By Nicholas Mellen
After tumultuous years of proliferation drove our planet to our current state of mutually assured destruction, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuses to end their quest to enter the world arena of sorts. Nuclear deterrence is at this point on our planet a side program that governments have to maintain in a global strength contest. Weaponization of a nuclear energy program in Iran is a waste of time both for the government of Iran and for the countries that will inherently feel the duty to deter the Iranian strike capability. To analyze this I visualize three scenarios: the first being sanctions on Iran fail to force the government to abandon its program and Iran proceeds to publicly test a nuclear weapon; the second being sanctions force the government of Iran to continue development but only to a breakout capability discussed later; and third being sanctions on Iran succeed to force the government to end their nuclear program.
"Iran tests nuclear device!" reads international headlines as the Iranian government displays a successful nuclear test on national television. This scenario has most likely brought Iran already into a deep world of trouble. Israel, with an already unchecked nuclear capability in the region, has likely stepped up efforts to infiltrate and attack Iran's nuclear program, possibly with full scale attacks such as bombing of facilities and political assassinations. If Iran would even attempt to retaliate to any of these activities outside of influencing terrorist groups, resources and manpower for a nuclear program would dry up instantly as facilities would be bombed with precision by Israel and the human element of innovation would be gone as well. So, inevitably in this scenario, Iran weathers significant attacks upon its infrastructure and has a government that with all of its anti-Israeli rhetoric does not attack Israel. This part is not impossible as the ayatollahs are still sensible officials who want to ensure the survival of their nation and culture.
The government of Iran now faces issues much greater than before the test. Unlike other deterrence scenarios referenced by officials such as India and Pakistan or the United States and the Soviet Union, Iran's likely minimal nuclear program is both deterred and overwhelmed by Israel and its ally the United States. For perspective, if a nuclear volley were launched at Israel, and the United States wanted to both deter the threat and attack Iran, it could do so with merely a Virginia class submarine and the current naval fleet already stationed in the Middle East supporting operations in Afghanistan. If Iran develops a nuclear program, they are not deterred; they simply possess an excuse to have nuclear weapons used against them. Beyond that, the influence of the United States and its Western allies on the world stage will likely demand even tighter sanctions, to a point likely worse than sanctions imposed on North Korea. With a nuclear weapon, the ayatollahs are inviting their society to suffer from a lack of medical supplies and starvation. Iran has no ability to compete on the world stage economically or militarily, and its people likely foster resentment for the government because of its actions, outside of the current youth who resent government policy.
"Iran possesses breakout capability" tops international headlines as the Iranian government has successfully deployed nuclear reactor facilities across the country and through this enterprise has developed the necessary infrastructure to build and test a nuclear bomb, yet reserves the ability to do so at the moment. This scenario invites similar heat from the Israeli government with respect to infiltration and attacks on scientists and facilities and invites a similar response from the rest of the world with a quest for transparency. The transparency argument splits two different ways. For a true and swift breakout capability, Iran must have facilities that are producing highly enriched uranium which has no use in nuclear energy. Facilities which produce such a unique enrichment of uranium would have to be hidden very well to keep international observers from discovering them and moreover Western intelligence from finding them. Therefore with the lack of resources to build more enrichment facilities either underground or well hidden above ground, it is unlikely Iran would allow international observers to accurately gauge the extent of their nuclear program.
There is though a second transparency scenario, in which Iran develops less extensive infrastructure for weaponization and does not proceed to manufacture highly enriched uranium or develop test sites and other necessary facilities. With this, Iran is poised to allow international observers to witness a program that at that very moment solely provides for a system of nuclear energy. There is though an obvious downside to the Iranian government, in which developing a nuclear weapon with sufficient knowledge of the technology would take measurably longer than the first transparency scenario, as uranium would have to be enriched and weapons-specific facilities would have to be constructed, all with the full knowledge of the world that these events were occurring. All evaluated, a breakout capability scenario invites still more trouble to Iran then the weapon itself is worth.
International headlines read "Iran abandons nuclear program!" as the government of Iran shuts down all reactor and enrichment facilities and slowly invites international observers to evaluate the extent of their program and negotiate the removal, repurposing and destruction of facilities and other infrastructure related to the Iranian nuclear program. Sanctions are dropped against Iran promptly after all fissile material exits the country or is properly secured, while Western nations reopen diplomatic channels. Immediately, Iran and its people are in a much more secure and stable situation, and can continue normal economic functions such as oil exports and foodstuffs imports. This scenario truly is the best for Iran, as the government has the opportunity to bring nationally unprecedented economic growth and prosperity as seen in other oil rich Middle Eastern nations. Nearly all nations on the planet consume a large amount of oil and oil rich nations should be in a position to benefit from this. Iran has a largely inefficient state sector and reliance on its oil industry, but with proper economic policymaking and patience, the government can develop sustainable growth. Iran by 2011 estimates has a trillion dollar economy placing 18th in the world, but ranks 4th in oil production and 3rd in oil exports. With a reference to the Islamist culture issues in the nation, Iran is experiencing a tug from traditionalists to keep a strict grip on the economy and a tug from a new generation, who want the country to grow and develop and truly expand their production capabilities as an economy. In this modern era, economic supremacy dominates world affairs and trivial culture issues tear at nations with otherwise healthy economic affairs.
Looking past Iran's own actions in this world affair, Western governments must reexamine their stances on nuclear weapons. While there is obviously a threat from a nation attacking another with a nuclear weapon, much direr and much more likely attacks are being developed and make a mockery out of mutually assured destruction due to a lack of deterrence.
Cyber warfare for example seems like a nuisance to the public, but in reality, a government aligned hacking collective with the ability to control power stations, commercial industries, and military hardware threatens more lives than a deterred nuclear threat from another nation.
Conflicts in space are also another serious issue, as nations develop independent GPS and communication systems; they are vulnerable to attack just like any ground or air target, but with much more devastating consequences. If, for example, a country destroys 9 or so of our current 31 healthy GPS satellites, positioning efforts across the country would fail, disrupting all commercial aviation and shipping, and severely weakening our military's ability to navigate a large section of the Earth's surface until repositioning could occur.
Overall, much larger threats exist in our heavily economically dependent nations, and nuclear ambitions are likely to evolve into a serious prospect for many nations as the technology becomes more readily available and the materials are more easily created. Weaponization should become nearly a spinoff of what could be a prosperous era in nuclear energy efforts through both fission and fusion, along with other alternative energies. In short, the world is ready for a new shift in energy dependency, away from the Middle East and out into the unknown, and nations like Iran just happen to not understand that.
I would hope that this rational Iranian government does not pursue nuclear efforts at this time. It is ever more likely that when proven oil reserves dry up and processes to gather natural gas reserves threaten public safety, a new era of peaceful proliferation in nuclear energy will occur spreading the enormous wealth of efforts in fusion and more efficient fission. While more developed nations will likely control the commercial aspects of the nuclear industry, the prospect of nuclear energy in the Global South is more likely then rather than now as production or purchase of radioactive material will become more available to these developing and least industrialized nations.
The author is a senior at Wyomissing Area High School, and president of the school's Model U.N.