I was asked to submit a guest post to the Watcher’s Council forum this week. Below is my response to the question of the threat posed by a nuclear-powered Iran. Go HERE to read all the other inciteful bloggers.
There is no question that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the stability of the world at large and not just a threat to the USA and Israel. While there is talk of Iran being a rational actor in the guise of the Soviet Union where MAD worked to contain nuclear war, it is not at all clear that the same principles apply to the Iranian regime. In fact it is very short-sighted to think that the world is dealing with an Iranian regime, which understands or abides by, the concept of international zero-sum game play. For the one element that is necessary to invoke rationality, containment and gameplay is the idea that the opposing side does not wish or welcome destruction. That they do not believe that destruction is actually in their best interest. This therefore, is the crux of the matter with this radical Iranian Shia theocratic order.
First is the question is this Iranian regime made up of messianic theocratic ideologues, bent on the invocation of the return of the Mahdi? The fact that they openly preach and promote this religious tenant is what should be the guiding factor for analysis. While any totalitarian regime wants to control and rule the world, in this case the regime in Iran wishes to bring about Armageddon. (That is not to say that they have not built bunkers for the ruling elite while being more than willing to sacrifice the average population to achieve their goal.) The Iranian government does not fear nor shrink from its own destruction in order to facilitate their version of “peace on earth.” That it would risk such a confrontation with the State of Israel to bring this about is a realistic outcome. It is important to note as well, that the constant call for genocide against the Jewish state is part and parcel of Iranian ideology and is not something that Israel can afford to ignore any more than it could ignore the threat posed by a nuclear Saddam controlled Iraq or a nuclear Assad controlled Syria.
Second question is would containment actually work and to what end? If sanctions, which are basically starving the people of Iran, do not bring about change in the posture of the regime there is no reason to believe that containment will do anything. Remember this is a regime that brutalizes without mercy its own people in order to stay in power. Containment truly only works when in the end the ruling elite understand that they need their people in order maintain their rule. This is not the case here as exhibited by the fact that Iran is one of the most brutal human rights violators on the planet, seconded only by North Korea in its treatment of its citizenry.
Third question is would the advent of a nuclear-armed Iran create a new arms race in the Middle East? The answer is a resounding yes. Despite the fact that since the 1970s the world has believed (known) that Israel possessed nuclear weapons the oil- rich-Arab states of the gulf never truly felt threatened to pursue a nuclear agenda. Not so if Iran goes nuclear. Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have already made it known publicly that if Iran creates an atomic weapon that they too will pursue such weaponry in order to counterbalance the Shia threat to their sovereignty.
The Arab Spring has shown the world how unstable Arab governments happen to be. The nation of Bahrain, which has a considerable Shia presence, has been dealing with an ongoing uprising backed by Iran, in much the same way that Arabia has had to deal with the ongoing Shia instability in their oil rich areas. Iran is already making mischief in these nations and it would only intensify if they could threaten the use of a dirty bomb or nuclear assault on these nations. (This is also not to say that there are not gross human rights violations in the Gulf States, something that needs to be dealt with but that is a discussion for another time.)
Furthermore, the world’s oil supply, which goes through the Straits of Hormuz, would undoubtedly be compromised by an Iranian threat. Iran as it has wanted to do for generations would hold OPEC and the oil nations hostage to threats and thereby influence the price of oil. Since the world’s economy basically runs on oil, not just for gasoline but for the products we use in our daily lives, this scenario could effectively ruin the world’s economy. This way Iran without firing a shot would actually have dominion over the world.
The question is how to deal with a nuclear Iran. Understandably the world is hesitant to start a military conflict. Not because they don’t think they would win in the end, but because democratic nations tend to shy away from war. It is because these nations are created by THE PEOPLE who understand that they will be sending their sons and daughters to die, while in a totalitarian regimes they simply don’t care about such outcomes. Furthermore, after coming off of over a decade of war, the USA and its allies are loath to pursue a military option. Additionally the cost in treasure to actively seek a military option would derail the already weak US and European economies. Simply put the population, and by extension the political class ruled by punditry and polls, is tired of conflict and looks only in the immediate instead of long-range realities.
