Today's NY Times article on the Iran nuke situation carried some interesting connotations. The most eye catching was in a comparison to the Iraqi nuclear program at Osirak, destroyed by Israel in 1981. It reads:
"Iran takes great care to protect its technology and production/storage capability with multiple layers of security, hardening and dispersal," said one Air Force general with experience in the Middle East. "All this complicates identification, targeting and execution."
What's fascinating about this analysis is that these are not characteristics of an unstable R&D program. The level of coordination required to pull off this kind of decentralized effort signals two very important things. The first is a highly functional bureaucracy, necessary for prolonged operation of a decentralized network. Rogue elements like terrorist organizations can operate on a network-oriented model by utilizing infrastructure that is already extant (phones and internet) and because they are driven by the zeal of their members, requiring little bureaucracy to function. Government R&D programs require complex bureaucratic structures in order to transfer information, pay staff, and coordinate operations. "Multiple layers of security, hardening and dispersal..." are not something that can be accomplished without a stable, functional bureaucracy. I'll say more on this later.
The second point to be made by this analysis is that Iran hardly presents a major threat to global nuclear security. Any government (be it a democracy or a theocracy) going to these lengths to secure a program isn't going to be inclined to distribute its secrets to the highest bidder. Iran's main concern is Iranian security and stability. Distributing nuclear technology to terrorist groups or unstable regimes would seriously undermine both, almost assuring economic, political, and military backlash.
The really good news in this is that Iran is sporting a functional, and probably fairly massive, political bureaucracy. Couple that with a fairly well-educated population and an economy that swings some lumber regionally, and you're looking at a lot of network infrastructure in the making. Networking means connectivity, and connectivity inevitably leads to communication. This in turn leads to a free-market for ideas, and once you've got that truly representative government is on the way.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that we should just let Iran have the nukes and expect them to become a democracy afterwards. That's absurd. What I am suggesting is that because of Iran's capacity to develop an extensive nuclear program that we can't readily eliminate (or even cripple) Iran is probably further down the road to being a democracy than even they know. Insofar as the nukes go, keeping international political pressure on them is definitely the best route, but avoiding economic sanctions is probably wise. That would do little but stifle those aspects of Iranian civil society and government that we would most like to foster. A stable Middle East requires a regional power that can be both feared and respected by its neighbors. Excluding EU bound Turkey, Iran is the only Middle Eastern nation that can be expected to be both by 2020. An Iranian nuke is a big stick to look at, but it's that soft, steady walk that should be drawing our eye.