Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Dangerous Hegemon


by Emily B. Landau


Why Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear

In the international debate over Iran's nuclear program, the argument for containment—rather than prevention—is gaining currency. But the emergence of a nuclear Iran would be a dangerous option, destabilizing the fragile Middle East and delegitimizing the non-proliferation regime. This month's NPT review must not waste the chance to prevent this outcome.

As Iran moves closer to a military nuclear capability, and the international community demonstrates that it is ineffective—if not totally helpless—in keeping Iran from this goal, discussion on this topic has shifted disturbingly to the potential to contain a nuclear Iran. While the time may come to explore this option, we are not there yet.

To accept Iran's nuclear advance toward a bomb as inevitable would mean that efforts to stop it would lose the essential seriousness and determination needed to succeed. The next step would minimize the gravity of the situation by claiming that the threat can be successfully managed—that nuclear Iran can indeed be deterred and contained. While it would be foolish not to prepare for the possibility of Iran attaining nuclear weapons, there is a delicate balance between such preparations and resolving ourselves to this outcome.

But beyond the implications that discussion of containment might have for whether the West intends to invest the necessary political will and resources in a tough negotiation strategy that might still work, additional questions focus on the notion of containment itself. Is this the correct framework for discussing the potential dangers of Iran going nuclear? Even if deterring an Iranian nuclear attack could be expected to succeed, is this the only threat that we need to prepare for?

In fact, attempts to create the sense that the emerging threat could be managed through Cold War-type deterrence are misleading. They apply conceptual thinking from a very different time and place to a threat that today has serious implications in a number of previously unseen directions.


The Broader Threat of a Nuclear Iran

Today there are surely grounds for believing that other states can deter nuclear Iran from attacking them and their allies with nuclear weapons. Deterrence coming from other nuclear states would be enhanced by new missile defenses, and a nuclear umbrella that the United States would assumedly put in place for its allies in the Middle East. But claiming that Iran can be contained today just as China was in the past reflects a lack of attention to the severe contemporary consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear state. This assumption ignores the dramatic regional implications associated with the Islamic Republic acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranian government is a regime that is pursuing a hegemonic agenda in the Middle East, that has already taken determined steps in this direction, and that makes no secret of its strong desire to not only change the face of the region, but to encourage any dynamic that will delegitimize Israel to the point that its existence will become a thing of the past.

Nor do the proponents of containment take seriously enough the devastating implications of this development for the nonproliferation regime itself – what it would mean for the image and standing of the NPT, as well as the proliferation that it could potentially spark in the Middle East. And all this just at the time that U.S. President Obama is working to strengthen the global arms control conventions and convince the world of the need to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons.


Iran as a Regional Superpower

Iran's becoming a nuclear state would cause major upheaval in the Middle East and utterly transform states' threat perceptions. Iran's hoped-for nuclear status would tremendously boost its capacity to stir up trouble in the region, with the help of its current proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, and perhaps with new allies as well. These threats are not merely theoretical, as Iran has demonstrated its capacity in two recent wars—the Lebanon war in 2006 and the more recent Operation Cast Lead in January 2009—as well as in its support for terror over the years. Iran advances its hegemonic agenda through others that bear the brunt of the hostilities, while Iran itself remains safe within its borders. This strategy challenges the entire Middle East, not just Israel, due to Iran's region-wide revisionist plans and destabilizing capacity.

Egypt has led the chorus of complaints against Iran's aggressive hegemonic tendencies and meddling in regional affairs over the past year. But the ongoing dispute with the United Arab Emirates (which flared up recently on the backdrop of the UAE foreign minister's accusation that Iran's occupation of the three islands in dispute is no different than Israel's occupation of Arab land), and concerns over Iran stirring up Shiite sentiments from the Persian Gulf to the Maghreb, elevates tensions throughout the Middle East. Once Iran becomes a nuclear state, without even taking any concrete steps, the mere image of its new "superpower" status is likely to change attitudes in the Persian Gulf. Reluctant to rely on U.S. guarantees of support, the Gulf states that live in close proximity to Iran will most likely bow to Iran's wishes rather than confront it on issues of regional politics, enhancing Iran's hegemonic hold over them.

In addition, Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons would motivate at least some regional states to proceed more determinedly down the nuclear path themselves. Some will be motivated by security concerns, others by the challenge that Iran will pose in terms of regional prominence. Primary contenders are likely to be Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.

