With Syria on the Way Down, Iran Needs Nukes More Than Ever

With nuclear weapons, Assad could presumably have slept well even as he continued to massacre his citizens.

The deteriorating position of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, both at home and abroad, goes a long way toward explaining his never-ending attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. It also goes some way toward explaining the Iranian regime's stubborn determination to produce a nuclear bomb.

The goal is not only to obtain weapons that would allow them to destroy the State of Israel, but also, and primarily, to obtain an insurance policy for their decaying totalitarian regimes - one of which is already on the way out, while the other, in Tehran, is worried that the Syrian precedent will create a domino effect in its country.

Bashar al-Assad - AFP / Sana - 09102011
AFP / Sana

Tuesday's Associated Press report that the International Atomic Energy Agency has discovered another complex that appears to be part of Syria's nuclear program merely underscores how ambitious the Syrian project is. Assad did not make do with building a plutonium production facility near Deir al-Zor, which the Syrians claim Israel bombed in 2007, but also tried to build a uranium enrichment facility in the buildings recently discovered in Al-Hasakah, in the northeast of the country.

For now, it's business almost as usual in Syria. The Syrian army is continuing its brutal violence in an attempt to suppress demonstrations all over the country; to date, between 3,000 and 4,000 civilians have been killed. Shooting from helicopters, tanks and ships has become an almost daily occurrence, as have mass arrests. On Monday, "only" 12 people may have been killed in confrontations between the army, the protestors and the armed groups that oppose Assad, but the daily average for the previous week stood at 20 to 30 people killed every day.

These worrisome numbers have prompted calls from the international community - including, perhaps surprisingly, parts of the Muslim world - for military action against Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone a step further, saying his country cannot stand idly by in the face of the regime's ongoing repression of the Syrian people.

It's a very long way from such remarks to a Turkish declaration of war on Syria. But Erdogan's message is clear, and so is the general mood in the new Middle East: Assad must go.

Most of the moderate Sunni states agree with this position, and that is why Assad's regime went on the attack against them on Tuesday, claiming that various circles in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are operating terrorist groups inside Syria. Damascus also rejected the Arab League's latest proposal on Tuesday: to withdraw its military forces from Syria's cities, end the violence and launch a dialogue with the opposition in Cairo.

The Syrian army also does not hesitate to go into Lebanon to kidnap opposition activists or deserters. And a few days ago, Syria's president warned that if his country is attacked, the shock waves will reverberate throughout the region.

One of the considerations often mentioned in recent months to explain why the West is in no hurry to attack Syria the way it did Libya are the missiles with chemical warheads that Assad has, and the fear that he would use them if his regime were on the verge of collapse. Had he also had nuclear weapons, Assad could presumably have slept well at night even as he continued to massacre his citizens, in the full knowledge that no Arab, Muslim or Western nation would even consider attacking his country.

The town of Deir al-Zor, which has turned into a focus of opposition to Syria's president, is not far from the place where the plutonium manufacturing facility was bombed. On Tuesday, a demonstration in favor of Assad's regime was held there. But Assad's supporters in Iran and Hezbollah understand the gravity of his situation.

On Tuesday, Samir Kuntar, the terrorist who killed the Haran family in Nahariya in 1978, came out in support of Assad. Kuntar said he is willing to cut off the hands of anyone who opposes the Syrian government, and that the opposition is a conspiracy to weaken Hezbollah.

The Iranians may be more cautious about speaking their minds on the matter, but they, too, understand that their Alawite ally's reign is in danger. In these troubled times, obtaining nuclear weapons has become even more critical for Tehran.

If the Arab Spring turns into a broader Islamic Spring and comes to Iran as well, the regime in Tehran will also repress the opposition, using methods even more brutal than Assad has. An atomic bomb would provide it with immunity against any attempt by the international community to intervene.