who considered themselves more entitled to things than we were. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to live in a nation that is just supposed to live with the US saying we could never be a nuclear state and meaning that we could never be allowed to even have the infrastructure that would be capable of getting within fifteen years of building a single warhead. Never.
Look, I don’t want Iran to have a nuclear arsenal. I am not saying that Iran is equivalent to the US or the UK in terms of the danger of such an arsenal getting used someday. I’m not even saying that Iran is equivalent to Pakistan or Russia or South Africa, if it comes to that. I also think it’s just generally a good idea to have fewer A level nuclear states. The point of non-proliferation, it seems to me, is not that we have correctly identified the few nations that can properly be trusted with nuclear weapons; the point is that fewer is better and however happenstance has identified the nations who were first, don’t lets have more. And largely the world has been able to live with that, and pretty well, too. It’s not logical or correct, but it works. Denmark or the Netherlands are able to live with being B level nuclear states just fine. And I am in favor of it continuing to work, both generally and in the specific case of Iran.
The question is not so much, then, what we are willing to do to keep Iran from being an A level nuclear state, but what we are willing to do to keep Iran from being a B level nuclear state—and what other nations are willing to do if we insist that Iran be below a C level state.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,