Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Speaking of Iran and Nukes…..

Posted in Iran, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on May 19, 2010

Dr. F. Gregory Gause- a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a man whose work I widely respect- has a great piece over at FP’s newly launched “Mideast Channel” about the Saudi perception of Iran’s nuclear program.  Take a look at it, because it’s certainly worth reading if you want to obtain an accurate depiction of how the Arab world assesses Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Considering that Iran’s nuclear program has been covered so extensively in the global media, I’m a bit surprised that more scholars haven’t studied or discussed what the Saudi Government- or Saudis in general- think of Tehran’s nuclear program.  After all, it’s Saudi Arabia that has the most to lose if the Iranians do in fact go nuclear; diminished stature in the region, an Iraq under the pro-Iranian umbrella, Shia power growing at the expense of Sunnis, etc.  Surely, the Saudis would want to respond some way, somehow, perhaps with their own nuclear program (although that is certainly up for debate).

But thankfully, Dr. Gause sheds some light on the Saudi perspective.  Contrary to the overhyped American view of a messianic Iranian president waiting to launch a nuclear weapon at a second’s notice, the Saudi view is much more pragmatic and even-keeled.  Saudis are concerned about an Iranian nuke no doubt, but not because they fear that the ayatollahs would destroy Riyadh and overpower the Saudi armed-forces.  Rather, they view a nuclear weapon as a piece of leverage in the Iranian toolbox that could be used to further expand Persian influence in the Middle East.  And one way to achieve this goal is by using a nuclear bomb’s symbolic effect, which could empower other groups- like Tehran’s Hezbollah and Hamas proxies and the millions of Shias that are disenfranchised in the region- to rise up and challenge the Sunni governments of the Arab world.

This is a perspective that the United States should try to adopt, or at least try to add into the equation when evaluating what to do in the event of an nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.

Thus far, U.S. policy towards Iran has been far too limited in its orientation.  Both the White House and Congress, Republican and Democrat, seem to think that an Iranian nuke would mean the end of Israel, or the end of America’s regional clout.

Granted, Washington has an obligation to plan for all sorts of possibilities.  An Iran with a nuclear weapon would certainly act differently in the Middle East than an Iran without a viable nuclear program. But even this planning- however warranted- is redirecting government resources away from another very important aspect of the Islamic Republic…its ties to Islamic militant groups from Iraq to Lebanon.

In many ways, ties to proxies are much more effective than a nuclear weapons capability. I know it’s hard to swallow, but think about it. Proxies can be used anywhere at any time, whether it’s for the purpose of meddling in the affairs of another state (like Iraq) or diminishing the power of a rival government.  A nuclear weapon, on the other hand, cannot be used for this purpose. Of course, you can always blow up Tel Aviv, or Beirut, or Sana’a, or Baghdad to achieve your aims, but such an irrational act would bring about absolute destruction to the country that launched it (in this case, Iran). The very objectives that Iran would want to achieve would be destroyed, along with the entire country’s military establishment.

Today, a nuclear-free Tehran is able to hide behind the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, reaping the benefits of the relationship while largely avoiding the costs that come with direct support. It’s the most valuable tool in the Iranian arsenal, and one that can be exploited without a devastating response by the United States or the international community.

None of this is to say that Iran’s strategic thinking wouldn’t change if the final screw was turned in the nuclear plant.  Nor is this to suggest that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t change the calculus of their proxies (some analysts, in fact, have argued that Hezbollah and Hamas may cause more trouble if protected under an Iranian nuclear umbrella).  What this does suggest is that the indirect value of a bomb may be more valuable to Iran’s foreign-policy than the direct use of the bomb itself.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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