The current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine contains a leading article by Professor Kenneth N Waltz provocatively entitled Why Iran Should Get The Bomb (it is worth taking a few minutes to read this short but cogent article).
The crux of Waltz’ argument is that power begs to be balanced. Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly especially coupled with American support, he argues, created a regional imbalance of power which is the primary driver of instability in the Middle East. A nuclear balance of terror in the region should, in his view, encourage actors in the region to behave more responsibly, as it has in the Subcontinent since India and Pakistan became formal nuclear powers. Since nuclear weapons came on the scene, no two nuclear powers have ever gone to war against one another. Iran’s theocratic leaders may be unpleasantly authoritarian and ideologically expansionist, but they are not mad. The consequences of an Iranian nuclear strike – massive retaliation by Israel and possibly the United States – are as clear to the Ayatollahs as they are to anyone else. Nor is passing on nuclear weapons to terrorist groups or other states likely to appeal to decision makers in Tehran, any more than it did to Mao’s unpleasantly authoritarian and ideologically expansionist régime in the 1960s.
To me, however, the more pertinent question is not whether Iran should be stopped from developing The Bomb, but whether it can be. North Korea has managed to become a nuclear power despite its crushing poverty, isolation, primitive economy and clear technical failings in its nuclear weapons programme. Iran, which maintains friendly relations with Russia and China is, at present, awash with oil money and has an education system capable of training as many nuclear scientists as it needs.
Western conservatives seem to work from the standpoint that Iran’s nuclear programme can be derailed at relatively little cost to Israel and still less cost to the West. Memories of Israel’s successful surgical strike on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981, and more recent obliteration of what was almost certainly an undeclared Syrian reactor construction programme, fuel the idea that Iran can be forced to abandon its dream of becoming a nuclear power through air-strikes alone. However, Iran’s nuclear programme has been developed with the risk of an Israeli or American strike, whether by planes or missiles, uppermost in the minds of its planners. Facilities are, as far as is possible, in hardened underground sites. Any air strike which failed would likely only encourage Tehran to increase the tempo towards weaponisation, while leaving the US to deal with diplomatic and probably military fallout, a subject I will return to below.
Israel has instead pursued a high-risk strategy of assassinating key Iranian nuclear scientists, four of whom have now been killed in attacks while travelling to work, using locally recruited agents. The Stuxnet computer virus, aimed at the enrichment plant at Natanz, represented a joint American-Israeli attempt to disrupt the Iranian nuclear programme by non-conventional means. However, its success in introducing significant delays to the programme simply underlines how difficult it would be to destroy it entirely.
Iran’s nuclear programme has significant support outside the Islamic world. Moscow and Tehran have established a joint venture to complete and operate Iran’s long delayed civil nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Russia seems to see little threat in, at the least, an Iranian civil nuclear programme. Russia has nuclear weapons, a lot of them, and is a Security Council veto power. Its consequent diplomatic clout has been on display for all to see in Syria. It tends to see its interests in the region in narrow economic terms – for example, support for Syria has not prevented some enormous sales of military technology between Israel and Russia, in both directions, in recent years. As a major energy exporter, Russia’s economic interests in the Middle East are often far from being in consonance with Western ones.
Even without Russian support, Iran can take a number of steps to retaliate against any American-Israeli attack on its territory. It has already rattled sabres about closing the Straits of Hormuz, and while so far that has looked like an empty threat, it remains a go-to option in dire circumstances.
That could risk antagonising the Chinese, vastly more dependent on Middle East oil than the Americans and whose economy currently looks vulnerable. There are steps it can take which are more directly targeted at specifically American interests, however. Iran has long sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks by proxies against its enemies, and as we saw in Bulgaria this week, it continues to do so. However, attacks on that small scale are likely to be seen in both Washington and Jerusalem as an acceptable price if they are the consequence of preventing a nuclear Iran. On its own doorstep, however, Iran has the capacity to undermine American interests in the region on a much bigger scale.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is already enormous and, while it has avoided antagonising America too directly since the occupation, if it wanted to it could. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is close to Tehran and some of the parties in his governing coalition are intimately connected to Iran’s most powerful politico-religious figures. Afghanistan, nestling on Iran’s eastern border, plays host to around 90,000 US troops and relations between Tehran and the Taliban have warmed considerably in recent years. And on the other side of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’a Eastern Province, home to the biggest chunk of its oil production, is perpetually unhappy with Riyadh, often for good reason. Bahrain also remains a powder keg, and of course nobody has the slightest clue how the situation in Syria will eventually pan out.
Stirring tensions in any of those countries represents a major escalation by Tehran, one that could provoke military conflict with Turkey or Saudi Arabia, a nightmare scenario for the entire region. However, hawks in Tehran may decide that as long as their nuclear programme is not derailed entirely, they can afford to wait. Once they have The Bomb, they will almost certainly be secure from any future attack, as North Korea has been.
That raises the prospects of a nuclear standoff between an American backed Israel and a Russian backed Iran. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It gives the world’s two largest nuclear powers all the incentive they need to push for a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, probably empowering America to seek more concessions from Israel in return for the maintenance of its nuclear umbrella and encouraging Russia to pour oil on troubled waters that might involve it in a situation well out of Moscow’s comfort zone.
The Middle East is about as far from the United States as it is possible to be, and projecting American power in the region is expensive and depends on what are, even in today’s globalised environment, fragile supply lines. Is it time for America to accept that its interests are now strategic rather than global? Asia’s rise makes a mockery of American universal hegemony, as does America’s own failure to project power into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Middle East oil mostly flows eastwards, fracking is driving US domestic gas production through the roof, and the oil sands in Alberta and Utah together with Brazil’s massive new offshore oilfield probably means America can meet its energy needs entirely from the Western Hemisphere for decades to come. For the more brutal realists that inhabit every US administration, it is probably easier to engineer coups in Venezuela than it is to keep the Middle East from exploding. How does America’s deep entanglement in the Middle East benefit it in concrete terms? Is it time to consider whether a policy of broad US disengagement from the Middle East best suits its interests?
In the short term, it would unleash howls of protest at home and it would take a brave politician indeed to raise the subject in an election year. In the medium term, it might prove popular with an American electorate weary of seemingly endless foreign wars.