The Meaning of Iran's Nuclear Weapon Program

Iran's presumed quest for nuclear weapons isn't just about nuclear weapons.

It is also about prestige, and it is also about respect, both of which Iran believes it is entitled to, and neither of which it feels it sufficiently has.

Remember that Iranians are the inheritors of the great Persian civilization, of cultural treasures such as famed Persian poetry and paintings, jaw-dropping architectural feats and, today, thirteen UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the dynasties of Achaemenid (550 BC) to Safayid (1722 AD), Persian empires once stretched from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Fast forward nearly a millennium, and the descendents of this once mighty empire find their nation listed on the "Axis of Evil" by the world's most powerful country, which then proceeds to invade and occupy a neighboring country, also on that Axis. Remember also that this same invading country, not half a century before, had overthrown Iranians' democratically elected leader and replaced him with an unpopular monarch whose repressive regime sowed the seeds for the eventual takeover of power by an oligarchy of different, yet arguably no less ruthless, despots.

To develop a nuclear weapon requires a country's smartest scientists and a chunk of its wealth. The five Permanent Members of the Security Council have them, in droves. What greater demonstration of a country's resources, both human and capital, than the development of a nuclear weapon? If the world won't give Iran the respect its Persian forbears merit, then they will solicit the respect by other means, seemingly, necessary.

Nuclear weapon-yielding countries have tried -- and continue to try -- to persuade Iran to relinquish its nuclear capabilities by promising that they would enrich uranium for them. This solution, of course, is premised on the acceptance of Iran's dubious claim that it seeks nuclear power only. It is also premised on Iran's faith in promises made by countries that have overthrown their regime in the past, and which are possibly plotting similarly, if less overtly, today.

It does not help, of course, for Iran's president to find it domestically useful to lambast against the West's staunchest ally in the region and calling for its destruction, however vaguely veiled the rhetoric, or its translation, may be. It is certain, no matter how shocking or unbelievable this may seem to war-weary Israelis, that the Israel element is not a driving motivator in Iran's nuclear weapon program. It's just a handy distraction.

Quasi-red herrings such as the Iranian nuclear energy program, or Israel's nuclear weapons capability, prevent us from finding a solution to this impasse, since they obfuscate the core objectives of Iran's program: respect and prestige, from which influence and prosperity flow.

It is a dastardly shame, a mark of our collective embarrassment that, over 60 years since the destruction of Hiroshima, and nearly 40 years since countries agreed, by law, to eliminate them, nuclear weapons are still perceived as the best guarantor of respect, prestige and influence. This is the fault of the only five legal nuclear weapon possessors, whose membership in the closed nuclear club is the only consistent commonality behind their shared, coveted permanent seats on the Security Council.

With full, cognizant recognition that nuclear weapons are genocidal, ecocidal and, to a high degree, suicidal, it is time that world leaders heed the desperate calls from their populaces and find another, more modern and useful source of national prestige and respect.

It is possible that such 21st century leadership will not emanate from the same corners of the world that led the 20th century down such a horrifically self-destructive course. The countries that lead the way in renewable energy systems, in innovative education and technology, will express the insights, priorities and values that will earn it the respect of peoples the world over.

Nearly ten years of political posturing, both within Iran and without, over the Iranian nuclear weapon issue, have layered the issue with a multitude of complicating factors. For Iran to give up its program now would result in the exact opposite of its primary goal; Iran's "capitulation" to the West would amount to losing face, not garnering respect.

The onus is perhaps on the peace-loving, forward-looking, globalized youth, whose own values and behaviors are free, in ways unprecedented from past generations, from provincial dictates and norms, enabled by, of course, the much-heralded new arsenal of social media tools. The Twitter revolutionaries of Egypt and Tunisia found global respect and admiration, not from their wielding 1950s technology or their savvy use of force. Until the leaders of all countries learn that respect and power no longer stem from the antiquated vectors of yesteryear, we may continue to ignore the true impetus of Iran's nuclear program, at our collective peril.