There is an important law about power that is too often overlooked by rational and peace-loving people. Any form of power, from the most primitive to the most mind-boggling, is always amplified enormously when it falls into the hands of those whose behavior is wild, erratic, and unpredictable. A gun being waved back and forth by a maniac is far more disturbing to us than the gun in the holster of the policeman, though both weapons are equally capable of shooting us dead. And what is true of guns is far more true in the case of nukes.
That is why nuclear weapons in an Iran dominated by a figure like its current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make us more nervous than nuclear weapons in the hands of the Swiss. Both could make big explosions; but the Iranian bomb would tend to keep us awake thinking in the night, while the Swiss atomic bomb would be as threatening as a cuckoo-clock This does not mean that Iran has to use the bomb; it doesn't. All Iran has to do to make people wonder if it might use it -- and many of us are already pondering that question, thanks to the disturbingly bellicose rhetoric of Ahmadinejad.
It is an immense form of power simply to make other people wonder if you might not do something bad and unpleasant to them. It can be done in the form of an explicit threat, as in "Israel should be wiped off the map," or it may be done by a strong personality, like Ahmadinejad, who gives off an aura of impulsiveness and self-willful independence: the kind of guy who lets nobody tell him what to do, and who is generally admired for this quality, especially by the poor and dispossessed who would love to be able to exercise that kind of self-assertion. That is the source of the populist appeal of such figures: they are living out the common man's fantasy of being able to defy the establishment. In Ahmadinejad's case, the establishment he is defying is America, Israel, and the West in general -- and the more vociferous his defiance, the greater becomes his populist base of appeal among those in the Muslim world who look upon us as their oppressors.
There are thinkers like Perry Anderson who have argued that all nations should possess nuclear weapons, as a kind of ace in the hole against being tyrannized by their stronger neighbors -- on this theory, just as guns were the great equalizers between individuals in a chaotic world, so nukes would be the great equalizer between nations, guiding them in the direction of peace out of a common recognition that wars with weaker countries would possibly result in their own nuclear destruction. Hence, in order to create the state of perpetual peace, it would only be necessary to provide each nation with enough nukes to wipe out any possible aggressor. This could be undertaken as a world project, with the technologically sophisticated nations building and then donating both nuclear weapons and systems of delivery to those who could not produce them on their own.
The fallacy in this theory is that even if all nations possessed nuclear weapons, those nations whose leaders were the most irrational and unpredictable would gain an enormous power leverage over those nations whose leaders were sane and sensible.
For example, what allowed Hitler to bluff both France and England so successfully during the period known as appeasement was not the might of the German Army, but the astonishing idea that Hitler might really want war -- and at a time everyone else in Europe, including Mussolini, shuddered at the very thought of another debacle like the Great War, whose memory was still all too vivid. In a world where everyone else is prepared to do anything to prevent a war, the man who makes other people believe he is willing to go to war automatically gains the advantage of being the party that must be appeased if war is to be avoided. In such a world, it is the erratic and the irrational whose power is amplified at the expense of the reasonable and the predictable.
Even in a world where every nation possessed the same nuclear arsenal, those nations with the most bellicose and unpredictable leaders would still have the power to blackmail other nations simply because they could convince the rest of the world that they were actually willing to do the unthinkable, and to risk nuclear war. The Swiss could not pull off such an act of blackmail, because no one would believe them capable of carrying out their threat; but the Iranians, under Ahmadinejad, could.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a populist demagogue of quite exceptional talent who has instinctively grasped the law of power that so many in the West have forgotten: Just as it is the squeaking wheel that gets the oil, it is the shrieking madman who gets his way.