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10/27/04

A Nuclear Iran: Can It Be "Good" and Bad For America?

By Nader Habibi

Sometime between now and 2007 the world is likely to wake up one morning to the sound of a big explosion in Iran. This explosion will be associated with one of the following two events: Either an Israeli-American strike against Iran's nuclear facilities with the intended goal of stopping Iran's nuclear program, or an underground nuclear test by Iranian government that will announce Iran's entry into the nuclear club. It is difficult to guess the likelihood of either event and such an estimation is not intended here. Instead, I will concentrate on the second scenario and speculate on geopolitical consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear power with a small arsenal comparable to Pakistan.

The United States believes that if Iran develops nuclear weapons it will pose a threat to the U.S. and Israel. Iran will then have the capability to attack Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East with nuclear missiles. An even more dangerous scenario according to U.S. sources is that Iran might provide nuclear material to Islamic militants that are fighting against Israel and the United States. While these two potential consequences are frequently discussed in Western media as the main causes of U.S. opposition to Iran's nuclear program, there is yet another reason for U.S. concern. Iran can use its nuclear power as deterrence against external invasion. This deterrence will enable Iran to play a more active role in the Middle East and pose a challenge to U.S. policies in the region. For example Iran will be more willing to support the Hizbollah and the Hamas militant groups against Israel. It could also provide financial support to Islamic militant groups that are opposed to U.S. presence in the region. Even in these cases Iran's ability to challenge the U.S. and Israel will be contained by threat of retaliation. Israel and the U.S. can reciprocate by supporting the Iranian political groups that are opposed to the Iranian regime.

Of the three reasons mentioned above for the U.S. opposition to Iran's nuclear program only the third one appears realistic. While Iran will have the capability to launch a nuclear warhead against Israel or U.S. interests, it will have no incentive to do so because such an attack will certainly lead to a massive military/nuclear response by Israel and the United States. Similarly, in light of the massive military and intelligence mobilization by the U.S. and many other countries, it will be next to impossible for Iran to facilitate a nuclear terrorist attack without being detected and facing a severe retaliation.

Since either a direct nuclear attack against the U.S. (or any of its allies,) or involvement in nuclear terrorism would lead to massive retaliation, it is fair to argue that a nuclear Iran will not dare to pursue either one. Instead it will only be able to use its nuclear capability for deterrence and bargaining purposes. In other words, nuclear empowerment will alter the balance of power in the region but will not necessarily make it less stable. When China developed nuclear weapons the West was worried that it will threaten its neighbors and the risk of nuclear conflict will increase but this concern proved unfounded. China has maintained a small nuclear arsenal for the past four decades and has used it for deterrence purposes only. Indeed China has been involved in far less conflicts after becoming a nuclear power.

The West was even more concerned when Pakistan tested its first nuclear bomb in 1998. Pakistan's political system has been less stable than China in the past three decades. There are many radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and some of them have sympathizers among military officers. Yet, the only major contribution of nuclear weapons to Pakistan's security is that it has created a more equal balance of power between India and Pakistan. As a result, both countries have come to the conclusion that they cannot afford to engage in another major war. The public opinion in both countries is now better prepared for peace negotiations than ever before and this is true despite the fact that the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved.

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Nuclear empowerment of Iran could have an important but unintended consequence for the Arab-Israeli conflict that, ironically, might be beneficial to the United States. The United States has always been committed to the security of Israel but this commitment has not meant full support for Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza that fell under Israeli control during the 1967 war. For the past four decades various U.S. administrations have tried to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been detrimental to American interests in many ways. While in early stages of the conflict it was the Arab side that was unwilling to compromise and recognize Israel's right to exist, in more recent years Israel has been the more stubborn party. In 1990s, Israel frustrated the Oslo peace negotiations by refusing to make any substantial concessions on return of Palestinian territories. Israel has had a good reason to be intransigent. It enjoyed absolute military superiority over its Arab adversaries and is confident that no Arab country will dare to challenge it militarily. Furthermore, it enjoys the full support of the United States. The American military and economic assistance plays a key role in Israel's military strength and the U.S. consistently deflects international political pressures on Israel.

Two powerful domestic political groups influence the U.S. support for Israel: the Jewish Americans and a coalition of evangelical Christian groups that strongly support Israel for religious reasons. In recent years they have come to be known as the Zionist Christians. They believe that Israel must annex the occupied territories and create the biblical Greater Israel. The substantial political power of these two groups in the U.S. congress and the White House have prevented the United States from putting any significant pressure on Israel to end the occupation of West Bank and Gaza. As a result the Arab World has come to see the U.S. as being supportive of Israel's occupation.

This continuous support for Israel's occupation has had many adverse consequences for the United States' economic interests and security. It has also imposed a noticeable financial burden on U.S. taxpayers. Every year the U.S. pays large amounts of economic and financial aid to Israel, Egypt and Jordan in order to preserve the partial peace and beef up the moderate regimes that have signed peace treaties with Israel. A comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world would allow the U.S. to significantly reduce the burden of these strategic aid programs.

Even more important, the U.S. support for Israel's occupation is the single most important cause of anti-American sentiments in the Arab world and other Muslim countries. These strong emotions have pushed thousands of Muslim youth in the arms of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda that are committed to armed struggle against the United States. The continuous and deadly attacks of these groups have cost many American lives and forced the United States to divert large sums of money into security and military operations. In the absence of Arab-Israeli conflict the threat of terrorism against Americans would have been significantly smaller. The U.S. support for Israel has also had an adverse effect on exports of American products to the Arab world and loss of investment opportunities at a time when European penetration in Middle East market has steadily increased. Some activist groups in the Arab world have openly called for the boycott of American made products.

