It is widely believed that the ruling regime in Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons.The third option is that Iran is trying to build a threshold nuclear capability -- as is explicitly allowed, and encouraged, under the NPT -- that would theoretically allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon within 18-24 months of giving a "go" order.
Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps the ruling regime in Iran is merely seeking to persuade everybody that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons. A country's political leverage is maximized when it is nearly able to acquire nuclear weapons but has not yet done so.
It is problematic for the Iranian regime to pursue nuclear weapons: the only two Supreme Jurisprudents that Iran has had since 1979 (Khomeini and Khameini) both explicitly and repeatedly decreed that nuclear weapons are irreconcilable with the tenets of Islam. Nevertheless, Iran's main concern is not Israel -- who've had nuclear weapons since the 1960s without Iran batting an eye -- but originally Iraq, and now Pakistan. The United Nations did a thorough job of disarming Iraq, so the Iranian nuclear program was mothballed during most of the 1990s.
Unfortunately, once Pakistan demonstrated a nuclear weapon, there was a clear danger to Iran: the Pakistani military and intelligence services are riddled with extremists who, via the Taliban in Afghanistan, have already committed anti-Shia ethnic cleansing campaigns.
We're very used to the idea of Israel threatened by crazy Iranian mullahs, but there's another alternative: Iranian mullahs threatened by crazy Pakistani Islamists. All it takes is one magic bullet, and Musharraf is gone, after all. So Iran has a dilemma: nuclear weapons are forbidden by the theocracy, but things with Pakistan could go really bad, really quickly, with little warning. The answer, as much as there's an answer to any of these things, is the threshold nuclear capability I mentioned above.
This is not the same as wanting a nuclear bomb. It is the kind of nuclear technology that is, by the international law of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, supposed to be available to all countries around the world, including Iran. (This is the gaping hole at the heart of the NPT: it is fundamentally contradictory, and so long as we insist on "peaceful uses" of nuclear technology, we will by definition be risking a more dangerous world.)
The second thing I disagree with Prof. Delong on:
The best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for all powers in the region--India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel--to do what makes their people safest: for all to give up their nuclear weapons programs. The second best resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem would be for Iran to do what makes its own people safest: for it to give up its nuclear ambitions, whether or not it receives substantial security guarantees that deter the possibility of attacks on Iran in return. Even if Israel and Pakistan keep their nuclear weapons, the devastating consequences for Israel and Pakistan of using nuclear weapons against Iran is a more effective deterrent than an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be.Uh, what "devastating" consequences could we inflict on nuclear-armed Israel or Pakistan that would make up for Tehran being a glowing, ashen wasteland? Are we willing to promise the Pakistanis or Israelis that Jerusalem or Islamabad would be similarly reduced? Why would we threaten our allies like that? Short of that, what kind of guarantees could we give Iran that would make them give up the bomb? Iran has lived under US sanctions for decades, and their elites have done just fine thank you. They know quite well how ineffective diplomatic means are at deterring military threats, and they also watched Indian and Pakistani tensions calm down after both parties had nuclear weapons.
So no, there is no more effective deterrent in Iranian eyes than posessing the ability to produce nuclear weapons. And here is where we reach, in my eyes, the most crucial and under-explored aspect of this whole issue:
So far, Iran has done absolutely nothing -- nothing at all -- that places it in breach of the NPT. So why is the US going crazy over this? Well, strident anti-semitism is never a good thing for foreign leaders in the US' eyes, unless you happen to be James "fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyways" Baker. But more crucially, Iran is one of, what, three countries that has publicly and successfully humbled the American government: only Cuba and Venezuela, I think, would get a similar kind of reaction from the US*. Clearly, the US is not thinking objectively about risks to either itself or Israel -- Pakistan is a greater danger on both counts, but gets billions in aid. This has less to do with a real calculus of risk, and more to do with America's own issues with Iran -- dating back to the Carter administration, for God's sake.
*Question for the audience: In you view, is it better that the revolutionary movements in Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela have humbled the US government, even at the cost of unquestionable misery in Cuba and Iran, and the worsening autocracy that is Venezuela?