Skip to comments.Iran's nuclear allies play with fire
Posted on 06/23/2003 6:22:40 AM PDT by Enemy Of The State
Iran's nuclear allies play with fire
By Stephen Blank
There is no doubt that not only America has intensified pressure on Iran due to its nuclear program, but that the international community has also followed suit. The recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) represents something of a turning point in this regard for it is the first time that international organizations have publicly asked some hard questions about Iran's programs and goals. None of this means that Tehran will cave in to the pressure any time soon. Indeed, its initial response was defiant. But this does mean that the motives behind Iran's program will now come under greater scrutiny then before.
From the public record we can see mixed motives behind this program. Undoubtedly a major driving force behind Iranian nuclearization was the fact that the country experienced chemical warfare attacks from Iraq during the 1980-1988 war and nobody abroad did anything about it. Clearly this depressing result galvanized many policymakers to demand that Iran never again be caught without a deterrent. Likewise Israel's preemptive strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 stimulated Iran to act stealthily and build dispersed and underground facilities to prevent this from happening to it. Iran's paranoia about Israel, habitual recourse to anti-Semitism at home and abroad, and its sponsorship of terrorism against it and America for over 20 years clearly has led its rulers to fear that they might be targeted as well by America and/or Israel militarily, and not just have to endure diplomatic pressure and sanctions. Therefore, they seek reliable deterrence against those forces.
We may also attribute nationalism as a motive since that seemed to have been a factor in the Shah's initial interest in nuclear energy. In this context another factor driving nationalist impulses is the well-known and long-standing Iranian belief that Iran stands at the center of world politics and constitutes a target for everyone else's intrigues against it. Therefore Iran, too, must have nuclear weapons to deter these intrigues and assume its rightful place in the sun.
All these forces that drive Iran's programs are well known. Many are long-standing and in some cases they are comparable to the motives that drove other nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapons. But one needs to think carefully about the threats that may emerge from Iran if it does indeed become a nuclear player. As in all other cases of nuclearization, possession of nuclear weapons will essentially codify Iran's immunity from foreign pressure as related to its defense and foreign policies. The most dangerous aspect of this is that the possession of nuclear weapons makes it much safer for Iran to launch conventional wars or attacks against its enemies. Pakistan's sponsorship of an unrelenting terrorist war against India dating back 15 years exemplifies the danger. And Iran's terrorist war has as a clear objective, the derailment of any peace process in Israel, the incitement of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, if not beyond, and the destabilization of the new American presence in Iraq and beyond that in the Middle East and Central Asia.
But beyond that, in the past Iran has used its conventional weapons to threaten Azerbaijan and Kazakstan with regard to energy holdings in the Caspian Sea and has conducted terrorist operations against dissidents in Europe, often with the help of similarly-minded regimes like Libya. It also, according to US intelligence assessments given to Congress, has the capability to close down the Straits of Hormuz and to interdict shipping there and into the Gulf for several days. If it achieves a nuclear deterrent to back up the conventional capabilities it is also acquiring, Iran can pose a formidable regional threat to the global economy, and not just its neighbors or Israel. This is magnified by the fact that it apparently can produce usable anti-ship missiles on its own. Or at least, so it claims.
Apart from being a supporter of terrorism, Iran is also clearly a proliferator of conventional weapons to terrorists, as the interception of the Karine-A ship in 2002 by Israel showed. And the possibility of becoming a supplier to other states who wish to obtain nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. That ship, it should be remembered, was carrying US$10 million of weapons, many of which seemed to have originated in Russia or were made in Iran using Russian know-how that had been exported to Iran. Those weapons would have provided the Palestinian Authority with the means to dramatically upgrade its capabilities for terrorist attacks against Israelis. Iran is also a customer for North Korean, Chinese and Russian proliferation, and at the same time a very interested player in the fate of Afghanistan. Thus, from the foregoing, we can see that it has an ambitious and rather destabilizing foreign policy agenda.
But equally if not more dangerous is the fact that its government presides over a deeply disenchanted society that is also clearly striving for reform. In the past Iran has not hesitated to play the anti-Israel and anti-American cards to quash domestic unrest, and if its regime has nuclear weapons and feels sufficiently embattled at home and abroad, not least by repeated American threats to destabilize it, there is no certainty as to how it might behave.
Based on the foregoing, it makes eminent sense for both Europe and the United States to deploy intense pressure on Iran to cease and desist from its nuclear program. In the past that has not been true of Russia, China and North Korea, whose motives for supplying Iran are well known. Russia, however, is only storing up a threat for its future given its own ambitions in the Caspian, by abetting Iranian nuclearization. Yet one wonders if the lure of cash for the Ministry of Atomic Energy and the defense industry, and the ever-present temptation to put a spoke in American policy, will continue to get the better of a rational consideration of Russia's vital national interests. Although China and North Korea are further away from Iran and have their own motives for proliferation, China's are not that dissimilar from Russia's, whereas North Korea, itself now under severe pressure, is a special case. But given what we have seen in world affairs since 2001, does it make sense for Beijing and Moscow to abet the nuclearization of one of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism? Or can these states come to a more sober appreciation of where their interests lie?
Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.