An Iran with nuclear weapons would be an Iran unleashed
A nuclear Iran would be a potential catastrophe. We must bear that in mind when we debate how to deal with the brewing crisis
As Iran’s leadership continue to pursue the nuclear capability that they believe will guarantee their Islamic revolutionary project, commentators have debated how their endeavour will end. The majority of this analysis has been rooted in two areas.
First, the examination of what a crisis resolving diplomatic deal with Iran might look like and how it might be achieved. Second, contemplation of the consequences that would likely follow Israeli/US force against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. While important, taken alone, these considerations fail to account for a necessary third level of analysis; what a nuclear Iran would mean for the world.
Successfully answering this question requires an interlinked, three fold focus. Firstly, an examination of how Iran’s behaviour would alter with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Secondly, how, in turn, Israeli security strategy would change. Thirdly, how the behaviour of other regional actors would evolve alongside the first two developments.
Iran first then. IfIran were to acquire a nuclear capability, believing in the deterrent effect of that capability the Iranian regime would adopt a greatly emboldened foreign policy. The central tenet of this development would be an increasingly aggressive strategy of support for ideological allies in the region.
Viewing their nuclear status as a deterrent against the prospect of US/Israeli retaliation (a deterrent based in part on the Iranian cultivated visage of their own ‘irrationality’), the Iranian leadership would fear few negative consequences in their provision of enhanced encouragement/assistance to allies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, Assad, the Sadrists in Iraq and Hamas/Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Iran would also be likely to increase support for elements of the Shia protest movement in Bahrain. At a further level, because the United States has failed to impose serious costs on Iran for previous acts of Iranian aggression, Iran would be likely to escalate its use of force against western interests.
An Iran with nuclear weapons would therefore constitute an Iran unleashed; a regime that would feel free to vigorously pursue the ideological objectives that propel its existential raison d’être – the spread of Shia Islamist power, the defeat of Israel and the expulsion of the United States from the region. In this regard, for Iran’s leadership, nuclear capability is not just a guarantor for the regime’s survival, but also a fearsome tool for the pursuit of its political agenda.
Next, consider Israel. If Iran were to achieve a nuclear capability (although it is my opinion that the Israelis will not let this happen without challenge), Israel would regard its new security position as highly precarious. Put simply, Israel’s perception of its military supremacy would be destroyed.
To address this concern, Israel would likely re-orient its security strategy to a more adversarial deterrent posture. This would involve a more overt display of Israeli nuclear capabilities (perhaps the announcement of new Dolphin class submarine acquisitions) alongside increasingly robust responses to Iranian/affiliate group aggression.
To deal with the advent of a nuclear Iran, Israel would seek to ensure that the Iranian regime did not regard their nuclear capability as an effective ‘get out of jail free card’; i.e. that Iran understood that any militant actions would produce equally, if not more aggressive, Israeli reciprocity.
Finally, consider the effect that a nuclear Iran would have on other regional states and international actors. In order to maintain balance of power equilibrium, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt would likely pursue their own nuclear programs to match Iran. These states deeply fear Iranian political domination of the region and in Sunni Saudi Arabia’s case, hold an active, ideologically rooted hostility towards the Iranian regime.
Forming the political backdrop, the Arab Spring and on-going political instability in the region illustrate the glaring risks to stability posed by a nuclear arms race. The inevitable fears that would accompany such an arms race would exacerbate sectarian tensions while weakening movements towards greater regional trust and co-operation. The region would thus become the realist’s ultimate nightmare; sharp alliances facing off against each other and in so, providing the embodiment of the security dilemma at its unyielding zenith.
In conclusion, while in the short-medium term Iran would be unlikely to use a nuclear weapon against Israel (unless the Iranian regime's survival was threatened), a nuclear capability would certainly encourage the regime to act more aggressively in pursuit of its policy interests. This increased boldness of action would in turn encourage reciprocal developments on the part of Iran's regional competitors as they attempted to re-balance the power status quo across the region.
Together, these interactions would instigate a dangerous regional dynamic in which fear, mistrust and political instability were coupled with nuclear weapons. Without the comfort of full rationality, this mixture presents a toxic blend.
Where does this end? It is my opinion that at some point in the next twenty years, the Islamic republic of Iran will buckle under the pressures of a young, internationally connected population that desires freedom. If this collapsing regime possesses nuclear weapons, there is a substantial risk the regime will decide to use this capability as the dying breath of its revolutionary project.
Given the catastrophic implications of such an outcome, we owe analysis of what a nuclear Iran would mean for the world serious thought as we debate how to deal with the brewing crisis.
Tom Rogan is a Republican blogger, based in the UK. He has written for the Guardian, among other media outlets, and writes his own blog
We are wholly dependent on the kindness of our readers for our continued work. We thank you in advance for any support you can offer.