Edition 20 Volume 7 - May 28, 2024

IF Iran gets nuclear weapons

Regional arms race, eventual Arab A-bomb -   Riad Kahwaji

High ethno-sectarian tension between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors would likely increase.

International failure and regional high alert -   Emily B. Landau

The primary effect of nuclear weapons is psychological deterrence.

The psychological significance of the Iranian nuclear program -   Sadegh Zibakalam

The eight-year war with Iraq taught Iranians that in this world they are on their own.

Nuclear and political policy toward Iran -   Mahjoob Zweiri

A military campaign will first and foremost be aimed at ending Iran's influence with non-state actors in the region.

Regional arms race, eventual Arab A-bomb
 Riad Kahwaji

Many officials and others in Arab Gulf states believe that it is only a matter of time before Iran is capable of producing its own nuclear weapons. Very few believe the United States, Israel or the international community can do anything--politically or militarily--to prevent this anticipated new reality. Even fewer believe sanctions would deter Tehran from becoming the next nuclear state. However, like the rest of the world, they do not seem to have a clear idea how to deal with a nuclear Iran. Still, numerous options are out there. They comprise many steps, including military defensive measures and a western nuclear umbrella to deter possible future Iranian threats. Seeking an Arab nuclear bomb could also be an option in the long run.

The possibility of Iran possessing nuclear weapons has already started to impact Arab Gulf states. Almost all of them have announced an intention to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful use. Four of them, notably the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have gone on a shopping spree signing deals that would bolster their air and naval capabilities. The Saudis have purchased about 72 Typhoon Eurofighter jets and upgraded their AWACS early-warning planes and their Patriot anti-ballistic missile batteries. The UAE, in turn, has ordered the Theater High Altitude Air Defense System (THAAD) along with the Patriot PAC-3 and other complimentary systems to establish a fully integrated multi-layered ballistic missile defense shield. The UAE has started negotiations with France to acquire 60 Rafael jetfighters, and is about to start receiving the first of six multirole Baynounah-class corvettes and other systems related to combating underwater threats and improving naval information, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

In this way, mounting tension resulting from Iran's controversial nuclear program has sparked an arms race in the Arabian Gulf region and an increased interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities. At the same time, the Arab Gulf states have kept channels of communication with Iran wide open in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two sides, especially Sunni-Shi'ite tension resulting from the internal power struggle in Iraq and Lebanon and the recent quarrel between Cairo and Hizballah over the latter's role in smuggling weapons via Egyptian territory to the Gaza Strip.

High ethno-sectarian tension between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors would likely increase if Tehran builds nuclear weapons. The Arab side would be worried about both Iranian hegemony and a deal between Washington and Tehran at the expense of Arab interests. Many Arab officials and analysts believe that Washington's inability to check the Iranian nuclear program would possibly prompt the United States to go for a political deal with Iran according to the latter's terms--better known as the "grand bargain." Tehran has thus far refused to discuss the nuclear file separately from other issues such as Iraq, Lebanon, the peace process and its role as a regional power. Iranian leaders have long insisted on one big deal with Washington that includes all outstanding matters between the two.

Heightened anxiety and reduced trust in their main strategic ally, the United States, might drive Arab Gulf states toward greater self-reliance in defending themselves by seeking a deterrent to Iran's nuclear capabilities. Or they might be encouraged to seek new strategic allies that back the US or if need be replace it. One example of this trend was the opening of a new French naval base in Abu Dhabi on May 26. This was the first non-US base in the Gulf region. Additional non-American bases might be opened in the region.

The impact of Iran's strong rhetoric about its support for resistance and fighting Israel has been considerable in the Arab street, including the Gulf. If Tehran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the Arabs would feel embarrassed for having failed to achieve a balance of nuclear power with Israel while Iran had done precisely this. This would create a sense of weakness and vulnerability among many Arab leaders, who would likely seek to right the balance of power with non-Arab states in the region. The lack of any progress in the peace process would also encourage many Arabs to call on their leaders to copy the Iranian rejectionist and confrontational approach. It seems to have succeeded to a great extent, while the Arabs' peaceful and moderate approach has failed to achieve what they regard as a "peaceful and just solution" to the Palestinian cause in particular and the Arab-Israel struggle in general.

If the US and the international community learn to live with a nuclear Iran, the general Arab assumption would be that the world should be able to coexist with an Arab nuclear bomb as well. This may not happen in a year or two, but regional geopolitics and simple logic lead to this conclusion. Hence future military conflicts, especially if based on ethno-sectarian differences in the Middle East region, would likely turn into devastating nuclear wars.- Published 28/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.

