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Chill out, Tom: Why Iran won’t actually develop nuclear weapons

Chill out, Tom: Why Iran won’t actually develop nuclear weapons

Here’s a response to my post yesterday wondering about an anti-Iranian pivot in Arab states. It is written by Yasser El-Shimy, a former Egyptian diplomat and a former colleague of mine at CNAS who is doing a doctorate at Boston University.   

By Yasser M. El-Shimy

Best Defense Cairo bureau chief

A consensus appears to be emerging that the Islamic Republic of Iran is working day and night to construct a nuclear arms arsenal. Adherents to this belief cite Tehran’s clandestine activities, such as the installation in Qum, evasive diplomacy and lack of cooperation with international inspectors. While Iran has, in fact, been guilty of all of the above, there is little evidence to suggest that once Iran reaches enrichment technology, it is going to cross the threshold. On the contrary, it has many disincentives not to.

First, should Iran become a nuclear power, it is likely to confront "crippling sanctions" that would not only target its military, but the economy at large. Iranians are not willing to see their country become another North Korea. Furthermore, in spite of its repressive inclinations, the Iranian regime goes through parliamentary and presidential elections every four years. This electoral mechanism ensures that politicians are subject to review by the public every four years. While Iranians overwhelmingly support their nation’s right to peaceful nuclear power, it is not clear if they would support a nuclear arms program that retards their country’s economy.

Second, a nuclear-armed Iran is likely to induce balancing behavior by other actors in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. These countries would buttress their defenses (presumably with state-of-the-art American weaponry) and might even develop their own Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capabilities. Countries that used to maintain cordial relations with Iran, such as Turkey, would probably sever its relations with Tehran; therefore, amplifying Iran’s international isolation. In other words, Iran would trigger a robust U.S. -sponsored anti-Iran alliance.

The Islamic Republic has incentives in maintaining its current strategic postures that are even more strategically compelling:

First, the Middle East has been profoundly polarized since 2003 between the pro-American "moderates camp" including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well as Israel, on the one hand, and the anti-American "resistance camp" including Iran, Syria, Sudan, Hamas and Hizbullah, on the other. The lines of that division are becoming progressively blurry, however, as Iran attracts some regional actors away from the  moderates. This strategic gain, to be sure, is conditional upon Iran’s image as an influential regional actor that has no bone to pick with its Arab neighbors. Although Iran is more militarily powerful than her Arab neighbors, its confrontational strategic posture is almost exclusively directed at Israel and American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This image buys Iran a lot of goodwill among Arab masses. It also makes it possible for traditionally pro-American countries like Qatar and Turkey, as well as movements like the Lebanese March 14th, to seek better relations with her. The goodwill of the Arab populace and the diplomatic relations with some of her neighbors corrode the otherwise salient "rogue state" perception.

Second, over the past seven years, Iran has come to enjoy unprecedented strategic influence in the region. Iran, in many respects, is quite present in the politics and policies of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar and Gaza. This influence is predicated on Tehran’s ability to project her power without appearing as too menacing to her Arab neighbors. An Iran with the technology to build nuclear weapons would be just that. A nuclear-armed Iran would trigger large-scale regional balancing.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, Iran’s threshold status dissuades both Israel and the United States from launching a military strike on it, let alone attempt coercive regime change. The fear is that an attack on Iran would accelerate rather than eliminate their nuclear weapons program.

It is far more likely that the Islamic Republic of Iran is going to become an opaque nuclear power. To put it differently, Iran would develop the technological and infrastructural capacity to build nuclear arms, without actually taking the final step of making the bomb. Strategically speaking, this is the scenario that bolsters Iran’s regional influence without incurring costly repercussions.

Tom again: It would be easy to dismiss Yasser’s argument. But then I remembered that the Iranian position he envisions is essentially the stance Saddam Hussein took from at least 1998 to 2003: Act like you might possess  WMD but don’t actually. Hmmm …