Who’s afraid of the big bad nukes?

It’s been suggested that because Iran will probably not have usable nuclear weapons in the near future, and because a preemptive attack on Iran by the US or Israel is unlikely, the whole issue of the Iranian nuclear program is not important.

Wrong. Very wrong.

The Middle East’s Nuclear Dark Age

by Barry Rubin

The Iranian nuclear issue is too important and dangerous to be miscomprehended. So here are some life-and-death factors to keep in mind about it:

First, Iran is not about to obtain nuclear weapons, certainly not ones that it could use. That dreadful outcome is still several years away. Despite all the bragging going on by Iranian leaders in Persian-language statements about how they are getting closer to atomic bombs—coupled with denials of any such intention in English-language ones—it just isn’t that easy to do.

Second, neither Israel nor the United States is about to attack Iran. There are lots of reasons why this is so but they can be boiled down to the following: it is hard militarily to carry out such an attack, it is politically dangerous, and can lead to very serious consequences. An attack is something better to avoid, if possible. And it is certainly too early for such a high-risk, potentially high-cost venture.

Third, why then are Israel, the United States and others making such a big fuss about Iran right now, since it is neither the last moment nor a prelude to an attack soon? The answer is that it is the last moment for three other things:

  • If international terms, if diplomatic and economic pressure is going to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons it has to be intensified right now or it will be too late to generate the needed non-military threat to Tehran.
  • In technological terms, Iran is right on the verge of being able to build nuclear weapons all by itself without any more foreign help or equipment.
  • In political terms, if Iranian leaders and people aren’t worried about the country’s isolation and the nuclear program’s high costs, they will more likely keep in power the regime’s most extreme faction—and the ones most likely to use nuclear weapons in the future.

So in several real ways it is truly a moment of now or never, not because of an imminent attack but due to the fact that this era gives the last chance to avoid one.

But there is a fourth set of factors extremely important yet hardly ever mentioned. True, the most horrifying outcome would be if Iran used these weapons against Israel, possibly triggering a region-wide nuclear and conventional war which will make previous conflicts look like a picnic.

Yet while this risk alone justifies decisive action to stop Iran’s nuclear success, this may not happen, you could argue. Or perhaps you don’t mind seeing Israel incinerated or think it can take care of itself. Why, then, should Iran having nuclear weapons bother you?

The reason is that even more likely to take place than an Iranian attack on Israel are a number of other dire circumstances that would be devastating for everyone in the region and the world in general. Briefly, these include the following disasters:

  • Appeasement: Frightened by Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons and uncertain of Western protection, Arabic-speaking states will rush to meet Iran’s demands. This means they will be afraid to cooperate with U.S. policy or provide facilities for Western efforts to contain Iran. And that development will make them even less able to protect themselves against Tehran, further reinforcing the effect.
  • Given Iran’s rejectionist stance, no Arab state or the Palestinian Authority would dare move toward peace with Israel. Even if you believe such a thing is possible now, forget about it for 20 or 30 years.
  • Since Iran always favors higher oil prices (with Saudi Arabia, which already has lots of money, holding them down), the combination of Iranian pressure and heightened regional insecurity will send the cost of petroleum sky-high, far above anything hitherto dreamed.
  • Intoxicated with a belief that Islamism is on the march to victory, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands will join radical Islamist groups, either clients of Iran or independent ones.
  • It is quite conceivable that even if the Iranian government makes no decision to give nuclear weapons to terrorists super-extremist elements in the regime will do it on their own.
  • With the regime having nuclear weapons, any opposition will be too intimidated to try to change it, no matter how much support dissidents have.
  • Nobody in the region will be willing to oppose greater Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. And even if you believe this is possible now—though I don’t—it is certainly obvious that Syria, nestled under Iran’s nuclear protection, will never move away from its alliance with Tehran
  • In fact, new members may join the current radical HISH alliance (Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizballah), thus further building the extremist forces. The result could be a turning point with Islamists toppling one Arab nationalist regime after another.
  • Of course, all of the above would escalate regional instability.

Does the above sound exaggerated? I don’t think so, but even if you want to reduce such dire predictions to a lower level the prospects are still quite harrowing. Remember that even if Iran never uses nuclear weapons to make mushroom clouds it will quite effectively use them for strategic and economic leverage.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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