The scaremongering over Iran seems to be unending these days. Victor Davis Hanson has resumed his traditional role as the loudspeaker of jingoism, this time with his latest tiresome, tendentious invective over Iran’s nuclear program, published in today’s Chicago Tribune (sorry, no link). Coming on the heels of North Korea’s claim or ‘admission’ of possessing nuclear weapons already, the continued zeal to ‘do something’ about putative Iranian nuclear plans is more than a little bizarre. It recalls the buffoonish logic of Mr. Bush in 2003: we must avoid any confrontation with the state that apparently has the nuclear weapons, and is therefore immediately much more dangerous, at least to neighbouring countries, and attack the one country everyone can be fairly sure has no nuclear program worth mentioning. Nonetheless, Mr. Hanson wants us to press ahead, because “the very worst alternative” would be for Iran to acquire nuclear technology. Practically every reason he offers for why this is so is either specious in itself or works from the obnoxious assumption that Iran’s energy and security policies are the concern of the United States. Let’s review them briefly.

First, there is the fear of an arms race being started, and the related concern that proliferation is already too dangerous. It is apparently unimportant to Mr. Hanson that all the other regional powers that might acquire nuclear weapons are either reliant on our subsidies or have been traditional allies of the United States for some decades–it is axiomatic for a neocon, or any hard-boiled American militarist, that Arabs must never have nuclear weapons. That would be destabilising, you see, unlike invading other countries or toppling their governments, which is not. The laughable claim that “third-rate states” are more reckless than “traditional world powers” is simply untrue; perhaps Mr. Hanson should stick to ancient Greek history, since he seems completely at sea in modern history: all the great conflagrations of the modern age have been the product of the “traditional world powers.” Almost by definition, “third-rate states” tend to avoid wars because they are so strapped for resources; they are far more prone to internal instability than aggression against other states. Exceptions seem to crop up when U.S.-backed regimes try to play at national greatness, such as the last ill-fated expedition to destroy the Iranian revolutionary regime or the foolish Greek colonels overthrew the Cypriot government and provoked the awful Turkish invasion. It is, of course, the great powers that can afford excessive risks that come with reckless and hasty decisions–no “third-rate state” could have invaded another country as whimsically and carelessly as we have done, nor could it have been as militarily dominant or financially immune from passing on real costs of war to the general population.


Next comes the truly sorry excuse-making for Israel’s own nuclear proliferation, which somehow becomes acceptable because it is “singularly democratic in the region.” Never mind for a moment the slight this does to Turkey (the neocons’ favourite prop when they want to invoke Islamic democracy, but which they then toss aside as quickly as possible when they want to justify any Israeli excess by making Israel the “only” democracy in the area). Mr. Hanson might remember that the only state to ever use nuclear weapons in war was a charming democratic republic. As any halfway competent strategist would know, these weapons are not constrained by the kinds of governments that possess them, but only by the risks that accrue to a country’s territory from using them against others.

The flip side of embracing democratic proliferation is the fear of “autocratic” and “unelected” governments acquiring nuclear weapons. Mr. Hanson paints the complete implausible and propagandistic image of Iran as would-be international aggressor. In point of fact, Iran has not started a war with its neighbours in at least over 150 years and has an all together more pacific history of international relations in the last century than most countries. The zealous mullahs, about which there is so much horror and gnashing of teeth, are evidently less militaristic and fanatical than some elements in our own society, who believe that we will never be safe until the entire world is “free” like us; the Iranians have so far been content to support Shi’is in their local fights in the Near East and central Asia and otherwise pursue normal diplomatic relations with all willing partners. This monstrous image of an aggressive, unstoppable Iranian menace is the stuff of chauvinists and bigots, unworthy of the trashiest of newspapers, much less a respectable daily such as the Tribune.

Next is the canard of Iran arming terrorists with nukes. One does not need to be an expert in Near Eastern affairs (and Mr. Hanson certainly is not) to know that no state, whatever its ideology, will ever hand over nuclear weapons to some rogue third party, no matter how much it may theoretically agree with that group. Raison d’Etat and a basic logic of the government keeping control over such an immensely powerful weapon dictate that any state that invests its resources in such a weapon will not squander that weapon on a group over which it has no meaningful control, but to which it will inevitably be linked should that group decide to use the weapon. The political calculation of the risks involved would show any remotely sane person, however fanatical he might otherwise be, that there is nothing to be gained by such a course of action. Even if some ayatollah were moved to pursue such a mad plan, the military would probably sooner depose him than allow such a stupid decision to be carried out, or he would be ousted by other elements of the clerical regime itself. Nothing is more certain in politics than the desire of a state to preserve its existence and power, and every ideology will come crumbling down when it conflicts with that basic imperative of Realpolitik. In addition, Iran has been a decided enemy of al-Qaeda longer than we have been, so suggestions of Iranians’ arming that group are simply nonsense.

The last complaint is the silliest–if Iran or North Korea get these weapons, then our allies might start developing their own nuclear weapons! Oh, no! Not our allies! Not Brazil! Whatever will we do if Brazil has nuclear weapons?! They might raise the price of coffee on us, and we would be powerless to stop them! This is not to diminish the dangers of any states having nuclear weapons; in an ideal world, no state would have them and our government would never have developed them, but they do exist and more and more governments are going to seek them in the course of time. Rational, realistic people can choose to accept this and develop mechanisms for checking the worst dangers that will accompany this new situation, or they can chase the will o’ the wisp that is the present two-faced anti-proliferation position of Washington, whereby allied states can proliferate to their hearts’ content and “third-rate states” that we or the Israelis dislike will be targeted for attack if they even dare try to acquire what our allies already have illicitly gained.

Part of being an international realist is recognising that some things in the world cannot be changed, or stopped or undone, but that they have become part of the way the world is. The responsible course of action is not to rush around the world trying to put out all the little fires that appear, but to do all in our power to contain the fire or encourage the states in question to contain it themselves. In the final analysis, the goal of our government should be to prevent the fire from spreading to where it can do damage to our country; wasting our resources trying to quench every flame in the world will distract us from the most important duty of our government, which is to protect America. If we have an unpleasant situation concerning nuclear proliferation on the horizon, it is because we have done nothing to deter principal allied states from engaging in the worst of the proliferation around the world. We continue to make extensive weapons contracts with the worst proliferators on earth in Pakistan, so the Iranians and others might be forgiven if they find our appeals to non-proliferation more than a little hypocritical, self-serving and fake.

There are, in fact, many worse alternatives than a nuclear Iran: a nuclear Iran that we have needlessly provoked to war after following the idiotic advice of the Hansons of the world; a nuclear Iran that realises it is doomed to an invasion no matter what it does and so, in a final fit of pique with nothing left to lose, does transfer its technology to still other states and groups; a nuclear Iran whose international rights are championed by other great powers when it is wrongfully attacked, thus provoking an entirely unpredictable situation that could lead to a general war. Lacking in imagination as he is, of course Mr. Hanson did not consider these far, far worse possibilities. That alone should give anyone tempted by his dishonest version of events pause.