The West’s Miscalculated Risk of Iran’s Nuclear Ambition

In light of this week’s readings on the proliferation of weapons in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program, I am posting an opinion piece I wrote in December of 2011. Many of the points I raised were mentioned in this weeks readings and I still stand behind my thoughts. Please comment below and continue the discussion.

December, 2011

A recent report outlining Iran’s nuclear program by the IAEA and this week’s suspension of diplomatic relations with Britain has reopened the debate about the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. One voice argues that a nuclear Iran poses an imminent threat to the security of Israel and the west, while another believes that Iran can be contained and the threat controlled if it obtains a bomb. The proponents of the imminent threat view believe the only way to mitigate the danger is with a preemptive strike to destroy or severely cripple Iran’s nuclear program. This argument miscalculates the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s purpose in building a nuclear weapon is to ensure the survival of the regime and an attack on Israel or the sharing of nuclear technology directly contradicts this purpose.

In the past decade, Iran has seen the U.S. invade and topple its neighbor to the east, Afghanistan, and to the west, Iraq. The United States and its allies have established a military presence to Iran’s north, in Turkmenistan, and strengthened their ties with Pakistan. Iran has also witnessed the strengthening of cooperation between the US and the Arab monarchies. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which brought the current regime to power, was fueled in part by a hatred of foreign intervention within the country. Iran views a nuclear weapon as its only hope of deterring further intervention and the strongest option to trump the growing strength of its regional rivals.

Iran is a country with a lot to lose in provoking a war with the west. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rules over a nation with  diverse economy and thriving population. In 2006, 84% of Iranians were literate and its manufacturing sector was producing everything from steel to electronics. This society is governed by a political system created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini only thirty years ago. The stabilization of this political system was so important to Khomeini that he amended his own constitution to pave the way for his successor, Khamenei, over more senior religious leaders. Khamenei was believed to be more politically capable than his competitors and the survival of the regime became his task.

The idea that Iran will attack Israel with a nuclear weapon is based in part on the anti-Semitic speeches given by Iran’s outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad. With fascinating regularity, Ahmadinijad takes the podium and calls for the destruction of the Israeli state. While his posture is clearly threatening it amounts to nothing more than political fanfare in Iran. The constitution places the control of all methods of force to include the military, the Republican Guard, and the internal police under the Supreme Leader. There is no faster way for Khamenei to destabilize and possibly destroy his political system than an unprovoked attack on Israel. The risk to the survival of the regime is simply too high and any plan for a preemptive attack should take this into consideration.

The survival of the regime makes it unlikely that Iran would pass nuclear weapons to countries like Syria or anti-western terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or al-Qaida. A nuclear attack on Israel or western targets in the Gulf will be attributed to Iran whether it originates in Gaza or Tehran. Therefore, if Iran is not willing to attack Israel directly, it has little to gain from attacking through proxies. This eliminates Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaida from the list of benefactors. Syria is embroiled in a brutal and drawn out uprising and it is unclear whether the current government will survive. Pressure is mounting on President Bashar al-Assad to step down and begin a transition to a new government. Passing a nuclear weapon to Syria in such a turbulent state does little to satisfy Iran’s goal of self-protection and could possibly end up arming its regional enemies.

A nuclear Iran is certainly a threat but understanding the reasons behind its nuclear ambition will help to correctly calculate the risk posed by that threat. It is clear that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is based on the need to protect its regime. Attacking Israel or arming its regional allies stands contrary to this goal by inviting a swift military response from the west or Israel. In light of the regional, political, and historical factors, a preemptive strike severely miscalculates the risk posed by a nuclear Iran and could serve as the match that lights the tinderbox.

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