Israel will need to take into account not only Iran's direct threat but also its reaction to any Israeli action taken down the road in response to other security threats it may face. In addition, a central pillar of Israel's security policy in the nuclear realm—ensuring that none of its neighbors attain a nuclear capability—will disappear, leading to an immediate sense of acute vulnerability. This sense will most likely be followed by the slow establishment of a mutual deterrent relationship in the Middle East. In fact, many tend to play down the Iranian nuclear threat on the grounds that such a relationship will emerge. They argue that just as the superpowers lived with a nuclear balance during the Cold War, so it will be in the Middle East. While it is true that there will be a strong impetus on both sides to create such a balance, it will be a shaky, and very dangerous path. This is not something that the Middle East—with its multitude of pre-existing tensions—will easily support.

Moreover, this will underscore for Israel the continued need for a nuclear deterrent, making President Obama's plans for nuclear disarmament that much more difficult to realize. It will become starkly apparent that the goal of nuclear arms control cannot be attained through international agendas that fail to prevent proliferation, and that do not even begin to address regional threat perceptions and security concerns.


A Nonproliferation Regime in Trouble

The scenario of a nuclear Iran would have serious implications for the nuclear nonproliferation regime as well. It would expose the fact that while the international community was for years making earnest efforts to convince, compel, and cajole Iran back into the fold of the NPT, Iran itself was blatantly cheating every step of the way, deceiving the world while secretly pushing its military nuclear plans forward. Iran's success in this regard would deal a serious blow to the integrity of the treaty. Realizing the impotence of the IAEA to stop a determined proliferator would empty this organization of any meaningful impact. Former IAEA Director General ElBaradei—with his repeated statements that there was no clear evidence that Iran was working on a military nuclear capability—would be exposed as extremely naïve at best, and dangerously politically motivated at worst.

Unfortunately, current efforts in the direction of nuclear arms control by the Obama administration seem oblivious to this reality. The United States emphasizes the new disarmament agenda—namely, taking firm steps to advance the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, ratify the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and enhance the NPT at the May 2010 Review Conference—without recognizing and acting on the fact that stopping new determined proliferators like Iran is the essential first order of business to save the nonproliferation regime. The new cases of proliferation—and especially Iran attaining nuclear weapons—will be infinitely more detrimental to the nuclear arms control agenda than if the United States does not ratify the CTBT during the course of 2010, or if the FMCT does not get under way this year. The problematic Egyptian proposal to the NPT Review Conference for the initiation of negotiations on a NWFZ in the Middle East – with its intent to pressure Israel alone – is also misguided in this context.


Iran's Internal Dynamic

A final word goes to the internal dynamics in Iran, and what they might mean for nuclear proliferation in that country. Since the June 2009 elections, we have witnessed significant and ongoing internal unrest. What began as an uproar against obvious election fraud later evolved into a widespread protest movement demanding much more profound change, which cut to the heart of basic issues of human rights and liberties. Supreme leader Khamenei himself was targeted in the protesters' attacks on the current situation in Iran, which was unprecedented. And while the movement still lacks clear leadership, some analysts still consider the possibility that developments could ultimately lead to regime change.

These possibilities have implications for the nuclear crisis as well. Nuclear proliferation challenges are closely tied to the identity of the states involved—the nature of their aims, threats, and regional and international behavior. Therefore, if Iran itself becomes less of a threat to its neighbors and the region, this will render the issue of its nuclear development less urgent. A change of regime would not necessarily mean a reversal of Iran's nuclear activities and ambitions, but in the hands of a non-threatening regime, there might be more time to address the challenge in a more relaxed setting, without hair-trigger threat perceptions inducing crisis reactions.

The unavoidable conclusion is that a nuclear Iran under the current regime is an extremely dangerous proposition, for the Middle East and beyond. If Iran's hegemonic agenda is bolstered by nuclear status, the highly adverse implications are quite apparent. A look at the rhetoric, actions, and nuclear, missile and space programs in Iran easily demonstrates the nature of this regime, its priorities, its likely plans for all states that come under its influence, and its intentions to strive for broader global influence. Moreover, the emergence of a nuclear Iran would be a serious blow to nuclear arms control efforts—and even if the case of Iran serves as a wake-up call for the weakness of the international regime, it is not at all clear that the leadership and political will necessary to repair this regime are forthcoming. Whatever transpires, it will be too late as far as this most dangerous proliferator is concerned.



Emily B. Landau is the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


1 comment:

Alan Bradley said...

Excellent blog site. I will read more when I have a little more time. I just have one comment, however, after reading the first two articles at the top.

"Containment" is the most ridiculously stupid thing I've heard coming from the world community.

How does one contain a snake in a large box full of holes, unguarded at night? Can Iran (or one of its proxies) penetrate Israeli defenses with a single drone loaded with radioactive material and a whole host of chemical and biological materials, exploded over Tel Aviv?

The only world leader that doesn't understand what's what is the community organizer from Chicago and the deaf, dumb and blind apes who surround him. (I mean no disrespect to apes as a species.)

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