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The Right to Bear Nuclear Arms?

Posted By Charles Pierson On August 3, 2010 @ 12:04 am In FrontPage | 21 Comments

Last Wednesday, the UN Security Council passed a fourth round of sanctions against Iran.  The sanctions follow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement in February that Iran is now a “nuclear state.”  The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran has enriched enough uranium for two nuclear bombs.

These developments render a conversation I had recently that was rather nonsensical.  “Iran has as much right to nuclear weapons as anyone else,” a liberal friend told me.  This came as a surprise.  By now, there is scarcely anyone who is not alarmed at Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  On November 27, 2009, the IAEA issued a resolution calling on Iran to freeze operations at its uranium enrichment facility outside the city of Qum.  (The existence of the secret Qum installation was revealed to the world by Western leaders in September during the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.)  The day after the IAEA resolution, a defiant Iran announced its intention to build an additional ten uranium enrichment plants.  Even Russia, long tolerant, if not encouraging of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has shown some signs of unease.  On November 16, Russia announced that the Bashere nuclear reactor, which it has been building for Iran, would not come on line by its scheduled completion date at the end of 2009.

Israel openly contemplates a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.  This would reprise Israel’s successful air strikes against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.  It is the prospect of a preemptive strike against Iran—not Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons—which most worries the Left.

A number of other liberal friends echoed the assertion that Iran has a right to nuclear arms.  It suddenly struck me that a strange thing had happened on the Left: liberals have embraced the Second Amendment—but with a catch.  While most liberals continue to recoil at the thought of guns in the hands of American citizens, a few liberals happily apply the Second Amendment to Iran.  This new Second Amendment declares:  “Iran’s right to bear nuclear arms shall not be infringed.”  Call it the International Second Amendment (Nuclear Version).

The International Second Amendment differs from the arguments usually made against striking Iran.  These other arguments focus not on Iran’s purported right to nuclear arms, but on the necessity and feasibility of an attack.  They revolve around several factual questions which can be grouped under three headings:

What are Iran’s Intentions? Iran claims that it wants nuclear power only for peaceful uses.  Is Iran telling the truth?  If Iran is indeed seeking nuclear weapons, will it use them only in self-defense?  Does Iran intend to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against Israel or another country?  If Iran’s aim is aggression, can Iran be deterred by the nuclear arsenals of the West as was the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

Is a Preemptive Strike Feasible? Can Iran be disarmed by any means short of military force, such as inspections, diplomacy, or the latest round of UN sanctions, augmented by even harsher sanctions imposed by the United States?  Is a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities technically feasible?  Iran is farther away from Israel than either Iraq or Syria.  Can Israeli aircraft strike at that distance?  And is it possible to locate and destroy enough of Iran’s nuclear installations, many of which Iran has partly hidden underground?

What Will the Aftermath of an Attack Be? Would terrorism against the West increase?  Would Iran close the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, interrupting the flow of oil and plunging the world economy from recession into depression?

These are practical questions.  The International Second Amendment, on the other hand, is unconcerned with practicalities.  It argues that Iran is entitled to nuclear arms as a matter of principle.  Period.  The International Second Amendment is not a practical, but a philosophical, specifically an ethical, argument against taking action—any action, military or nonmilitary—against Iran.  Does the argument have merit?

Does Iran have a right to possess nuclear weapons?  The short answer is:  not if Iran intends to use them for aggression.  If it can be demonstrated that Iran does have hostile intent, is anyone prepared to argue that Iran still has a right to nuclear arms?  As Abraham Lincoln remarked:  there is “no right to do wrong.”

Iran has no legal right to nuclear arms.  Iran is a party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The NPT divides signatories into two groups of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.”  Five “nuclear” states (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Red China) are allowed to possess nuclear weapons  This was a necessary concession to reality, as these were the states possessing nuclear weapons in 1968.  Iran falls into the NPT’s second category of signatories which are forbidden from acquiring nuclear weapons but which are allowed to develop nuclear energy solely for peaceful uses.  The International Court of Justice (the “World Court”) recognizes no universal right to nuclear arms.  To the contrary, the Court has not even been able to bring itself to endorse the use of nukes even in the extreme case of an existential threat.  In its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, the Court could manage no more than a weak concession that in such an extremity, resort to nuclear weapons might not be unlawful.  Finally, the UN Security Council has passed four resolutions between 2006 and 2008 calling on Iran to cease enriching uranium.

The International Second Amendment may appear unassailable because its simplistic fairness:  if any state possesses nuclear weapons, all states must be allowed nuclear weapons.  But this is naive morality at best:  if Johnny gets a cookie, then Sally must get a cookie.  Reality is not so evenhanded.  In actuality, the Left only condemns nuclear weapons in the hands of the United States and Israel.  Russia, China, and Iran get a pass.  Left unanswered is the question of why nukes are objectionable in the hands of democracies but not in the hands of authoritarian states.

The answer may lie with the Left’s accusation that the United States and Israel are hypocritical to possess nuclear weapons while forbidding them to other states.  This is a morally frivolous objection for two reasons.  First, it dispenses with any assessment of the dangers states like Iran may pose.  Nor does it give any weight to the history of restraint represented by the United States and Israel.  The United States has proven a responsible steward of the atomic bomb.  We have used nuclear weapons only twice—sixty-four years ago—and that was in a war which began with an attack on the United States.  Israel, which has possessed nuclear weapons since the 1960s (an open secret), has never used them.  During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s very existence was on the line from the invading armies of Egypt and Syria.  Israel did not use nukes even then.

We can agree that hypocrisy is a bad thing.  However, advocates of the International Second Amendment think there is nothing worse.  By all means, let Iran incinerate Tel Aviv; at least we will not have hypocritically infringed Iran’s right to nuclear weapons.  During the Cold War it was often said, “Better dead than Red.”  Today that’s become “Better dead than hypocritical.”

But where is the hypocrisy? Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is not hypocritical since Israel has not signed the NPT:  Israel has not promised not to develop nuclear weapons. Any hypocrisy lies with Iran which has signed the NPT and thus has pledged itself to nuclear development only for peaceful uses.

There is no universal right for all states to possess nuclear weapons.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, no one argued that Cuba was entitled to nuclear arms. Instead, the United States, with the approval of the world, moved to interdict them.  What all states do possess, however, is the right to self-defense.  Since the prime target of Iranian nuclear weapons would be Israel, Iran’s putative “right” to possess nuclear arms gives way to Israel’s right to self-defense.  Israel has every reason to feel nervous.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad has declared that Israel “should be wiped off the map.”  Iran’s apologists have protested that this statement was mistranslated.  Irrespective of this statement, anxieties reasonably remain.  In 2006, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sponsored an international conference of Holocaust deniers in Tehran.  Iran continues to back the terrorist group Hezbollah, whose charter names the destruction of Israel as a goal.  Finally, the Iranian leadership adheres to an apocalyptic form of Islam which looks for the return to Earth of a legendary figure:  the Twelfth, or “hidden,” Imam.  Believers hold that the destruction of Israel is necessary for the Twelfth Imam’s return.  Even if it were true that Ahmadinejad’s provocative statement was “mischaracterized,” Israel’s fears would be far from allayed.  Iran refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and will not exchange ambassadors.  Iran also supports Hamas and Hezbollah.  It is no wonder that the West reads the worst in Iranian intentions.


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