When Republicans held a hearing last month that attempted to put Ben Rhodes in the hot seat over his supposed misrepresentations of the Iran nuclear deal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest shot back “The truth is, it is Republicans in Congress who criticized the Iran deal, who have got a lot to explain when it comes to saying things about the Iran deal that didn’t turn out to be true. And if they want to hold a hearing to determine whether or not Republicans were just wrong and badly misinformed, or if they were purposefully lying to the American people, then they can do that.” All the sky-is-falling claims from Republicans about the deal got enough coverage during the Congressional debate last summer so I have a better suggestion for an inquiry. What we really need to have is a hearing about the way the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was presented by both political parties and Washington policymakers. Or should I say the way it wasn’t presented?
In the cascades of commentary, there was a ton of “we will never allow Iran to get the bomb” and scarcely any “here’s why we have to prevent an Iranian nuke”. To his credit, President Barack Obama did provide us with a why when he told Jeffrey Goldberg that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could cause “energy disruptions that we’ve never seen before” and therefore we’d see “the world economy basically coming to a halt.” That case for keeping Iran nuke-free would convince nearly everybody but I find it rather lacking. Assuming Iran had managed to build the bomb, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East would have been far from a certainty because the U.S. has too much leverage on its regional allies and could always reassure them by opening up a nuclear umbrella.
That’s why I think there’s more to the threat of Iranian nukes than what President Obama said and that the greater danger in Washington’s eyes was the more likely possibility of Iranian nukes being used as “access denial weapons” to create an exclusionary trading bloc that would block out American commerce. As Andrew Krepinevich writes “The challenges that China and Iran pose for U.S. security lie not in the threat of traditional cross-border invasions but in efforts to establish spheres of influence in, and ultimately to control access to, critically important regions.” With a nuclear arsenal, Iran would become immune to a U.S. invasion for regime change and thus the Iranian government would be in prime position to make economic moves that shake the foundations of the U.S. economy. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi tried making such moves and we all saw how it ended for both of them.
A nuclear Iran, however, would escape their fate and become a major headache for Washington as Tehran would gain tremendous leverage in its relations with the U.S. The regime might have no intention of ever creating an Iran-dominated sphere of influence but it could easily pretend otherwise to prey on Washington’s fears of an economically-divided world and make demand after demand to strengthen Iranian interests. Then again we might just call their bluff, for even with the nuclear protection, it’s difficult to envision Iran actually establishing a trading bloc that was sustainable. Few nations would join voluntarily and Iran has nowhere near the military power to impose it on their neighbors—especially their Arab ones. It’s doubtful an economic union of Iran and its satellites would get off the ground but the attempt could inspire stronger nations like China and Russia to give spheres of influence a try. When you get down to it, the threat of the Iranian bomb is that it might have hastened the rebirth of an economic environment last seen in the 1930’s. Iran’s hypothetical nukes would never have been used but they nevertheless would have blown up the U.S.-led global economic order.