David Rothkopf

Welcome to the era of a nuclear Iran

In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are ...

VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images

In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are moving out of what might be called the "post-9/11 era" and are moving into something new.

The Blair award is just one of those preposterous things that happen to leaders when they enter the eminence grise (which is to say the rubber chickenlecture tour) phase of their lives. He’s got a big book out and after all, he did make a real contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. That he was George W. Bush’s most important international enabler in conducting the most notorious, least necessary major war of the past several decades is hardly a disqualifier for a "conflict resolution" award, apparently. We have started to hit the public opinion statute of limitations for such disastrous "War on Terror" era missteps.

The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)

No, the reason that the U.S. government — that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 — is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran.

Now, you may quibble by pointing out that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. But this is a purely academic argument. This deal is the latest example of behavior suggesting that the nuclearization of Iran is all over but for the bomb building in the eyes of U.S. and regional strategists. As soon as it became clear that the United States and its allies would play along with Iranian stalling games, and as it appeared less and less likely to all concerned that the Obama administration would actually take military action to stop the Iranian program, the mindset shifted.

While there theoretically could be an Israeli strike, it is not likely to stop Iran for long. With every passing day it seems less likely that the U.S.-led U.N. sanctions are actually going to have any impact on Iranian policy. (Remember when the U.S. attacked Brazil and Turkey for their "naïve" effort to cut a deal with the Iranians? It is increasingly looking like that naïve deal will have been just as successful as the "sophisticated" geopolitics practiced by the U.S. at the U.N. — which is especially ironic in light of the fact that it has emerged that President Obama blessed the Brazil-Turkey efforts for a deal before the State Department condemned it.)

The giant arms deal — 84 new F-15s, 70 upgraded planes, 72 Blackhawk helicopters — is part of the remaking of the strategic lay of the land in the Middle East, a plan to enable the Saudis to gain air superiority over their neighbor. Of course, the result is a much closer relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis which has significant implications for other U.S. relationships in the region, e.g. with Israel. And certainly much of our future planning with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to be oriented toward maintaining the kind of presence that will enable us to use posts there as part of the larger Iran containment strategy.

Of course, the problem with a nuclear Iran (or even a nuclear-capable one) is that it will trigger just this kind of conventional arms race in the region and, on top of that, a likely nuclear race. And when each new nuclear power pops up on the radar (or some like Pakistan emerge as even greater threats than they are today) the containment strategy grows geometrically more complex — because not only do you have to triangulate new containment efforts with new allies (who will also demand to be better armed) but you also have to figure out how deterrence works with the non-state actors who grow ever more likely to get their hands on a nuclear device with the addition of each new nuclear weapons shopping center built.

So while we might describe this new era a "smaller" version of the face-off with the Soviets, a Mideast Cold War or Containment 2.0, it could well be much more complex and present new challenges. In any event, it will certainly be even more dangerous than the "War on Terror" era that it is following and that — due to the misplaced priorities it provoked from leaders like Blair and Bush — helped contribute to this new and worrisome period of escalating risks.

In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are moving out of what might be called the "post-9/11 era" and are moving into something new.

The Blair award is just one of those preposterous things that happen to leaders when they enter the eminence grise (which is to say the rubber chickenlecture tour) phase of their lives. He’s got a big book out and after all, he did make a real contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. That he was George W. Bush’s most important international enabler in conducting the most notorious, least necessary major war of the past several decades is hardly a disqualifier for a "conflict resolution" award, apparently. We have started to hit the public opinion statute of limitations for such disastrous "War on Terror" era missteps.

The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)

No, the reason that the U.S. government — that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 — is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran.

Now, you may quibble by pointing out that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. But this is a purely academic argument. This deal is the latest example of behavior suggesting that the nuclearization of Iran is all over but for the bomb building in the eyes of U.S. and regional strategists. As soon as it became clear that the United States and its allies would play along with Iranian stalling games, and as it appeared less and less likely to all concerned that the Obama administration would actually take military action to stop the Iranian program, the mindset shifted.

While there theoretically could be an Israeli strike, it is not likely to stop Iran for long. With every passing day it seems less likely that the U.S.-led U.N. sanctions are actually going to have any impact on Iranian policy. (Remember when the U.S. attacked Brazil and Turkey for their "naïve" effort to cut a deal with the Iranians? It is increasingly looking like that naïve deal will have been just as successful as the "sophisticated" geopolitics practiced by the U.S. at the U.N. — which is especially ironic in light of the fact that it has emerged that President Obama blessed the Brazil-Turkey efforts for a deal before the State Department condemned it.)

The giant arms deal — 84 new F-15s, 70 upgraded planes, 72 Blackhawk helicopters — is part of the remaking of the strategic lay of the land in the Middle East, a plan to enable the Saudis to gain air superiority over their neighbor. Of course, the result is a much closer relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis which has significant implications for other U.S. relationships in the region, e.g. with Israel. And certainly much of our future planning with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to be oriented toward maintaining the kind of presence that will enable us to use posts there as part of the larger Iran containment strategy.

Of course, the problem with a nuclear Iran (or even a nuclear-capable one) is that it will trigger just this kind of conventional arms race in the region and, on top of that, a likely nuclear race. And when each new nuclear power pops up on the radar (or some like Pakistan emerge as even greater threats than they are today) the containment strategy grows geometrically more complex — because not only do you have to triangulate new containment efforts with new allies (who will also demand to be better armed) but you also have to figure out how deterrence works with the non-state actors who grow ever more likely to get their hands on a nuclear device with the addition of each new nuclear weapons shopping center built.

So while we might describe this new era a "smaller" version of the face-off with the Soviets, a Mideast Cold War or Containment 2.0, it could well be much more complex and present new challenges. In any event, it will certainly be even more dangerous than the "War on Terror" era that it is following and that — due to the misplaced priorities it provoked from leaders like Blair and Bush — helped contribute to this new and worrisome period of escalating risks.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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