Another threat that looms is also terrorism. Iran is the leading procurer of worldwide terrorism. They fund Hezbollah, Hamas and other major terror groups worldwide. It is assumed that there are any number of Hezbollah cells around the world, especially in the USA, which Iran may be able to activate if attacked. The truth is that the USA and other democratic nations are sorely lacking in their ability to handle massive terror attacks. While Israel has developed a defense posture in dealing with terror, it is not realistic that the USA, or Europe for that matter, would be able to mimic the Israeli actions, merely because of the size of the nation (or Union) and the porousness of its borders. Sadly 9/11 actually taught the USA nothing about Homeland security and our own government has left us even more vulnerable to attack today than we were over a decade ago.
However, in the end military intervention may be the only way to deal with the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran. While stuxnet and targeted assassination have been helpful in delaying the advent of a nuclear-armed Iran it will not hold it off forever. The only way is to destroy the actual infrastructure created to produce a nuclear bomb and sadly that can only happen with an active assault. Considering drone warfare has come along way in the last decade the issue for an initial assault on Iranian strongholds could be whether the drones can carry the needed bombs rather than send human pilots into the fray. This may be an effective first strike, followed then by a “shock and awe” strategy from USA battleships in the gulf. The known or acknowledged placement of the Iranian factories appears to be in sparsely populated areas and there is reason to believe that civilian casualties may be minimized unless the Iranian regime decides to use human shields to its benefit. Sadly collateral damage is a side effect of war and it is also one of the reasons to avoid war. However, use of human shields is a war crime (as is firing purposely at civilian targets) and one that is not to be seen as a reason to curtail a war of preemptive self-defense.
The truth be told, this would be only the beginning of the assault and would possibly be the beginning of a world war. The issue is the attitudes of the Russians and the Chinese. These are the rational actors in play, not Iran. The Russians are protecting Iran and Syria at the moment, trying to regain its footing as a power-player in the Middle East, and the question of their reaction or their capability to respond to an attack on Iran is important. The issue here would be is Putin truly willing to stake the economy of Russia on supporting Iran beyond words? Or would this actually play to Russia’s benefit because a war with Iran would raise oil prices, benefiting the Russian failing economy. Furthermore the Russian military is still in a shambles and not even up cold war standards. They can barely defend themselves never mind defend another nation. They also have an in-country terrorism issue and would additionally have to deal with the outgrowth of Iran-inspired-Islamist attacks.
China, not truly having too much of a dog in this fight however, will not be pleased with the assault on a sovereign nation (also being somewhat of an outlier on many issues herself, such as human rights, they would feel that at some time their sovereignty might not be a bar to international actions if they accept an attack on Iran without condemnation) however, at present China is too busy causing trouble in the South China Seas, and fighting with Japan, Taiwan and other southeast Asian nations, to bother beyond going to the UN. Truth is for China; they don’t want an issue with the USA as they will not get paid back for their loans. Their economy itself is on the verge of an implosion and they need these loan repayments to stay afloat. China relies too heavily on the west for its survival and is not ready to destroy the American goose that laid the golden egg.
In conclusion, Iran’s nuclear capability would set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, making it a far more dangerous arena than heretofore experienced. The only way to stop Iran is military action by the USA, not Israel. Since this is a worldwide issue, a world leader needs to take the forefront of the issue and not leave open the possibility that the attack will not and could not be openly supported by major players in the region.
Will this happen? Unfortunately considering the foreign policy team put into play by President Obama this scenario is highly doubtful since they all seem to believe in the success of containment, that Iran is a rational actor and that Israel is being overly sensitive to Iran’ calls for genocide. Unfortunately they do not see the exponential issues of a nuclear arms race, the future instability of the world and the threat to the world economy that an Iranian bomb creates. Additionally being anti-American power, the Obama administration would seek to minimize the presence of American actions and rely on leading from behind as they have been doing since day one of this administration. Sadly it’s this self-castration by the USA that makes the advent of a regional or even global conflict more absolute as the lack of a coherent power player in the Middle East creates a vacuum whereby the totalitarian regimes feel free to pursue any policy that why wish and threaten the world as they see fit. The truth is that if the world does not take care of the Iranian nuclear threat today, it will be plunged into a far greater and more deadly global conflict within the next decade.