“The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
Arabs often say that Iranians are so patient that they prefer slaughtering their sheep with cotton, not with knives. Contrary to western politicians, whose attention spans rarely exceed the next elections, Iranians do not measure history in months or years, but rather in decades and centuries. They perceive themselves as the proud descendants of a great civilization spanning thousands of years.
Why are the Iranians ready to pay such a dear price to get nuclear weapons? One cannot understand the decisions of the Iranian leadership without a suitable answer to this question. In fact, as is the case with other nuclear powers, most people don’t believe Iran will actually use the weapons. Then why? Iran wants to become a nuclear power simply because it seeks the respect it thinks it deserves and because it wants to become “untouchable”.
If Iranians were willing to compromise, they would have done so years ago. Fact is, Iran will get nuclear weapons, probably sooner rather than later. Yet, the P5+1 are still flirting with a fantasy: that they can convince Iran to give up its program. Instead, they should prepare for the reality of a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Middle East.
It would be foolish to expect that the Saudis are waiting for the negotiations to end before they decide to act. Facing a nuclear Iran, the Saudis must have started a nuclear program years ago. I would not be surprised if Pakistan or France were involved: Pakistan because of religious and political affinities and France because of its budgetary troubles and because in the past it has stealthily helped countries gain nuclear capability (in the 1950s, France, allegedly, assisted Israel in acquiring nuclear technology in return for intelligence on the Algerian mujahideens).
Israel in particular has the highest stakes in achieving this order. Instead of engaging in demonizing rhetoric, it should accept a nuclear Iran and try to get the best deal possible. In particular, it could seek disarming Hezbollah, as well as a regional monitoring system under international supervision. Of course, for this to happen it should also be willing to be more transparent about its own program. The Israelis have no other choice to preserve their long-term security.
Some would argue that a deal between Iran and Israel is impossible, citing Iran’s anti-Israel position ever since Khomeini acceded to power in 1979. Underlying this argument is an assumption that the Iranian regime is irrational. This assumption is simply not valid. The Iranians know very well they cannot “wipe Israel off the map”, not now, not in a decade, not ever. They want respect, and they want to play a regional role commensurate to their potential power.
Of course, the Middle East would be less unstable without nuclear weapons; trying to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region is undoubtedly a noble objective. But given the imminent reality of a nuclear Iran, the P5+1 should focus more on creating a stable nuclear order in the region and less on trying to prevent the inevitable. This is no easy task; fortunately the world has learned extremely valuable lessons reaching nuclear equilibria during and after the Cold War. This is the time to apply these lessons.
Many in Israel, the West, and the Arab world have become so fixated on preventing Iran from developing “breakout” capability that they lost sight of what actually mattered: preserving the security of the region as well as their own. These two objectives are not the same.
By “Cadmus” (pseudonym due to safety concerns), a joint-degree student between the Wharton School and Harvard Kennedy School, his main area of interest is the political economy of the Middle East. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.