Iran will become a nuclear power, so keep calm & carry on
The sound of hawks spluttering their morning coffee was heard around the world. Iran’s new leadership have signed an embryonic deal with the Western powers which allows for a lifting of some sanctions in return for a temporary suspension of the enrichment process.
Yet it should never have got to this stage. The strategy for persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear program was a decent one; there was the Good Cop EU3 (Germany France and the UK), offering trade and investment. There was the US Bad Cop threatening sanctions. And there was the unspoken Israeli Very Bad Cop with the itchy trigger finger.
Add to this Russia’s offer of enriching Iranian raw nuclear material inside Russia then sending it back in its civilian use form, and you had a good an offer as Iran was ever going to get. And yet nothing came of it.
Iran claims to need a civilian nuclear power, to which all signatories of the NPT are entitled. Diminishing fossil fuels, a growing population, and a modenising infrastructure all demand an alternative to gas and oil. Sounds reasonable enough.
However Iran is expending great cost and effort enriching nuclear material far beyond what is required for civilian use. Add to that the length to which Tehran has gone to conceal and lie about its program, along with its famous vitriol against the West and Israel in particular, and one must grimly accept that what Iran actually seeks is an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.
This is understandable, at least from their point of view. Firstly, the regime’s overriding aim is one of self preservation. It looked at two of America’s other enemies, Iraq and North Korea, and concluded that non-nuclear Iraq was invaded, whereas nuclear North Korea wasn’t. Simplistic? Yes. Inaccurate? No.
Iran is also in a bad neighbourhood. It’s surrounded by nuclear armed states; Russia to the sorth, Pakistan, India and China to the east, Israel to the west, and the ballistic missile submarines of the US battle fleet to the south. Why, it asks, should it be denied nuclear weapons?
It isn’t even just a question of a paranoid regime seeking security. There is very real popular support for the program inside Iran. Iranians rightfully see themselves as one of the oldest and proudest cultures in the world. Why should they be content as a second tier power?
Whatever one feels about the justification (or lack of) of Iran nuclear ambitions, the stubborn fact is that it can’t be stopped.
Israel has the weapons, command-and-control capabilities, delivery systems and the refuelling capacity to destroy or severely damage the four key Iranian installations. Iran lacks an integrated air defence system. It odd mix of new and vintage interceptors, its limited surface-to-air missile arsenal, and its patchwork of command structures all bode ill for defence. It has offset these weaknesses somewhat by hardening, dispersing and burying much of its plant. However a concerted effort by perhaps 25 Israeli F-16’s and a similar number if F-15A’s would probably prevail.
The question then becomes ‘what next’? Even a wildly successful strike would only set the Iranians back five, maybe six years. Are we really to expect Israel to repeat the exercise every five years? Because that’s what it will need. Even those Iranians hostile to the Mullahs would rally around the government in the face of a foreign attack. Iran could point to the attack as yet more evidence that it needs to be able to defend itself. It could dispense with all subterfuge and embark on a very open nuclear weapons program.
Potential Iranian retaliation is harder to judge. It could try and disrupt shipping the Straits of Hormuz, or launch rocket attacks against the Gulf States, though that may incur the wrath of the US Fifth Fleet and draw other powers into the fray. Most likely, it would urge its proxies to unleash a wave of attacks on Israel and perhaps activate sleeper cells across Europe and the West. The effectiveness of either of these would more psychological than material.
The regime would also no doubt use the ensuing fervour as a convenient time to bump off a few of its internal enemies, sideline the moderates, clamp down on the press and generally be a lot nastier and harder to deal with. It would also embrace Russia more closely as an ally.
So what happens if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons? Would it launch an attack on the Zionist Entity? Unlikely. As mentioned previously, the regimes aim is self-preservation. Any attack on Israel, even if it wasn’t a detectable missile launch but rather a small device smuggled in to disguise the perpetrator, would result in a full nuclear response from what remained of Israel and/or the US. Iran would simply cease to exist as a nation state.
A nuclear Iran may actually be easier to deal with. Secure from foreign invasion, it would lack the justification for its continued repression against ‘enemy agents’ at home. Security would also allow it to move out of Russia’s orbit and stop behaving like a nation under siege.
Of course once Iran has the bomb, there will be a clamour for at least one Arab state to have a bomb too. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt would be the main contenders. The US may try to forestall this by extending its nuclear umbrella to cover the Arab world. But with the US seen as a declining power, its doubtful assurances from Washington will be enough.
This is the nightmare scenario for Israel. It would have gone from being the only nuclear power in the region, to one of three. A central pillar of its defence strategy, and thus its very existence, will be swept away.
But would it matter? The US had a nuclear monopoly, but quickly allowed the Soviets, British, French and Chinese to join the club. A multitude of nuclear states has probably done more to preserve peace among the Great Powers than any other single factor.
Could deterrence work in the Middle East? Iran’s proxies would no doubt feel emboldened by having a nuclear armed benefactor, that’s for sure. However they are a manageable threat. As fanatical and blood thirsty as they are, they will not destroy Israel. Once Iran has its nuclear weapons, it won’t need Hezbollah and Hamas to distract Israel anymore. Far from being assets, they’ll become an expensive hobby and a liability.
Much of the Arab world’s unwillingness to commit to lasting peace with Israel stems from half a century of humiliating defeats. An Arab bomb may give them some semblance of equality, and make them more amenable to peace, coming as it does from a position of strength, not an admission of defeat.
And if the Arab world can accept peace with Israel, that’ll leave the Palestinian movement isolated as never before. It could even be compelled to drop some of its more unreasonable demands and thus come to a lasting agreement with Israel.
This is all conjecture of course, and optimistic conjecture at that. The fact is there are too many moving parts in the Middle East for any reasonable prediction of behaviour. That being said, Iran will, with ten years, be a nuclear power. It will dramatically alter the balance of power in the region. We don’t have to like it, but we will have to live with it.