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What if Iran Gets the Bomb?

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I'm very aware that my byline automatically makes my headline comical -- and if you're like me, your eyes head for the ceiling anytime you see an artist, actor, musician, etc. weighing in on one of the issues of the day. I'm just writing this because I haven't yet seen anyone else do it, and I'm starting to wonder a little if anyone will.

I'm writing because I'm feeling the prickling on the back of my neck that I've started to feel anytime we (meaning the American public) are being led down a road that ends in our approval of state-sanctioned violence on a large scale. It's happened a couple of times in my life now, and it's a hard feeling to ignore. Last time, I uneasily shrugged it off, not knowing what to do. I wasn't fond of Bush, but Saddam sure seemed like he had to be stopped; even Colin Powell said so, and I almost kind of liked him.

But right now, it seems we're being prepped for the possibility of military action against Iran. Maybe initiated by us, maybe by Israel, but the point is that we're being told that whatever happens, we'll play a part in it, and that it will be Inevitable. We'll likely be solemnly informed that all other options have been exhausted, that we have no choice but to act. And that the reason we have no choice is that Iran cannot be allowed to get the bomb. (This is, apparently, a reliable applause line at presidential debates). Whatever that means. Presumably war, of some kind. I'm sure someone is worrying over the details right now.

Here's the thing, though: if I were the government of Iran, running an unpopular, rigid, brutal, and hopefully brittle theocracy established in the wake of one of the 20th century's creepiest and canniest men, I would most definitely want a nuclear bomb. It seems like the best way to ensure that no one invades you. Since North Korea developed their reactor, we've been sending them food, oil, and money to keep them from using it very often, but never to the point where they actually dismantle the thing. Gaddafi bargained away his nuclear ambitions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions -- and look what happened to him. Nukes seem to be the perfect -- maybe the only -- failsafe insurance policy for regimes that no one really likes. So it seems pretty certain that Iran's going to keep trying to get one. I think everybody knows this.

So why, I keep wondering, are we being told again and again that this must not happen, if it's also an open secret that it is going to happen? What are we afraid the Iranian government might do with this bomb, once they build it? Use it? Use of a nuclear weapon is still the world's greatest taboo, sure to make you everyone's public enemy no.

1. It's hard to see how that would help them. And they do, if nothing else, seem very pragmatic.

Even the Soviets never used the bomb, and the KGB seemed at least as scary as the Revolutionary Guard. The bomb's main function seems to be as a deterrent, or as a bargaining chip. But "Iran must not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon" rhetoric's main function seems to be prepare us for a "conventional" war of some kind, in which, if experience is any guide, a lot of people would definitely be killed. Which is more dangerous?

Please don't misunderstand me -- I have no love at all for the Iranian mullahs, and I don't want them to get the bomb. I don't really want anyone to get the bomb. Too many of us have it already. But it seems like there might be worse things than Iran getting the bomb, and large-scale state-on-state violence seems like one of those worse things; it is, in fact, the one course of action that virtually guarantees the death of many innocent people. If it's too late to stop Iran from building a bomb, and it seems like it might be, then we're going to have to learn to adjust to a world where they've got it.

Maybe it wouldn't be so different from the one we're in now. North Korea is still apparently locked into its spooky psychodrama, but isn't really threatening anyone besides itself. China has nukes, but nobody seems to worry they would use them. We're tiptoeing uneasily around a fractious, but not expansionist, Pakistan. And if I remember right, the USSR ultimately crumbled under its own weight, and it was bristling with nukes it never used. It took a long time for that to happen, of course, but it did happen. Maybe we should just try to keep doggedly heading in that direction with Iran.

One of my least favorite things about Osama bin Laden -- after the fact that he plainly relished causing the deaths of a lot of people who didn't deserve to die -- is that in doing so, he enabled a huge misadventure in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of even MORE people who didn't deserve to die. And whatever the Bush administration's motives, I really think that we approved that misadventure, as a country -- or at the very least failed to prevent it -- because we were blinded by our desire for revenge against a poorly-defined enemy, and by a strange insecurity that we still have, despite our superpower status, that makes us seethe with indignation and even bloodlust when the world's weirdest governments thumb their noses at us. Isn't that playground stuff? Shouldn't we have outgrown that by now? How else are we supposed to separate ourselves from the bin Ladens of the world, for whom personal vendettas and megalomania justify the killing of thousands?

I realize that it's one thing to say all this from where I'm sitting in middle America, and another to say it from within the range of Iranian missiles, where I'd at the very least feel much more uneasy. But I don't know if that unease would lead me toward intellectual clarity. I kind of doubt it.

All I mean to say is that before we, as Americans, start falling in step with the drums again, it seems worth taking a really hard look at what facts we can discern, to avoid the temptations of worst- and best-case scenarios, and to make up our own minds about what has to be Inevitable rather than having our opinions handed to us. And that's true whether whether we're merchants or foreign policy experts or teachers or servicemen or nurses or restaurant workers or musicians or whatever. As citizens, we have a stake in what our country does, and, in sufficient numbers, even some ability to affect it.

So: tell me I'm wrongheaded, tell me I'm naïve, tell me I'm thinking about this backwards, but let's at least agree to talk about this rationally, publicly, and exhaustively, as a country. We didn't really do it last time. As far as I can tell, we regret it.