Perspectives Upon a Nuclear Iran

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.