In Search of the last Word

March 25/2009
LOOK EAST SERIES: What if Iran goes nuclear?



Douglas Mason

Is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, what would the consequences of this be for the region and further abroad, can it be deterred and what are the intentions and calculations of its leadership?

The prospect of Iran with nuclear capability has heightened regional tensions and the prospect of conflict and escalation involving the US and other outside powers, as well as regional actors including Israel. A change in American policy toward engagement, and the dropping of regime change as a preferred option, has also reinforced interest in Iran’s role in the region, its own perspective and history, and whether international engagement holds out the prospect of a more cooperative, less confrontational, relationship with neighbours and outside actors.
Initial American overtures have been rebuffed, for the time being, although a wait and see period is under way in which the Iranian side will be accepting the carrots on offer re engagement—such as the invitation to a conference on Afghanistan—but waiting for more substantive concessions, which may not be forthcoming. An added factor remains the leadership contest between regime radicals and pragmatists that will be played out in Iran’s June presidential election. The radical camp, represented by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and endorsed by “supreme leader” Khamenei, remain hawkish as they (correctly) see Obama's policies toward them as a tactical rather than substantive change from the Bush era, re incentives and deterrence and that the ultimate aim of limiting Iranian influence and thwarting nuclear ambitions remain the same. They are also resurgent and perceive that they are in a position of relative strength, which makes compromise less attractive. The "grand bargain" of an historic understanding with the US that was on offer by Iranian conservatives five years ago is no longer on the table, for now.
Pragmatists would take a more nuanced approach regarding international relations and many of them—moderates and conservatives alike—bemoan the radicalism and recklessness of Ahmadinejad which they believe has produced ever greater isolation for few real gains while imposing rising diplomatic and economic costs. The incompetence of Ahmadinejad’s economic management was also mentioned as a source of domestic discontent with the status quo. Iran’s place in the region and relationship with neighbours was mentioned by several speakers who noted its “spoiler” role as a sponsor of radical non-state actors—Hezbollah, Hamas, Sadr—and protector of shia minorities in Sunni dominated regimes (Saudi, the Gulf states, Pakistan, et al). Many incumbent regimes view it with suspicion for this reason as a meddler in the domestic affairs of others. Its isolation and lack of real friends locally was noted, apart from Syria, and radical and rogue regimes (Venezuela, Cuba, Burma, Zimbabwe) further abroad.

That Iran’s diplomatic and military posture is defensive and reactive rather than reckless and expansionary was noted by many participants. It is surrounded by hostile regimes itself, has been invaded and fought a costly war—1m plus casualties—in recent history and has the armed forces of the US, NATO, Russia and nuclear armed Pakistan on its borders as well as Israel, which openly speaks of using that capability should Tehran be seen to be close to acquiring a bomb. Under these circumstances it has good reason to suspect the intentions of outsiders and has legitimate security concerns. The record of its leadership has actually been prudent and restrained and they should be regarded as rational actors.
The historical dimension as the heir to Persian civilisation invaded and fought over in ancient and contemporary times, and had its domestic affairs interfered with by outside powers is a real and unforgotten dimension to the national psyche. In this regard the regime’s posturing abroad has resonance at home. The prospect of having a bomb taps into local nationalism, even if this is divorced from the many countervailing considerations of state craft regarding the costs and consequences of having it.
Whether Iran actually is close to acquiring nuclear capability remains a key issue. Publicly the US, EU, Russia and Israel state that there is an active programme and apparently believe that a threshold of no return is close at hand, perhaps 3-4 years or less. However, the intelligence work and credibility of verification methods has been severely compromised by the Iraq WMB debacle. Several speakers were considerably more sceptical and estimate that such capability may be much further away, 20-25 years or more, and that even if an explosive device can be developed in the short term, delivery capability is far from being at hand.

Given these perspectives, Iran’s nuclear capability and a timeline for it appears to be a known “unknown”. However, the lines drawn in the sand by Israel and the US indicate that they are proceeding under the assumption that an active programme is underway and all resources must be used to stop or deter it.

What would it take to convince the leadership to drop nuclear ambitions? Addressing its regional and other security concerns, one, together with an end to sanctions among other factors. Other demands, an historical apology from the US and an end to support for “the Zionist entity”, may be maximalist aspirations rather than serious negotiating points, although these do remain part of the Iranian leadership’s world view. While they are part of the moderates world view also, they do not give the impression that they would act on them, whereas the Ahmadinejad camp at times does.
Iran with nukes has been considered unthinkable. But it may have to be. The consequences of an American and/or Israeli strike would be highly destabilizing. But the US/EU/Russia will continue to up the pressure (sanctions) that make the cost of that choice as costly as possible for Iran. The regime pragmatists would probably compromise over that, the radicals probably not. For the moment the radicals have momentum and it may have to be assumed that that is the negotiating partner that will emerge after the June elections.

Iran with a bomb? The obvious analogy is Pakistan after it publicly demonstrated its nuclear capability. There was a period of international ostracisation, followed by tacit and later explicit acceptance. The event would also probably be a point of national pride, as it was in Pakistan. The danger would be whether the leadership then pulled back or used that capability to back up a more muscular policy in the region, re Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Short of a strike by US/Israel, the next line of action would be a greatly heightened regime of international sanctions, including trade embargo, UN inspections and a no fly zone. In short, the decade lon g experience leading up to the 2002 Iraq war.


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