ATbar The Regional and Global Implications of Iran’s Nuclearization
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The Regional and Global Implications of Iran’s Nuclearization

17/04/2007 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  

Good afternoon. I will try to deal with the regional and global implications of Iran’s would-be nuclear bomb. I think we must view Iran’s interest in obtaining the nuclear capabilities proceeding from the fact that Iran’s policies and strategies are shaped by three kinds of factors:

(1) Exporting the revolution - the theocratic regime’s ambition to export its Khomeini-devised doctrine in order to spread their kind of Islam as ‘the right one’ and to eventually unite the Shi’a and Sunni worlds under Iranian influence.

(2) The second factor is Iran’s nationalist hegemonic ambitions, especially in the Gulf region, though some believe that those ambitions go beyond the Gulf in an attempt to influence the entire Arab world. Those hegemonic ambitions are referred to by some Arab leaders, especially by Jordan’s King Abdallah, as “the Shi’a Crescent”.

(3) The third factor, which may be of a more subjective origin, is the Iranian leadership’s feeling of isolation on the international arena, Iran being a country that has no allies in a complicated international situation. Even Syria cannot be seen as a reliable ally with its secular regime and predominantly Sunni population. Perhaps the only ally they have is Hezbollah. Therefore, they cannot rely on any country or world power. This happens because most powers, especially the United States and even to an extent Russia (because of its secular regime and its history of relations with Iran) perceive Iran as an enemy.

So the question is: what would be the consequences (at the regional level at least) if the Iranian regime obtains the bomb?

I think I will have to reiterate some points that have already been mentioned here. Many countries in the region, especially those which see themselves as regional powers or those which see themselves as directly threatened by the Iranian regime, would try then to develop their own nuclear capabilities. This proliferation of nuclear capabilities would provoke a multilateral balance, or rather imbalance, of forces as well as many other threats to the region. Egypt’s President Mubarak has already announced that Egypt wishes to resume its nuclear power program for peaceful purposes. In addition, Saudi Arabia says again that it may develop its nuclear power capability.

By the way, in the past it was claimed that Pakistan’s bomb was created with the Saudis’ support, with the Pakistanis promising that the Saudis would have the opportunity to use the results thus obtained. It has been reported, however, that the Pakistanis changed their mind and don’t want to share the bomb with the Saudis.

I chanced to observe interesting debates (including those on Saudi Arabian TV) with Arab intellectuals or analysts discussing why Iran posed a threat to the Arabs. On the one hand, when speaking at international conferences, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries claim that Iran needs to have nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. But on the other hand, when addressing the issue in a pan-Arabic perspective, to cite an analyst speaking on Saudi TV, Arabs cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran because this would mean Persian superiority over the Arabs. Secondly, he said, if Iran obtained nuclear weapons there would emerge a balance of power between Iran and Israel. But I disagree with him on this point because Iran’s main goal is not confrontation with Israel but with the Arab countries, especially the Persian Gulf countries. So it is clear to the latter that Iran is a menace to them in the first place rather than to Israel.

There is another country which is quite uneasy about the situation, which is Turkey. Turkey is an important regional power. Though their government is a moderate Sunni Islamic government, the country’s regime, elite and army remain a secular one. So what is Turkey’s view of the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran despite the fact that they are protected by a NATO defense umbrella? There are reports that discussion is going on in Turkey’s elite quarters on the need to build a capability of their own to counterbalance Iran’s would-be bomb.

Pakistan, too, is concerned about this issue. Though it has been reported that Pakistan (or the network of Pakistan’s Prof. Khan) has transferred nuclear technology to Iran, I don’t think relations between Pakistan’s regime and elite and Iran are quite clear. The complicated nature of the relationship is influenced by a divide between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan. In fact, most violent conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shi’a have been going on in Pakistan for as long as 15 years, and this can have an influence on Pakistan’s strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Moreover, this strategy could also be influenced by the fact that Pakistan may already have as many as 20 bombs, according to some reports.

Thus there exist countries on which Iran can bring serious pressure to bear by its subversive activities either in an attempt to influence their political course or in an attempt to export the revolution to such neighboring countries. To this group, one should remember, belong Moslem countries of the ex-Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan, which is a predominantly Shi’a country, and Uzbekistan. Those are only some of the countries that could be threatened by nuclear-capable Iran.

Iraq is of course a very important factor in the picture. The question should be viewed both in a short-term and a long-term perspective. In the short run, it is clear that if Iran arrived at the conclusion that the USA was going to withdraw its troops from Iraq, while unwilling to undertake any military action against Iran, Iran could give a prompting signal to the Shi’a who are now a governing force in Iraq. Iran and Iraq’s Shi’a religious parties and Muqtada al-Sadr’s small party with its big Mahdi army could induce the country’s Shi’a to launch an insurgency against the US and coalition forces in Iraq. If this happened (and it may happen quite soon), this would pose a grave danger to the Americans because the Shi’a are experienced enough and, moreover, make up 60% of the country’s population. Such a Shi’a insurgency would be a grater challenge to the Americans and the British than the ongoing Sunni insurgency.

Bahrain is another country that can be directly threatened because 90% of its population is Shi’a. If the Iranians exert pressure, which they did more than once in the 1990’s (to be more specific, in 1991, 1996 and 1998) in attempts to oust the Sunni leadership of the al-Khalifa family, this could lead to drastic changes in the region.

The same is true of the issue related to the Abu-Mussa Islands conflict. This old conflict might be exacerbated if Iran became a nuclear-capable power.