International failure and regional high alert
 Emily B. Landau

The first implication of Iran becoming a nuclear state will be to drive home the extreme helplessness of the international community in the face of a determined nuclear proliferator. This scenario will mark the failure to present a united and determined international front against Iran's defiance in the nuclear realm, a responsibility shared by all the actors that have faced Iran over the past seven years. The inability to secure the necessary international cooperation to implement painful economic sanctions as a prelude to more effective negotiations with Iran will be a particularly troubling aspect of that failure.

The ramifications of Iran attaining nuclear weapons will reverberate strongly both regionally and globally, especially if Iran decides to become an overt (rather than ambiguous) nuclear state, with proven missile capabilities to deliver nuclear warheads. Within the Middle East, a nuclear Iran means an even stronger regional presence that will gain an immediate and significant advantage over all of its non-nuclear neighbors. Due to Iran's already apparent hegemonic ambitions, the added status and potential for mass destruction will cast a heavy shadow over all.

But while Iran will seek to capitalize on this to impose its will on the region, the primary effect of nuclear weapons is psychological deterrence, which is a function of how other states react to their presence. It will take time before we see the real effect on inter-state dynamics and are able to appraise the full implications of Iran's enhanced regional potential.

In the meantime, however, fears among the non-nuclear states in the region are likely to push them more determinedly in the direction of attaining or developing their own nuclear capabilities. In a sense, this process is already under way: many regional states have expressed interest over the past three years in developing civilian nuclear programs. The UAE has moved particularly quickly to conclude nuclear deals with France and the US, but there are other serious contenders, not least Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The scenario of a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation is a dangerous one, although for most states this will mean a long and arduous process; these states are all parties to the NPT, and will thus have to proceed clandestinely. The sad reality is that the international community is unlikely to be better equipped to deal with these countries' nuclear ambitions than it was with Iran's--so if they are determined, they will probably get there.

Although the long, drawn-out process of seven or eight years of failed attempts to stop Iran through diplomacy will have left Israelis with no illusions as to the real prospects of their success, the news of a nuclear Iran will still be received in Israel with a degree of shock. It will be earth-shattering in the sense that it will eliminate a long-standing pillar of Israel's security and nuclear policy; and the frequent references to Iran as an existential threat will continue to ring in the ears of Israelis, eliciting fears that the fate of the country is now on the line. Surely the very fact that Iran is nuclear will introduce an unavoidable additional layer of caution whenever Israel contemplates action to confront threats to its security.

But because the stakes are so high, it is to be expected that both in the direct Israeli-Iranian context and with regard to broader regional dynamics, some kind of stability will ultimately begin to be established. The principles of the process will probably be similar to the US-Soviet experience--namely, mutual deterrent threats, then realization that nuclear exchange could result, beefed up missile defenses and finally some kind of tension-reduction process--but it remains to be seen what the specific path will be. A central question is just how dangerous it will get before new rules of the game for managing inter-state relations in the Middle East are put in place. The explosiveness of the region, especially due to Iran's ability to stir up tension and violence through Hamas and Hizballah, does not bode well for the interim period.

At this advanced stage of Iran's nuclear activities, it is difficult to assess the implications of Iran going nuclear in isolation from the last effort to stop it. Will that be only a failed US negotiation effort or military action as well? As the US has signaled its distaste for military force and has given Israel a clear red light in this regard, the likely scenario at present is that this will come in the wake of a long, drawn-out and failed US attempt to engage Iran. After assuming the role of the major external player facing Iran, then abandoning both economic and military pressure, it will be primarily US President Barack Obama's failure when Iran ultimately goes nuclear. The US will be exposed globally as weak and ineffective, with an unsophisticated approach to negotiations.

And Obama's probable reaction once it is clear that Iran has become a nuclear state? Additional attempts to negotiate, no doubt--with Iran poised to get the best deal yet, at the expense of all.- Published 28/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.

The psychological significance of the Iranian nuclear program
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Ever since the Iranian nuclear program was disclosed in 2024, numerous articles, reports and analyses have explored various aspects of it. There is, however, one important aspect that has not been fully understood. This concerns the psychological significance of the nuclear program for many Iranians, including much of the country's leadership.

