The Region: All things not considered

Even if Iran doesn't give terrorists nukes, other scenarios are worrying.

May 9, 2010 22:53

BARRY RUBIN. (photo credit: jp)

Would the Iranian government hand nuclear weapons to a terrorist group or fire off nuclear-tipped missiles itself? It is easy for many experts and “experts” to answer no. The reason would be that historically, Iran has proven itself cautious and knows it would be punished for doing so. I might add that the Islamic regime has not been adventurous or crazy in its actual policy (as opposed to its words) over the last 30 years.

But as far as that response goes, it misses some very key points that might get a huge number of people killed.

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First, Iran has not been adventurous or crazy in the manner that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in 1979 and 1990; that is, Iran has not sent its military forces across the border to invade another country. Instead, Teheran has used subversion as its technique, backing and helping groups undermine other countries with terrorist attacks, with a long-term strategy of building a popular base to seize state power.

Thus to say that Iran has not attacked a neighbor with conventional military forces is quite true, yet this may not tell us how Iran will behave regarding terrorist groups. Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran may feel a little more confident than the pre-nuclear version.

Having said that, I would correct the original response: Iran will probably not give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.

“Probably” means that the odds are higher – let’s say far higher – than 50 percent that it won’t do so. The problem here is that even if there is a 10% or 20% chance of that happening, that’s not the kind of risk one wants to take.

BUT THERE are other, more likely, scenarios that are never discussed but are quite important. Here are two:

• “Private Donations”: I don’t think the Iranian government would ever give Hizbullah, Iraqi Shi’ite groups or Hamas nuclear weapons. That is, I don’t think there will be a top-level meeting where such a decision would be made officially. I do think that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will be responsible for both the weapons and for liaison with terrorist groups, or other officials, might give them nuclear weapons. Iran is not a disciplined bureaucracy and the security of these arms – especially if some hot factional dispute breaks out or the regime is in danger of falling – is not going to be so tight.

The chance of an Iranian Dr. Strangelove pushing a button, a mad ideologist rather than a mad scientist, is higher than that for the weapons held by the US, USSR/Russia, Britain, France or Israel over many decades.

I have never seen someone from the complacent, conventional wisdom, containment-is-no-problem mainstream deal with any of the above issues.

• “The Defensive Umbrella for Aggression”: If groups like Hizbullah or others get their members to believe they have access to nuclear weapons, either through a transfer or a clear Iranian guarantee to use such weapons in their cause, wars could be set off by their over-confident calculations. Iran’s main purpose in getting nuclear weapons is probably not to fire them but to use them to protect its indirect aggression, encourage appeasement and persuade millions of Muslims to join pro-Teheran revolutionary Islamist groups.

But no matter what Iran did in the future – for example, establish its primary influence in Iraq by bringing its Shi’ite allies to full power; help Hamas seize the West Bank; make Hizbullah and other forces the ruling group in Lebanon – nobody could or would do anything about it because they would fear Iran’s nuclear arsenal.

Consider – and this is not far-fetched – that Hizbullah concludes that if it attacks Israel, Israel would be deterred from retaliation out of fear that Iran would launch nuclear missiles. From what Syrian leaders say, it seems they already believe this, which makes them far more daring in their hard-line policies and encouragement of Hizbullah and Hamas.

A RELATED scenario is while US promises might make Arabs feel a bit more secure, in practice that factor is meaningless. They would still be afraid to do anything Iran doesn’t like, not only because they didn’t have full trust in the Obama administration but also because by the time the US kept its pledge and retaliated they would all be dead.

Consider also this true story told by Haim Saban, the Power Rangers multimillionaire and donor to Democratic campaigns. In considering who he would support, during the 2008 campaign Saban met separately with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He asked each of them the same question: “If Iran nukes Israel, what would be your reaction?” Clinton answered: “We will obliterate them.”

Obama’s response? “We will take appropriate action.”

Since Obama’s reaction was off-the-record and before the election, it cannot be attributed to presidential caution. Saban interpreted it as something along the lines of (my words, not his): I’ll think about it. This reflects a state of mind and way of thinking.

That anecdote should be far more frightening to most Arab countries than it is to Israel, which has its own ability to respond to any such threat.

Look at the overall situation of a post-nuclear Iran this way: If a boxer knows he can punch his opponent, without fearing a counter-punch, the boxer doesn’t have to pull out a gun, he can knock him out by conventional means.

Of course, to extend the analogy, the boxer might miscalculate, get hit back hard and then pull out the gun.

And once again: I have never seen someone from the complacent, conventional wisdom, containment-is-no-problem mainstream deal with any of the above issues.

It would be far simpler and less risky to stop Iran from getting nuclear arms in the first place, but that option seems to be very close to non-existent. Let’s face it: The campaign to convince the Western world to make a serious effort to take up this challenge has failed. Whatever half-hearted sanctions are passed after whatever number of months, we had better start directing our attention to a world where Iran has deliverable nuclear weapons.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies.

His blog can be read at

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