According to "realist" international-relations theory, nations will act in their own self-interest.
Iranian leaders who are pushing to provide their country with the option to "go nuclear" don't seem to get the idea.
Virtually every nation that has fielded a nuclear weapon has done so to counter a perceived threat. Iran seems to want to be the exception. And arming itself with nukes isn't merely unnecessary; it could do irreparable harm to its international standing and strategic security.
Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that Iran has pushed the legal limit and gone a bit beyond what's permissible for a peaceful nuclear research effort. It seems pretty clear that the Iranians are trying to develop enough expertise and capacity to switch from a legitimate program to producing fissile material for nuclear weapons in very short order.
Tehran's nuclear research program makes absolutely no sense from an economic or environmental standpoint. Iran has more than enough petroleum to meet its domestic and export needs, and plenty of natural gas is available if anyone's worried about air pollution.
Nuclear weapons make even less sense from a strategic point of view. Iran is arguably much safer than it was a decade ago. The Soviet bear has been de-clawed. Russia's military poses no threat. The Taliban is gone, and a friendly warlord sits on the Afghan-Iranian border. Saddam Hussein, who once led an invasion of Iran, has been deposed. Turkey certainly isn't interested in attacking Iran. Even Israel may make peace with the Palestinian Authority, leaving Iran scant justification for portraying that conflict as a causus belli.
Ironically, all these developments can in great part be attributed to the policies of the United States -- which, it can be argued, has done more to make the world safe for Iran than all the mullahs in Tehran.
Iranians might argue that they have to defend themselves against the United States. After all, the president did list their country as part of an axis of evil. But Iran is on the list only because it has backed terrorists and pursued weapons of mass destruction. With the Baathist Party out of power in Iraq and peace close to breaking out in Palestine, support for terrorism as a means to advance Iranian interest makes little sense. And a nuclear weapons program, which is more likely to gain Washington's ire than its indifference, doesn't seem like a good idea for a country that wants to enhance its security.
A nuclear program would be logical only if Iran wants a stick that it can use to bully neighbors and raise its standing in the Islamic world. But wait, Pakistan tried that route. All it managed to achieve was a nuclear standoff that threatens to kill millions of people if somebody makes a mistake or gets an itchy trigger finger.
Even if Iran builds a nuclear capability, it can rest assured that, like North Korea, it will get more attention from the United States than it wants. It also will risk isolating itself diplomatically and economically from the nations that can help meet the aspirations of young Iranians who wish to see their country grow and prosper.
That said, Iran's leaders have time to come to their senses. If they decided to build a bomb tomorrow, it would take time to produce the fissile material, assemble a workable weapon, and marry it to a reliable delivery system. By that time, there may be enough missile-defense systems to make their nuclear threat seem fairly timid.
In the meantime, an Iranian regime may emerge that recognizes that expensive nuclear programs that waste national treasure and provide no added security are a poor bargain. Other nations, including Brazil, South Africa and South Korea managed to do the math right and scrap their nuclear ambitions. Perhaps Iran will as well.
The United States has made the Middle East safe for Iran. It also has the power to make the regime in Tehran feel a lot less secure if it pushes for the nuclear option. Now is the time for a little realistic thinking. Iran should immediately adopt the IAEA protocols and follow the spirit as well as the letter of these prohibitions against developing nuclear arms. Better yet, Tehran would be wise to abolish its nuclear program altogether -- and make Iran safe from itself.
James Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared on FoxNews.com