The nuclear program has meant for many Iranians a sense of security: an assurance against being attacked by the Islamic regimes' powerful enemies. Some analysts may dismiss this proposition and blame the Islamic regime's own behavior for creating real or perceived enemies. And while it is true that Iran's behavior internationally, particularly under its current hard-line president, does not leave it with many friends, the threat perception many Iranians feel is much more complicated than that implied by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's behavior and goes much deeper than the last four years during which Ahmadinezhad has been in power. The fact that the nuclear program was started in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrates that the underlying reasons for it were cultivated during the 1980s.

In the course of the struggle against the late Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979 the Islamic leaders, including the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, felt that the outside world, including the western powers, was not against them. The feeling of self-righteous and self-confidence prevailed and was intensified after the revolution. The world media broadly treated the Iranian revolutionary leaders as heroes who had managed to overthrow a ruthless and despotic ruler. The Islamic regime was welcomed by the major world powers and was immediately recognized by them. There were of course some hesitations on the part of the Carter administration to establish full diplomatic contact with the newly-formed Islamic regime, but the rest of the world was ready to establish ties with Tehran.

In short, the Islamic leaders had no cause to fear the outside world. They went so far as to cancel some of the advanced military weapons the Shah had ordered from the US. The list included long-range missiles, advanced jet fighters, anti-aircraft missiles, submarines, warships and other offensive military hardware. Rightly or wrongly, the first generation of Islamic revolutionary leaders felt Iran had no enemy, had no quarrel with any of its neighbors and was not contemplating fighting any other state. It therefore didn't need the huge arms stockpile the Shah had gathered and was still receiving from the US at the time of his downfall. Indeed, the Shah's policy to play the role of so-called "gendarme of the Persian Gulf" was always criticized by his opponents, including the Islamists who were now themselves in power. To convert the country's tanks into tractors was ironically a slogan mentioned many years earlier by Ayatollah Khomeini in one of his attacks against the Shah.

The war with Iraq, however, changed much of that early euphoria. To begin with, Iranians never imagined that Iraq would invade their territory. As a just, popular, revolutionary and Islamic regime that enjoyed the support of 98.5 percent of its people, it was inconceivable for the Iranian leaders and public-at-large to imagine that another country would attack them. Even more incomprehensible was that the world would simply stand by and not even condemn Saddam's invasion of their territory. To Iranians' astonishment and horror, neither the West nor the East, neither the Islamic states nor the Arab world, indeed no one at all was prepared to condemn Saddam's invasion of Iran, let alone support Iran in defending itself against the might of the Iraqi army. On the contrary everyone--the European Union, the UN Security Council, Iran's Arab neighbors and Muslim leaders repeatedly urged Iran to restrain itself and "try to resolve the dispute peacefully."

The new Iranian leaders learned their first bitter diplomatic lesson: if you want to remain independent of both the West and the East (one of the cardinal slogans of the Islamic Revolution), then neither will support you even if you are the victim of the most blatant violations of international rules and norms. Iranians learned that rather than waiting for the international community to take action to force the Iraqis to leave their country, they must rely on themselves.

There were more bitter lessons for the Iranians to learn. Having pushed back the Iraqis with huge sacrifices, thereby winning the world's admiration, Iran was once again advised to accept a ceasefire and negotiate with the Iraqi regime. Even opponents of the regime replied to the world, "What about justice, should those who invaded another country go unpunished?" The world showed a similar reaction when the Iraqis, in violation of international sanctions, used chemical weapons. To Iranians' horror, the world once again turned a blind eye on Saddam's atrocities when thousands of Iranians were killed by these weapons.

The eight-year war with Iraq taught Iranians that in this world they are on their own. Ironically, during the war many Iranians experienced the same feeling of loneliness and abandonment by the outside world that perhaps many Jews felt in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Hence it was no accident that, immediately after the war, it became a top priority for the Iranian leadership to turn the country into a nuclear power.

In a further irony, the West's response to Iran's nuclear program has proved to Iranians that they indeed embarked on the right course. During the past three decades, the only issue regarding which the West has taken Iran seriously is its nuclear program. The West has, inadvertently, taught Iranian leaders that you are taken seriously only when you present the world your "nuclear credit card".- Published 28/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

Nuclear and political policy toward Iran
 Mahjoob Zweiri

The problem with Iran is not whether its nuclear plans are for military or civilian use but the nature or perception of the Iranian regime and its role in the Middle East. The current animosity between Israel and Iran precedes any development of nuclear weapons and rests instead on Iran's ambitions and actions in spreading its influence throughout the region.

The international strategy surrounding Iran's nuclear policy suffers from two shortcomings, however. Firstly, there remains a dispute as to the nature of Iran's nuclear program and secondly, regional players have differing priorities toward Iran.

