There is an emerging global consensus that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent a grave, growing threat to international peace and security. Yet the degree to which Iran's atomic advances also challenge American objectives in the greater Middle East is less well appreciated. A nuclear Iran can be expected to alter profoundly the United States's strategic calculations in the War on Terror. The U.S. should soon expect to confront six dangerous regional developments.
The first is growing Iranian influence, as countries in the region attempt to establish some sort of modus vivendi with a nuclear (or nearly nuclear) Iran. More likely than not, this trend will include a drift away from cooperation with the West, making the already problematic Persian Gulf increasingly inhospitable for U.S. and coalition forces.
The second is a new arms race, as certain states ramp up their own strategic programs in an effort to counterbalance the Iranian bomb. Already, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have begun to exhibit telltale signs of such efforts, and other countries, e.g., Iraq and Turkey, could soon follow suit.
The third is expanded proliferation, as Iran's nuclear know-how becomes an export commodity. Iran is already a major "secondary proliferator" of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and worse is still to come because its radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly signaled his willingness to provide nuclear assistance to other Muslim states.
The fourth is increased terrorism, as an emboldened Tehran expands its use of radical groups as a strategic tool against Western interests abroad. Just as importantly, a nuclear Iran is bound to enjoy greater freedom to export its Islamist revolutionary principles.
The fifth is strategic blackmail, as Iran exploits its strategic location in the Persian Gulf to threaten the safety of American forces operating in the region, as well as the security of global energy supplies.
The sixth, and arguably the most important, trend will be greater longevity for Tehran's ruling regime. A nuclear capability will provide the Iranian government much greater latitude in suppressing, without fear of international consequences, the widespread dissent now visible on the Iranian "street." The likely outcome? A death knell for Iranian democracy and a new lease on life for the Islamic Republic.
There is no shortage of policy options available to the U.S., but the utility of each depends on an accurate understanding of Tehran's ideology. Twenty-six years after its founding, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary state. In fact, thanks to the rise of a new cadre of regime hard-liners, the Ayatollah Khomeini's vision for Islamic revolution at home and abroad has greater resonance in Tehran today than at any time since his death in 1989. Not surprisingly, the radicals have learned to love the bomb, seeing it as the key to regime stability—and to preempting "preemption" by the U.S.
Diplomacy, therefore, may delay and complicate Iran's quest but cannot alter it. Tehran has made a clear strategic choice in favor of possessing nuclear weapons by any means necessary. Economic sanctions will be problematic. Thanks to its oil and natural gas wealth and its emerging energy alliances with customers such as China, Kazakhstan, and India, Iran is far less vulnerable to fiscal pressure today than it was in the past.
Containment is possible but difficult. At a minimum, a new containment regime will need to reinforce Iran's vulnerable regional neighbors, roll back Tehran's military advances, and curb Iranian access to critical WMD technologies. And if the U.S. contents itself with containment alone, it will send a clear message that it accepts a nuclear Iran--a message that will weaken our regional alliances.
Nor is deterrence alone a viable solution. Iran is not monolithic; some segments of the Iranian government are rational and capable of being deterred. But others, including the country's new president and his coterie, share an apocalyptic religious worldview that demands a crisis with the West.
Finally, preemptive military action against Iran, either by the U.S. or its allies, should be strictly a last resort. For while technically possible, preemption may prove in the long run to be counterproductive. The Iranian people and government have little in common, but they agree (although for vastly different reasons) that nuclear weapons are a top national priority. Any external action to take away that capability is likely to cause ordinary Iranians to rally round the flag, substantially prolonging the current regime's life.
Accordingly, the U.S.'s goal should not be simply to contain and deter a nuclear Iran. It should be to create the necessary conditions for a fundamental political change within that country.