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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.