The United States has repeatedly tried to broker a peace deal between Israel and Arab countries. In case of Israel and Egypt the negotiations were successful because Israel was willing to return the Egyptian territories that it had captured during the 1973 war. However, repeated U.S. efforts towards a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians have failed because Israel has resisted all international pressures to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories and return to the 1967 borders.

The main reason for the failure of U.S. efforts is that no U.S. administration can afford to put too much pressure on Israel without facing the anger of pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington. The active lobbying of Jewish Americans and Zionist Christians limits the ability of U.S. administrations to demand any substantial concessions from Israel for the sake of peace. As a result successive U.S. administrations have found themselves caught between these pro-Israeli groups on one hand and the calls of business community and human rights groups who would like to see an end to the conflict by creation of an independent state for Palestinians, on the other hand. Furthermore, several opinion polls in the past two decades have also shown that while remaining committed to the security of Israel, majority of Americans believe Palestinians are entitled to an independent homeland in West Bank and Gaza. (See for example Eyton Gilboa's American Public Opinion toward Israel and Arab-Israeli conflict.)

Now consider how nuclear empowerment of Iran can affect the Arab-Israeli conflict. If and when Iran develops nuclear weapons it would be at par with Israel (which is believed to possess nuclear weapons,) and neither country can afford to wage an all out war against the other. Similar to any stand off between two nuclear powers, the only option available to each side is to engage in proxy war or cold war against the other. Taking advantage of this nuclear deterrence, Iran is likely to increase its support for Hizbollah, Syria and militant Palestinian groups. Some Arab countries such as Syria are also likely to increase their support for Palestinian resistance by relying on Iran's protection.

As a result, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation is likely to continue and intensify. Israel will find itself confronted by an on-going intifada that is supported from outside. Yet it won't be able to stop this flow of support by attacking Iran or Arab countries that ally themselves with Iran because of Iran's nuclear deterrence. The situation then might resemble the soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which was frustrated by continuous U.S. support for the Afghan resistance groups. Overall Israel will find it more costly to continue its occupation policy and might be more willing to end the occupation in return for peace, which will also be in the interest of the United States.

Therefore, to the extent that nuclear empowerment of Iran reduces the imbalance of power in Arab-Israeli conflict and forces Israel to be more flexible, it will be beneficial to U.S. efforts for negotiating an end to this conflict. In other words, the added external pressure on Israel will make up for internal political interest groups that diminish the leverage of American administrations over Israel's occupation policies.

Recent history has proven that when both sides to a regional conflict develop nuclear capability their incentive for negotiation and compromise increases. The United States tried hard to stop Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. concerns about Pakistan's nuclear program in the 1990s were similar to the concerns that it is currently voicing about Iran's nuclear program. Yet, surprisingly, India and Pakistan have shown more willingness to end their hostilities ever since Pakistan has joined the nuclear club. Both countries now realize that they cannot afford to wage another war without facing a deadly retaliation. Nuclear empowerment has increased Pakistan's bargaining power against India but it has not encouraged Pakistan to adopt a more hostile policy towards the United States. Nuclear empowerment of Iran might also have a similar consequence. It will give Iran and Arab world more bargaining power against Israel but it will not necessarily lead to more hostility toward the U.S.. To the contrary, by reducing the sense of helplessness and humiliation among the people of Middle East it could reduce the number of people who are willing to engage in suicide attacks against the United States.

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Acquisition of nuclear weapons will also have an important effect on Iran's domestic political development that might be of interest to the United States. Like many old civilizations Iranians are a patriotic people. To them defense of national homeland against external threats takes precedence over domestic political disputes. When an external threat arises, the government has an excuse to suppress dissent and many people voluntarily suppress their demands for political change in order to unite against this threat. The demands for political change after the Islamic revolution, for example, were only voiced after termination of Iran-Iraq war. More recently the hostile U.S. policies toward Iran brought the reformist and conservative factions of the Islamic regime closer together on several occasions.

Development of nuclear weapons will significantly improve Iran's ability to defend itself against external aggression and foreign-supported separatist movements among ethnic minorities. As a result the majority of people will feel more secure and this added sense of security will allow people to voice their demands for political change without worrying about how a foreign enemy can take advantage of domestic instability or even a revolution. In other words nuclear empowerment could accelerate the process of political change by allowing Iranians to feel more secure about national security and territorial integrity of their country. As the Iranian presidential elections of 1996 and 2000 have demonstrated, majority of Iranians are interested in political freedom and democratic institutions. A more democratic Iran will be good for the region and the entire world.

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It is unlikely that the U.S. policy makers will ever take the potential positive consequences of a nuclear Iran that were mentioned above into account. Instead they are likely to focus on stopping Iran's nuclear program by all means. In the opposite side of this equation, the Iranian government appears highly committed to continuing its nuclear program at all cost. So far the international pressure has had the opposite effect and has increased the national support for this initiative. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning of this article, between now and 2007 we might wake up one morning and learn about a big explosion in Iran.

(October 2004)

About the author:
Nader Habibi is a senior economist in Global Insight Inc. which is an international economic forecasting and consulting firm. He specializes on Economies of Persian Gulf.

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