After several years of negotiations with an international community that seems determined to show that it cannot be relied upon to enforce compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran may now be at or near the point of having acquired the technical “option” of building a nuclear weapon on fairly short order. Combined with the nuclear weaponization program it may (or may not) have suspended until it had cracked the nut of fissile material availability, Iran’s development of uranium enrichment — in defiance of multiple legally binding UN Security Council resolutions — is poised to create an entirely new set of geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East and further afield.
Possession of nuclear arms may well encourage the clerical regime’s worst instincts for regional provocation by seeming to remove the threat of possible outside intervention, and could catalyze further nuclear weapons proliferation among Iran’s frightened neighbors. We may debate if Iran’s ultimate ambitions should be understood as fundamentally “Persian” or fundamentally “revolutionary” — that is, whether Tehran is likely to wish only for some kind of regional hegemony or rather for a more sweeping vanguard role in regional or global Islamic revolution. Clearly a lot will depend on who ends up in charge of Iran’s new capabilities. That said, there seems to be little difference in nuclear policy between the radicalized clique that runs the current government and the somewhat more democratically minded “moderates” now being persecuted for having done too well at the polls last summer. (Although it has been reported that some of the pro-democracy demonstrators currently being abused or simply murdered in the streets by security forces have begun chanting “Death to Russia” and “Death to China” in apparent reference to those countries’ use of UN Security Council veto threats to protect the Iranian regime from accountability for its nuclear lawlessness.)
Conventional wisdom insists that Iran’s neighbors will recoil from a nuclear Iran and that some of them will likely build their own nuclear arsenals. This is indeed a possibility; the list of potential candidates would certainly include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and conceivably even Iraq, perhaps through the acquisition of “peaceful” nuclear programs that can later be turned to other purposes. Yet it is not a given that Iran’s neighbors will form anti-Iranian coalitions or otherwise overtly seek to balance its growing power. Some may choose to “bandwagon” with Iran — that is, to collaborate in ways that link Iran’s nuclear accomplishments to their own objectives.
The presence or absence of a continued U.S. role in the Middle East will be a critical factor in how such regional dynamics develop. An America that remains active and engaged will have a powerful ability to influence the degree to which Iran’s nuclear empowerment is destabilizing. An America that withdraws from engagement — whether out of moralistic disdain for power politics, fear of Iranian nuclear weapons, financial insolvency in this era of trillion-dollar federal budget deficits, or simply from strategic fatigue — will cede the field to others.
Fundamentally, Iran would likely aspire to fill a post-American power vacuum itself, claiming the de facto regional hegemony that its proud but insecure sense of historical self seems to demand. Other outsiders, however, might end up playing important roles. Putin-era Russia, which is — not unlike Iran — a corrupt, grievance-nursing autocracy with revanchist dreams that imperil its neighbors’ security, clearly seeks to reacquire its strategic leverage in the Middle East, a historic focus of Russia’s foreign policy. Yet despite its ambitions, Russia is unlikely to possess sufficient capability to exercise great influence — though one should not entirely discount the Kremlin’s appetite for the kind of Middle Eastern troublemaking that would drive up oil prices with the aim of keeping the regime in Moscow afloat on a sea of petrodollars.
China was more likely than Russia eventually to fill the role of outside player. This might take the form of a Sino-Persian condominium, in which Beijing steps in as a quasi-guarantor of Iranian hegemony in return for assured and preferential energy access, and global status as the new primus inter pares of the Great Powers. Alternatively, a Middle East destabilized as a result of Iran’s nuclear empowerment might draw in China, possibly even against its will, in order to forestall threats to the oil supplies upon which Beijing depends. If an exogenous power is needed to stabilize the region, and the United States has withdrawn, China might fill the vacuum. As Beijing continues to build a “blue water” navy increasingly capable of long-distance power projection while the U.S. Navy continues its precipitous decline — down from some 600 ships in the Reagan administration to well under 300 today, and projected to fewer than 200 in the next decade — this is by no means inconceivable as a mid-term scenario.
India has a potential to be a powerful force in the region, either as the increasingly important strategic partner of an America determined to remain engaged in the Middle East, or as a potential balancer of some future Sino-Persian alliance, or both. Yet India today remains psychologically, politically, institutionally, and militarily unprepared for such a role. And if it doesn’t step into this role of its own accord, and develop the requisite military capabilities and political will that such a role requires, the promising Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is unlikely to take off; indeed, it may wither.
Even if Iranian hegemony contains the seeds of its own demise, as seems increasingly apparent, a fragile or wounded Iran could be especially dangerous. Tehran’s rise to preeminence would exacerbate simmering tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, a dynamic that would be worsened by national rivalries and insecurities, and by ethnic tensions between Persians and Arabs. Iranian hegemony would, therefore, face powerful centrifugal forces that could erode it over time, increasing the likelihood of eventual balancing (instead of bandwagoning) regional reactions even in the absence of a strong outside player.
Nevertheless, the decay of Iran’s position — and indeed perhaps the clerical regime’s own internal decay, if today’s demonstrators are cowed into submission as the regime clearly intends — would take time, and might entail much instability. Such tensions could propel Iran into increasingly aggressive behavior to suppress regional resistance, distract from internal contradictions, and to build political legitimacy for its hegemony. It might also choose to claim a regional, or pan-Islamic, leadership role as the barrier against infidel encroachment. This dynamic could, of course, prove most problematic for Israel, but it would likely affect any outside power seeking to play a role in Middle Eastern affairs. If Iran is to have access to nuclear weapons as it tries to build and maintain regional hegemony — and then as it subsequently declines and perhaps disintegrates — the perilous stakes for everyone else will rise exponentially.
The implications of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, converging with the growing sense of superpower decline-ism currently in vogue in Washington and welcomed by many on the political left, are profound and unsettling. Among defense and security planners in Asia and the Middle East, the debate on whether the United States will withdraw from their regions increasingly leads them to entertain downside scenarios about the shape of the security landscape and the dynamics of the strategic competition once America’s influence declines. If we give them reasons to expect such developments, we should not be surprised if those considering these scenarios end up acting on them in ways that harm American interests.
These worrisome scenarios are not inevitable, but they are becoming more likely. The Obama administration can make them less probable by providing some upside scenarios of its own, aimed at those doubting America’s commitment and resolve — beginning by taking a firm line against Iran acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons. For it is Iran’s nuclear future, far more than outcomes in Iraq or Afghanistan, that will affect the shape and dynamics of both the Middle East and Asia, while defining America’s role to everyone else.