Halt Nuclear Iran

By December 2, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 124

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A nuclear Iran jeopardizes regional stability in the Middle East and has far-reaching implications for global affairs. Iran’s geographical location puts it in a position to dominate the strategic energy sector and create an anti-Western alliance among oil producing countries like Venezuela and Russia. Iran also seeks to create a radical Shiite corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and may transfer nuclear bombs to terrorist groups. At this late stage, only military action can stop Iran’s race for nuclearization and prevent its disastrous consequences.

Iran continues to defy the calls of the international community for a freeze on its nuclear program. Tehran, which sees a weak West in decline, persists in its strategy of “talk and build” in order to gain time for the completion of its nuclear arsenal, and it will likely be able to overcome the recent problems in its uranium enrichment program.

Unfortunately, diplomacy has run its course, while economic sanctions are generally futile. Only military action can stop Iran’s race for nuclear arms.

Inaction is dangerous, as the nuclear ambitions of Iran pose a serious threat to the Middle East and have repercussions far beyond the region. This is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged US Vice President Joseph Biden to give greater emphasis to the military option.

Iran’s nuclear program – coupled with long-range delivery systems in particular – threatens regional stability in the Middle East. American allies, such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf states, are within range, as are several important US bases. Further improvements in Iranian missiles would initially put most European capitals – and, eventually, the North American continent – within range of a potential nuclear attack.

A nuclear Iran would strengthen its hegemony in the strategic energy sector by its mere location along the oil-rich Arabian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. These adjacent regions form the “energy ellipse,” which holds more than 70 percent of the world’s proven oil and more than 40 percent of natural gas reserves.

Improving revolutionary Iran’s ability to intimidate the governments controlling parts of this huge energy reservoir would further strengthen Iran’s position in the region and world affairs. Moreover, Tehran seems to be designing a strategy by which its relations with other oil producing states such as Venezuela and Russia, both anti-Western, will increase their leverage in the energy market and weaken the power of the Western buyers.

A nuclear Iran will also result in the loss of the Central Asian states for the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these new states adopted a pro-Western foreign policy orientation. Following the emergence of a nuclear Iran, they will either gravitate toward Iran or try to secure a nuclear umbrella with Russia or China, countries much closer to the region, and end their alignment with the West.

Furthermore, an Iranian nuclear arsenal will unhinge the precarious nuclear balance on the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan, Iran’s neighbor, will have to adjust its nuclear posture. Such an adjustment will inevitably require changes in the Indian nuclear posture, possibly creating an even more sensitive nuclear balance.

Tehran, after nuclearization, will become more active in supporting radical Shiite elements in Iraq and agitating those communities in the Arabian Gulf states. Moreover, Tehran lends critical support to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Terrorist entities will feel more secure and confident with the backing of a nuclear Iran. The Revolutionary Guards may be reckless enough to transfer several nuclear bombs to proxy terrorist organizations. Such organizations have no moral constraints over detonating a nuclear device in a European or American harbor.

Iran is allied with Syria, another radical state with an anti-American predisposition, and seeks to create a radical Shiite corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea via south Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Such a corridor will facilitate Iranian ability to project power into the Balkans, where it has a presence in the three Muslim states of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. A nuclear Iran could also encourage the radicalization of Muslims in Europe. Unfortunately, Europe was not successful in fully integrating these minorities into the fabric of European society.

A nuclear Iran may be emboldened enough to destabilize Turkey. Tehran tried in the 1990s to meddle in Turkish affairs and strengthen extreme Islamist forces. Today, revolutionary Iran may capitalize on the identity crisis of Turkey to tip it in favor of an Islamist path. The government, led by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, is gravitating toward Iran.

Iran already attempted to undermine the pro-Western regime of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the summer of 2009. Egyptian security services caught Iranian-trained Hezbollah agents who were sent via Hamas-ruled Gaza into Egypt to engage in sabotage and link up with the Egyptian Islamist opposition.

A nuclear-armed Iran would have a chain effect, generating further nuclear proliferation in the region. Middle East leaders are unlikely to be persuaded by the US that it can provide an umbrella against Iranian nuclear blackmail or actual nuclear attack. Therefore, states such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would probably adopt similar nuclear postures, further undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A multi-polar, nuclear Middle East is a strategic nightmare. The geographical proximity in the region, the lack of adequate early warning systems, the rudimentary stage of nuclear arsenals, the presence of elites newly initiated into the intricacies of nuclear strategy, regional strategies that allow brinkmanship and use of force, and the low sensitivity to cost create a strategic nightmare. A containment strategy based on deterring the ayatollahs is extremely problematic.

The discussions on post-nuclear Iran scenarios underestimate the strategic repercussions of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. At this late stage, only military action can prevent the descent of the greater Middle East into a very brutish region.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Bernd Brincken)

Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.