Iran Is Regional Superpower Even Without Nukes

Tehran is creating a rift between China and the U.S., with Washington arming Taiwan in bid to pressure Beijing.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

We can say a lot of things about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but we cannot deny his chivalry. "By chance" he ran into his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, during his visit to Moscow and was quick to warn him that one of the dangers behind Iran's nuclear program is "a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race, where countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will seek to acquire nuclear weapons." The threat to Greece, Netanyahu hinted, lies in the possibility that Muslim Turkey would acquire nuclear weapons.

Of course, Netanyahu forgot to mention to Papandreou what he already knows - that there are about 90 American-made tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey, part of the NATO arsenal, which no one knows what to do with as Turkey has no aircraft dedicated to this purpose. Saudi Arabia lacks the scientific infrastructure for nuclear capability, and Egypt has for more than 25 years been debating where it will build its first nuclear reactor. A nuclear Middle East is still a distant dream.

Greece appears to be a lot more concerned about its financial crisis than Iran's nuclear weapon, but the beauty of the Israeli-Greek dialogue in the Pushkin Restaurant lies in how far the "Iranian bomb" has come. Here is what this bomb, which does not yet exist, has managed to do: sparked dangerous friction between China and the United States, with Washington selling arms to Taiwan in order to twist China's arm; turned Europe's missile defense program into a hostage, dependent on Russian support for sanctions against Iran; triggered a clash between U.S. President Barack Obama, who does not want sanctions against Iran that are too severe, and Congress, which seeks extensive sanctions; stirred a debate within the U.S. administration between those who think Iran should be considered a player that can contribute to stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who oppose that approach; created a rift between Arab states concerned about Iranian hegemony in the region and those who don't want to be on the same side as Israel against Iran.

Therefore, even before manufacturing a single bomb, Iran has become a regional superpower influencing international policy. To preserve its position as a country around which the world revolves, it does not even need to build a bomb. It is enough for it to unnerve the world over and over by, for example, announcing the gradual enrichment of uranium from 20 percent to 40 percent to 60 percent to 80 percent. Thus it can perpetuate the dilemma faced by Western intelligence services, which are unable to determine whether Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. In other words, they are still incapable of identifying Iran's interest in developing a nuclear bomb.

Statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reflect this confusion. She has warned that Iran is on the verge of becoming a military dictatorship, hostage to the Revolutionary Guards. Does this mean the Revolutionary Guards will move toward building a nuclear weapon? After all, it was Mohammad Khatami, the liberal president, who pushed Iran's nuclear program forward, while some veterans of the Revolutionary Guards are in opposition. In any case, is a military dictatorship worse than a radical Islamist dictatorship?

The frightening combination of the Revolutionary Guards, a nuclear program and the Ayatollahs makes Iran look like an irrational country. But if it is not rational, why would sanctions scare it? Will they lead the Iranian public to bring the regime down, or will it find itself stabilized against the Western foe? No one can provide an answer, and anyway such an answer is impossible to come by.

The race for sanctions has become a struggle for superpower prestige with a life of its own and with Iran playing the role of director. Any doubt about imposing sanctions is sacrilege. Nonetheless, there is no choice but to come up with a new strategy that will offer a solution in case Iran does acquire nuclear arms, like several other countries in the region - Pakistan, India, and allegedly also Israel. How will the threat be neutralized then? It's hard to imagine Iran as a candidate for the role of superpower contributing to the resolution of world problems.

Perhaps the effort to formulate sanctions should instead be directed toward finding a way to remove Iran's motivation to use the arms by making it a partner to decision making in the international club of decision makers. After all, this will not be such a revolutionary development: It already plays such a role.



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