Surely you jest, Mark Helprin. How seriously can we take the following comparisons?
Its conceptions of nuclear strategy are very likely to be looser, and its thresholds lower, than those of Russia and China, which are in turn famously looser and lower than our own. And yet Eisenhower and Churchill weighed a nuclear option in Korea, Kennedy a first strike upon the U.S.S.R., and Westmoreland upon North Vietnam. How then can we be certain that Iran is rational and containable?
The U.S. weighing a nuclear strike on a non-nuclear country is comparable to Iran weighing a nuclear strike on the country that has more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined? Even Kennedy considering a strike on Russia, which did have nuclear weapons, was based on the knowledge that we had a greater overall strike capacity than theirs.
For Iran to strike the U.S. would be to commit to suicide. In what way has Iran demonstrated suicidal tendencies to date? Helprin has it right when he discusses Iran’s motives for having a nuclear weapon;
Without doubt, Iran has long wanted nuclear weapons—to deter American intervention in its and neighboring territories; to threaten Europe and thereby cleave it from American interests in the Middle East; to respond to the former Iraqi nuclear effort; to counter the contiguous nuclear presences in Pakistan, Russia and the U.S. in the Gulf; to neutralize Israel’s nuclear deterrent so as to limit it to the attrition of conventional battle, or to destroy it with one lucky shot; to lead the Islamic world; to correct the security imbalance with Saudi Arabia, which aided by geography and American arms now outclasses it; and to threaten the U.S. directly.
Except for the “destroy Israel with one lucky shot” (which would also be suicidal, since one shot could not destroy all Israel or its capacity to respond, much less the U.S.’s capacity to respond), these are all defensive and positional motives for having nuclear weapons. Iran has recognized something the U.S. is uncomfortable admitting–we treat nuclear countries with more respect than non-nuclear countries, so a country that wants respect has a straightforward means of achieving it.
I’m undecided myself on how much effort we ought to be putting toward deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I’m not totally dovish by any means. But to call Iran a “mortal” threat to the U.S. is to announce oneself as having left concern for reason behind and to be lusting for war purely for the sake of continued American dominance, be damned to all others and who cares how many die in the process.
Once upon a time we called such people warmongers, and meant that as a term of opprobrium. Those were the good old days.