Explaining Libya to Iran
Iranian clergymen watch a Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile fird by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the desert outside the holy city of Qom, 02 November 2006. (Getty Images)
September 12th, 2011
02:45 PM ET

Explaining Libya to Iran

Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of World Politics Review. For more from WPR, sign up for a free trial of their subscription service, get their weekly e-mail, or follow them on TwitterAlexander K. Bollfrass is a visiting scholar at the Stimson Center. He has written widely on nuclear weapons.

By Alexander K. Bollfrass, World Politics Review

Eight years after Moammar Gadhafi gave up his mail-order nuclear weapons program and chemical munitions in exchange for détente with the West, he has been chased from power by a ragtag rebel army backed by Western airpower. Chances are that Gadhafi regrets his decision to forgo his WMD programs. If he had been armed with nuclear or chemical weapons, NATO might not have intervened when he threatened to massacre his own people.

While Gadhafi's fall is good news, the end of the eccentric colonel's dictatorship now heightens the challenge of getting the Irans and North Koreas of the world to give up their nuclear ambitions in exchange for better relations with the West.

Before the bombs started falling on Tripoli, the intellectual and legal momentum behind such an intervention had been building for years. Through the work of academics and humanitarian advocates, the idea known as the "responsibility to protect," or R2P, has emerged as an increasingly mainstream norm among Western policymakers. R2P emphasizes the responsibility of states to protect their populations and permits international intervention if a government is unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocities against its people.

In March, the international community did not dither when Gadhafi appeared to be preparing a massacre in Benghazi. R2P was used to justify the first U.N.-sanctioned humanitarian intervention in a sovereign country against the wishes of its government. The architects of the intervention were some of the very same countries that had convinced Gadhafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction eight years earlier: France, Britain and the United States.

Read: Gratitude versus neutrality in post-Gadhafi Libya.

Parallel to the humanitarian community's development of the R2P doctrine, another community of foreign policy thinkers, those worried about the spread of nuclear weapons, had worked to promote an idea with very different implications for sovereignty. They reached the conclusion that fear of outside intervention was among the many factors driving governments to build weapons of mass destruction. For this reason, they argued, it was necessary to assuage that fear with the offer of a security guarantee once the government could prove it had abandoned its WMD ambitions. In Libya, this security-assurance principle successfully brought the archpariah of the 1980s back into the international fold in 2003.

The contradictory doctrinal developments in humanitarian and security circles are not abstract intellectual exercises; they have practical implications. In light of the Islamic Republic's crushing of the Green Movement in 2009, it takes little imagination to see a Libya-like situation emerge in Iran. Iranian leaders weighing the pros and cons of coming clean over their country's nuclear program might look closely at what happened to Gadhafi after he surrendered his weapons program. They might also consider Saddam Hussein and his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, while contrasting both these dictators with Kim Jong Il and his unpunished nuclear roguery and human rights violations. They might come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons are useful. In fact, we need not speculate about such a scenario, for this is essentially what Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at the start of the Libyan campaign.

Read: In oil payment settlement, India shows Middle East influence.

The Iranians are not the only ones learning this lesson, one that sets the stage for a future in which nuclear weapons are prized as a counterweight to the threat of international intervention represented by R2P and its inherent challenge to state sovereignty. Instead of greater openness and West-friendly behavior, the response of the rogue states would be deeper retrenchment under the cover of asymmetric WMD capabilities.

How can the West make clear that these governments do not need such weapons to protect themselves, while at the same time emphasizing that mass violence against civilians is intolerable?

After Libya, it will no longer be credible to issue security guarantees while denying the possibility of a future humanitarian intervention. Therefore, the least-bad option is to explicitly address R2P in any future bargaining to bring proliferators in from the cold. When forgoing regime change in exchange for the verified renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, the West should include a clause in any agreements negotiated with these nations that they do not have carte blanche with their populations and that mass atrocities might still provoke an intervention. Such an R2P clause might make these bargains harder to strike, but it would squarely address the elephant in the negotiating room.

Read: U.S. must not close the door on nuclear energy.

While nuclear and other indiscriminately destructive weapons might seem to offer short-term protection against an interventionist West, they cannot protect abusive regimes against their own people in the long run. The Soviet Union's massive nuclear arsenal did nothing to prevent its disappearance, nor did apartheid South Africa's nuclear arms uphold its system of racial oppression.

That is not to minimize the grave threat that weapons of mass destruction pose to global security. Every available tool - including security assurances - must be used to combat them. Yet these assurances cannot be absolute, and must make it clear that mass violence against civilians will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alexander K. Bollfrass.

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Topics: Iran • Libya

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    This post just proves that as arrogant and self-righteous as the U.S. and it's NATO allies are, they can also be equally treacherous! Mohammar Qadaffy has has every right in the world to regret his 2006 decision to collaborate with the West!!!

    September 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Iran is different. It doesn’t trust Israel, an ally of the U.S. Besides it wants to assert its defiance towards the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

    September 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  3. liz

    There is ZERO evidence of any niclear weapons program in Iran, and as Elbaradei has noted, Iran has repeatedly offered compromises that hsve simply been ignored – because the entire nuclear issue is just as pretextual as "wmds in Iraq" was.

    September 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite true liz, quite true. The right-wing thugs in Washington are just looking for a pretext to attack Iran just like they did Iraq. Their greed knows no boundaries!!!

      September 12, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  4. nutz

    Russia and the US proved that nuclear weapons prevent invasion and direct wars (proxy wars still continued eg vietnam, korea).
    Iraq proved that western sanctions are not negotiable and that the west will claim you have WMD when you don't.
    Libya proved that giving up nuclear arms has very limited benefits and ultimately leads to invasion by a superior power.

    The obvious conclusion is that nuclear weapons are in Iran's best interests.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The Soviet Union collapsed despite its nuclear weapons not because of an invasion but an implosion.

      September 13, 2011 at 7:50 am | Reply
  5. smile


    September 13, 2011 at 2:11 am | Reply
  6. Kailim

    "Responsibility to Protect" is just the continuation of the Western power's intervention to the domestic affairs of other nations. No matter how right the cause, the results have been and still are human tragedy. (1) People starting killing each other after a "regime" is removed, eg Iraq, Afganistan. (2) Families got seperated for decades after intervention was half-done, eg Germany, China, Korea.

    September 13, 2011 at 2:12 am | Reply

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