I've noticed something about people. When provided an out in a sticky situation, people tend to take it, regardless of future consequences. This is known as a dynamic inconsistency, a situation where people's preferences change over time. A great example is the high school kid who drops out. His present self is thrilled with the decision to sleep late and watch daytime TV as opposed to buckling down in class, but his future self likely won't be nearly as happy with the reduced ability to earn as life goes on. Generally speaking, it's much better to consider your future self, and not the immediate happiness of the present self, when making long range decisions.
Dynamic inconsistency has been on full display here in New York this week with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the UN as well as Columbia University to lay out his platform for his nuclear program and the impacts this has on global policy. The first shot across the bow of the USS What’s Best For America was fired last week when Retired Army General John Abizaid commented that the US could abide by a nuclear Iran. Following this, Ahmadinejad was provided with multiple platforms including the aforementioned university in order to sound byte his softened message to the masses.
Far be it for me to differ with an experienced and partial leader of the military, especially someone as esteemed as General Abizaid. And I don't think the essence of what he said was wrong. Certainly the US could manage with just one more nuclear state.
However, I think the General misses the bigger point, and perhaps he made his comments with only his present self in mind. For example, Iran isn't just another country. Iran has designs to be the super power of the Middle East (and eventually the world). Such aspirations are not necessarily appreciated by its neighbors. Following the development of Iranian nuclear capability, there is a distinct possibility that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey or other countries might engage in a Middle East version of a nuclear arms race in order to create a balance of power. Certainly, such an arms race is not something that the US or any country could or should abide, but at that stage, we'd be in a difficult position to stop it. Alternatively, Iran could simply use its new found nuclear power to lord over all of the other Middle East and neighboring nations, as they attempt to do currently without nukes. Either scenario is extremely destablizing for the Middle East, and the world considering our dependence on oil.
Other arguments have been made to further calm concerns of Iran becoming nuclear. One argument says that the US has it all wrong, Iran's quest is for peaceful nuclear energy for the Iranian people. Another says that the nuclear goal is really to help Iran gain more respect on the world stage (as stated by their own UN Ambassador). These points are at odds with each other – if the goal is peaceful energy, how would that give Iran any more respect as a country? Alternatively, Iran is already one of the most feared nations in the region, and they have plenty of trading partners among UN members (as evidenced by the UN's lack of willingness to support sanctions). So what kinds of additional respect are they trying garner exactly?
The fact is that if Iran really wanted to expand its energy resources and independence, they could build oil refineries to process all of the oil resources that are abundant naturally within Iranian borders into petroleum. Right now, Iran runs the (unlikely) risk being cut off from gas by UN sanctions. Some postulate that the Iranians are not interested in this idea as oil is not a clean technology. However, I've not heard any plans from Iran to stop drilling for oil once nuclear energy generation has been achieved, so clearly the concern for the environment isn't a driver in their quest to split the atom.