Washington — It is a scenario no one wants to imagine, but scholars are already gaming out its implications: What will the world look like after Iran achieves nuclear capability?
It is, for now, no more than an intellectual exercise. All experts see dire consequences. Yet most do not believe in the “existential” doomsday scenario that Israel has portrayed for itself. Iran, experts interviewed by the Forward predict, will not launch a nuclear attack on Israel.
Nevertheless, the regional and global implications of having Iran join the nuclear club, should that occur, will be dangerous and will impact Israel, the Gulf region, Europe, Latin America and, perhaps most of all, the United States.
As a former Israeli general and top security official, Giora Eiland finds it hard even to consider the possibility that Iran will become nuclear. Official Israeli policy states that under no circumstances should Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, and Eiland believes that Israel will stick to this rule.
Pressed to speculate on how the region will look if Iran nevertheless somehow does become nuclear, Eiland draws a troubling but complex picture. Iran, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council said, will not necessarily launch a nuclear attack against Israel, since leaders in Tehran understand they’d face a devastating response from Israel and a nuclear attack from the United States that they could not sustain. “Iran doesn’t want a nuclear weapon to attack Israel,” said Eiland, who is now a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “What they want is regional deterrence.”
The real impact of an Iranian bomb will be on the region. By obtaining nuclear capability, Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race and will threaten Iran’s Sunni neighbors, Eiland said. “Every regional conflict will look different. A nuclear Iran will force all players to face many new constraints.” But there is a silver lining. While the short term is full of threats, in the long run, other Middle Eastern nations could acquire nuclear weapons and offset Iran’s advantage.
Israel’s strategic edge will not be lost, Eiland said, because it rests not only on its reported nuclear capabilities, but also on robust conventional military activity and on the full support that Israel receives from America.
Eiland also offers a counterintuitive idea: Introduction of a nuclear weapon by Iran could create communication channels between Jerusalem and Tehran that currently don’t exist. Citing the American-Soviet Cold War scenario and relations between two other nuclear foes, India and Pakistan, it is clear that some kind of an Israeli– Iranian dialogue will be needed in order to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. “We should also remember,” Eiland added, “that at the end of the day, Iran is a natural ally of Israel after the current regime falls.”
A former member of the State Department’s policy planning team, Ash Jain recently published a paper detailing possible scenarios for a world in which Iran has nuclear power. His predictions, formulated in a research paper he prepared in his current position as visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are gloomy, but they do not include a nuclear war between Iran and Israel.
“The major concern,” Jain said, “is that Iran will feel shielded and have the freedom to pursue its regional ambitions by using asymmetrical methods such as terror and subversion.” First to feel the pressure, Jain believes, will be Iraq and the Gulf countries, which will be pushed to adopt anti-American and anti Israeli policies. “They want to diminish Western power and replace it with Iranian power,” he said, adding that “Israel will bear the brunt” of this Iranian attempt.
According to Jain, a nuclear Iran could provide Hezbollah and Hamas with a “nuclear umbrella” that will allow these groups to carry out attacks against Israel without fear of major retaliation. “In this context,” he added, “Iran could provide them with chemical and radiological weapons that will be directed at Israel.” He also argued that the chances of reaching a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians will decrease significantly once Iran turns nuclear, since extreme players such as Hamas will be bolstered while the moderates are sidelined.