Today we are distracted by Kate Middleton’s breasts and the ethics of publishing photos of her topless, but with an ‘armada of international naval power massing in the Gulf’ perhaps we should be more concerned about the ethics of nuclear weapons and who, if anyone, should have them. It is easy to understand why acquiring nuclear weapons makes for populist politics in Iran. After all if others — especially Israel — are allowed nuclear weapons why shouldn’t Iran have them too. That’s a nice easy argument that appeals to the outsiders’ sense of fairness and the Iranian’s sense of patriotism.
Some like to claim that nuclear weapons prevented a third world war with the threat of mutual destruction, but this ignores how perilously close this argument came to being proved wrong. We now know that unbeknownst to the USA at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons were not only already in Cuba, but that Castro had authorised their use: he was ready to martyr the entire island along with an estimated 100 million Americans (100 million Russians were supposed to perish too as the USA acted on the mutual destruction promise). So in considering whether a nuclear Iran might somehow be counterbalanced by nuclear Israel, we need also to consider how many martyrs the Iranians might be prepared to create as a fair price for destroying Israel.
The simple truth is that nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for anybody to hold on to, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Unless we give them up ourselves, we cannot expect others to hold back. Yet arguing for unilateral disarmament must also be naïve: we need some guarantee that the other side will follow suit.
Disarming Iran must be the priority. But tolerating Israeli air strikes (or the continued assassination of nuclear scientists) or supporting a US-led military action is not the way to achieve that goal; it can only lead to war. Such a war would not only be bloody and have the potential to go nuclear, it would not be easily understood by the peoples of the USA, UK and other countries who are tired of war and largely ignorant of the Iranian threat. Furthermore, Israel has been losing the battle of ideas for a long time (not just among people on the left) thanks to their despicable treatment of the Palestinian people. Anti-Israeli sentiment is sure to increase if Americans, British and others are asked to give their lives for that uncompromising country.
Instead, what we need is a comprehensive programme of nuclear disarmament, to include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but beginning with Israel as well as Iran. After all, an Israeli threat to obliterate Iran might only be read as an opportunity for martyrdom. The doctrine of mutual destruction is dead and we need to find a nuclear policy that respects that before the Iranians call our (or the Israelis) bluff.