The US and Israel have maintained that for Iran even to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. This view is not accepted by other members of the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, who have endeavored to allow Iran the use of civil nuclear power as long as safeguards and checks are adhered to.

But the ambiguity over the nature of Iran's nuclear program, increased by Tehran's stance toward international inspection teams, has made it difficult for the US, Israel and other states to devise a firm policy position. The obstruction and expulsions of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have only increased the lack of certainty. The US National Intelligence Council report of December 2024 stated that, "we judge with high confidence that in fall 2024, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." The report's last paragraph however noted that; "we assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." Independently assessing Iran's nuclear program's scope and nature is still very difficult and this problem is central to the ongoing debate. Without a firm grasp of Iran's current intentions, an atmosphere of mistrust will continue.

Secondly, the United States, Israel and moderate Arab states have varying priorities as to the threats posed by Iran. These differing priorities make a coherent strategy difficult. For Israel, the knowledge that a military nuclear program would seemingly be aimed at their country keeps that concern a top priority. The more immediate threat to Israel, however, is the continued Iranian support of armed militants, namely Hamas and Hizballah, on Israel's borders.

For the US too, this concern takes top priority. In addition, the US is also uneasy over Iran's potential aspirations for regional hegemony. That is the concern Arab states are mostly worried about. They fear a powerful Iran with strong influence over their domestic affairs via non-state actors. These states do not prioritize the nuclear program per se. In fact, with the international community's failure to control Iran's nuclear progress, they themselves have been encouraged to develop nuclear power.

Such lack of unity on what is the most pressing threat Iran poses causes difficulty in creating a coherent policy on Iran's nuclear program. In addition, the lack of agreement over the nature of Iran's nuclear program presents a challenge to stipulating scenarios for what would happen should Iran become a nuclear power. An awareness of the priorities of the US, Israel and Arab states, however, would allow us to hypothesize the future direction these countries' policies toward Iran might take.

The new US administration's approach of using smart power and positive engagement may seem to make a military option less likely. The option, however, will always be on the table due to the sense in Israeli and US security circles that Iran represents the "mother of all threats" to the existence of Israel. Previous experience shows us that this may well be enough to coax decision-makers in Israel to attack Iran. Moreover, the approach of the international community in dealing with Iran on this matter does not indicate a peaceful end to the crisis. The whole issue is being dealt with under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. No previous issue in the region dealt with under Chapter 7 was ever solved through diplomacy. Furthermore, since 2024, Iran has already faced five Security Council resolutions, 1696, 1737, 1747, 1801 and in September 2024, 1835. These can be seen as an acceleration toward more drastic measures and are in fact viewed as acts of aggression in Tehran.

But a military campaign will first and foremost be aimed at ending Iran's influence with non-state actors in the region. Worldwide concern over the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran might then be used to justify this aim.

As we enter a period of electoral change in the Middle East--with Israeli elections already held and Lebanese and Iranian elections imminent--and with a new policy of smart power exerted from the White House, what are the potential scenarios?

Scenario 1 sees the new Iranian president, whether Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad or one of his opponents, continuing to defy international opinion and proceed with Iran's nuclear program. This, coupled with a failure to make progress in the burgeoning Iran-US dialogue, could lead to increased international sanctions. This package of sanctions could include a ban on the export of fuel to Iran that subsequently would be deemed another act of war by Tehran.

Scenario 2 sees a new Iranian president committing to a policy of engagement with the 5+1 group and progress with a US-Iran dialogue that may lead to the granting of security guarantees that would rehabilitate the image and economy of Iran.

Scenario 3 sees Israel attacking Iran on the basis of preempting Iran's accession to full nuclear power status. It may be important to note that it would not appear possible for Israel to attack Iran without first negating the potential threat of Hizballah on its border. An attack on Hizballah by Israel may then be seen as the opening salvo of a military campaign in Iran. However, once Israel becomes involved in a campaign on the border with Lebanon there is no guarantee that this would be a quick and easy war. Regardless, the regional consequences would be considerable.

There is also no evidence that an Israeli air strike could successfully end Iran's nuclear threat due to the disparate locations of the facilities. Some are believed to be buried very deep underground. This may lead Israeli military planners to also target secondary infrastructure assets such as government buildings. Should there be a wider set of military targets, we may also witness a wider response from the Middle East. As sentiments against Israel, America and other western allied countries increase, we may not just witness the beginning of a new stage of conflict but the end of President Obama's smart power diplomacy.- Published 28/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr Mahjoob Zweiri is an Iran specialist with Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is a former director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University.

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