As for Turkey, Iran supported Islamist movements in that country in the 1990’s - not the Islamist party that is now in power, but violence-prone terrorist organizations. They stopped supporting them in 1999 because of Turkey’s serious pressure and because of the American intervention in the region. However, they might resume such support, since from their perspective Turkey’s secular regime is their biggest enemy because of its image of a successful country - the only Moslem country that has a stable, or a relatively stable, secular regime and ideology. This poses a more serious threat to the Iranian regime than any other Arab country does.

Prof. Kurginyan, as I remember, has touched upon the Afghanistan issue as well. In Afghanistan, too, there is a considerable Shi’a minority. Iran was close to rushing into war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, therefore if they obtained a nuclear umbrella this would induce them to try and have a larger influence (perhaps larger than that of Pakistan) in Afghanistan. This would also be a very serious threat to NATO and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Considering the Middle East in a global context (as distinct from the regional context) the situation presents clearly a threat to the US assets and interests in the Middle East at all levels. Iran’s nuclear potential is a threat to the United States strategically, and in terms of US support for the moderate regimes and the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as well as in terms of trends in oil prices and economic stability.

But Iran, I believe, poses a threat to Europe as well. The Iranians have recently threatened that if the Europeans continue to exert pressure on them, they might find ways to punish Europe. At present Iran’s missiles are capable of reaching the south of Europe, but future improvements could expand their range of action to entire Europe. Therefore, whenever Iran mentions retaliation in response to the Europeans’ pressure, this makes some European governments quite sensitive to the menaces involved.

A good example is France. The history of French-Iranian relations goes back to the 1980s when France supplied most updated technologies and weapons to the Iraqis who were waging a war against Iran. France also arrested Iranian agents and terrorists charged with assassinations of Iranian hostile opposition members. Jointly with Hezbollah Iran staged a campaign of terror in Paris for two years (1985-87) until the French detected it. The French made a deal with Iran according to which then had to stop arms sales to Iraq, to liberate all the terrorists and also unfreeze Iran’s $2 billion assets frozen in French banks. Iran promised not to act anymore on French territory, but a year later its agents assassinated in Paris the ex-Iranian prime minister Shaapur Bakhtiar.

We know that the French law against wearing the Muslim veil disappointed very much the Iranian theocracy. Therefore, if Iran obtained nuclear capability, France’s political positions in Lebanon, for instance, could come under threat of Iran’s retaliation.

I will not deliberate on Russia because this aspect has been discussed here in detail. But I do not think that Russia can be immune against threats that might come from Iran.

When the Islamists and Khomeini came to power in 1979, they enjoyed the support of Iranian liberals, socialists and communists. Until 1982, the Communist Tudeh party was an important partner for Khomeini’s Islamist regime. However, in 1982 Khomeini executed 4,000 members of the Communist party and eventually destroyed its brain-center and infrastructure, even though the communists were the Islamists’ allies.

Similarly, Iran could pose a threat to Russian interests not only in the Muslim CIS states, but apparently in the Caucasus and Chechnya too, as soon as they are given an opportunity to free themselves from Russia’s influence. In case they are provided with nuclear capability they will no longer need any support from Russia. Insofar as they have a grudge against Russia, they may open a front against it.

Finally, there is China. Quite an interesting description has been offered in this respect by Prof. Kurginyan. It suggests that China is creating a kind of shield around itself (or a new China Wall if you like) which includes Iran as its important part. That is a strategic wall. I would like to refer to an article by a Chinese strategy expert. He offers a far more complicated vision of China’s alliance with Iran. I will cite a few paragraphs from his analysis:[1]

“As the Chinese economy continues its rapid growth, Beijing’s interest in the Middle East is also expanding. China needs a peaceful and stable Middle East and a more proliferation-prone environment complicates and is likely to harm China’s interest. Beijing appears to believe that the emergence of a regional nuclear power or a nuclear arms race in the region would destabilize the Middle East and then undercut China’s pursuit of energy security.”

“The risk of the transfer of nuclear technology by Iran is also a major concern, in the sense that they are very interested in having cheap and long-term oil supplies. But, at the same time, they understand that the regional policy and strategy (and the one vis-à-vis the United States) can destabilize the whole region.”

So, what will they gain? The Chinese fear that in case Iran got caught in a conflict they would lose this market and not receive cheap and stable oil. Given China’s increasingly closer energy and economic ties with Iran, Beijing is thus caught in a dilemma vis-à-vis the issue of uranium enrichment in Iran.

On the one hand, Iran’s uranium enrichment impels China to question the validity of that level of nuclear independence for Iran. On the other hand, because Iran has a higher stake in trade with China, Beijing now has a greater ability to influence Teheran if it is willing to exert its leverage. So, the Chinese have to play a very subtle game here because beside their specific interests in Iran they also have certain global interests (in the first place the stability in the oil market and secondly its important relationship with the United States).

My last point is about Iran itself. I think that if Iran does achieve nuclear capability now, one should get out of one’s head any thought of a regime change in that country for long because, clearly, the nuclear capability will strengthen nationalist enthusiasm in the population so that the regime will be strong enough to quell any attempts at changing it, whoever makes such attempts, may they be armed rebels, liberal reformers, or even the military.

One should remember that Iran’s nuclear and missile capabilities are in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Pasdaran), not in the hands of the military. Hence there exists also this problem involving a balance of powers within Iran which is a balance between the military and the so-called revolutionary forces (the Pasdaran) who counterbalance and control the military.


[1] Dingli Shen, ‘Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions Test China’s Wisdom,’ The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2006.