Uncertain Future of a Nuclear Iran

Experts Play Out Scenarios if Islamic Republic Gets Bomb

Whither Nuclear Iran? What would happen if the Islamic Republic is able to create a nuclear weapon. Experts do not agree whether its leadership would become more or less aggressive or what it might mean for Israel.
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Whither Nuclear Iran? What would happen if the Islamic Republic is able to create a nuclear weapon. Experts do not agree whether its leadership would become more or less aggressive or what it might mean for Israel.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 20, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
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Jain predicts that the small Gulf monarchies will accommodate Iran’s power. They may, for example, refuse to host American troops. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, could respond by seeking its own nuclear capability. The challenge facing America under this scenario will be how to contain a nuclear Iran while regional players are turning their backs on the West. America will also be forced to turn south, where Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia will be used increasingly by Iran as a base for terror and perhaps for missile activity.

Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen
Shoshana Bryen

“Having it is better than using it.” This is how Shoshana Bryen views Iran’s calculations once it crosses the nuclear threshold. Bryen, who is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and a leading conservative thinker on issues relating to the Middle East, believes that Iran will look at the North Korean model rather than immediately seeking a nuclear war. “North Korea, now that it has it, is way more sanguine that no one will attack them,” she said.

This does not mean Iran will be any less belligerent. Bryen believes that Iran could use its nuclear status to wreak havoc around the world, even by encouraging its allies in Venezuela and Ecuador to attack American-friendly Colombia.

Iran’s rise to the status of a nuclear country, Bryen said, will play out mainly on the fault lines between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Muslim world. Beyond craving regional dominance, the ayatollah regime sees itself “as the vanguard of international Shi’ite Muslims” and will move to assert this position. This could mean taking actions to destabilize neighboring Iraq, to overthrow the Sunni rulers of Bahrain and to support Shi’ite separatists throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

And it gets worse. Bryen can imagine a situation in which a nuclear Iran essentially blackmails Western nations to limit their support for Israel in return for a promise from Tehran not to attack the Jewish state. While some scholars believe that nuclear nations tend to behave more responsibly, Bryen does not think this is the case with Iran, at least not until the regime is changed and a nationalistic Persian government takes power.

The worst outcome, however, will be felt in the United States. A nuclear Iran, Bryen believes, will show the world that America “has no credibility,” since it did not live up to its promise not to allow Iran to become nuclear. “So what good is it to be a friend of the U.S.?,” Bryen asked.

Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi
courtesy of trita parsi
Trita Parsi

Iran scholar and activist Trita Parsi believes that a decision by leaders of the Islamic Republic to break out and become nuclear will be met by a harsh international response that will gradually fade into recognition, if not acceptance, of the new reality. “There will be a very strong drive to isolate Iran so that no other country gets the impression that Iran got away with it,” Parsi said. “But as time goes by, the world will recognize the need to create communication channels and points of contact with Iran, because any misunderstanding in the nuclear context could be lethal.”

Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, opposes the ayatollah regime’s nuclear ambitions but at the same time does not back harsh sanctions or threats of war. His recent book “A Single Roll of the Dice” argues that the Obama administration squandered a potential diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

According to Parsi, it is the United States that Iranian leaders think of when developing the country’s nuclear capabilities. If Tehran achieves nuclear aims, its first and main goal will be to force America to negotiate with Iran “as equals,” said Parsi, meaning as one nuclear nation to another. This, he believes, will not necessarily require the use of nuclear force or of any other aggressive measure.

“A lot of what Iran does stems from insecurity,” he said. “If they feel more secure, there is a potential for us to see Iran more relaxed in regard to the U.S.,” he said. On the other hand, Parsi does not necessarily believe that Iran will relax its approach toward Israel through its proxies in Lebanon.

The impact that a nuclear breakout will have on Iran’s internal political struggle is unclear, Parsi said. Currently there is no public debate on the issue, and therefore no way to measure how becoming nuclear would change realities for the regime’s domestic opposition.

Gary Sick

Gary Sick
courtesy columbia/sipa
Gary Sick

A former National Security Council advisor on Iran during the country’s Islamic revolution, Gary Sick does not envision a situation in which Iran decides to break out and build a bomb, unless it is first attacked. Actually crossing the nuclear threshold would be “inviting an attack,” Sick said, and would not be in Tehran’s interest.

But even if Iran doesn’t build a bomb, its demonstrated capability to do so, Sick explained, will make it a member of a small club of nations, such as Japan, Brazil and Sweden, that can acquire a nuclear weapon if they break away from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In either case, Iran’s goal is to assert its position as a major player in the region, one that the world should take seriously and with which it should consult. “Iran feels that it is entitled to that,” he said. “They have an image of themselves as natural leaders.”

Sick, currently a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, does not see an imminent change in Iran’s regional behavior if the country gets closer to having a bomb. It already supports Hezbollah with all its force, and it has not shown much of an appetite for meddling in its neighboring Gulf countries, Sick said. “Their foreign policy has been not to open wars and conflicts,” he noted. But this cannot be interpreted as adopting a moderate policy toward Israel. “If Iran will be able to make life miserable for Israel, they’ll do it,” Sick said, “but this doesn’t mean they’ll go to war.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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