Securing the Middle East with a Nuclear Iran?
Why would a nuclear Iran be helpful in securing peace in the Middle East?
January 24, 2006
With Saddam's Iraq out of the way, Iran now stands as the only Gulf power that can effectively veto regional efforts at peace through either its explicit support of transnational terrorist groups or the employment of its military power — especially as it achieves status as a nuclear power.
There is no other state in the region that combines the same assets and ambition in terms of politics, economics and security.
Saudi Arabia has no effective security profile (nor does Egypt for that matter), and the House of Saud's political ambitions are more limited in scope, concentrated as they are primarily on keeping the monarchy in power at all costs.
Pakistan possesses a far larger population, but its largely uncontrollable domestic situation consumes whatever ambition the political leadership there has for a larger regional role.
It is Iran that can effectively veto movement toward peace and stability in either Jerusalem or Baghdad through its effective support to, and manipulation of, the political agendas of regional terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It is Iran that has the capacity to destabilize the flow of oil out of the Gulf.
It is Iran that determines how much of the energy coming out of the Caspian Basin may be safely accessed by both India and China. And it is Iran, which, by virtue of being a top-five player in both oil and natural gas and a longtime diplomatic pariah as far as the United States is concerned, that offers Asia the best possibilities for locking in long-term bilateral energy ties, a process already begun by India and China.
And yet, oddly enough, for all the same reasons why the Shah of Iran was once the preferred security partner of the United States in the region, today's Iran still retains many of those same attributes.
Iran is not a source for, or a supporter of, the jihadist movement embodied by al Qaeda. As a Shiite state, its definition of "revolution" differs from that track altogether.
Iran's Islamist regime results in a sort of tired authoritarianism, never truly aspiring to the sort of totalitarianism pursued by the Salafis, who can be thought of as the over-the-top Maoists (or Trotskyites) to Iran's rather pedantic post-Stalin Soviet Union. Iran is a nation-state first and foremost, not some transnational religious-inspired movement.
Yes, like Brezhnev's Soviet Union, Iran is more than willing to exploit transnational terrorist movements to its own ends, but this is a cynical pursuit of national power, not a millenarian fantasy of regional, much less global, revolution.
Iran is not interested in overthrowing the West's political and economic order, it just wants to receive its due place in those corridors of power.
In many ways, the Shiite revolutionary spirit died a long time ago in Iran, leaving behind a cynical political order where the mullahs pretend to rule, the citizens pretend to obey and the government pretends to reform.
Iran is a frightfully young society, full of ambition for a better life and chafing under what the majority of the population consider to be the rather idiotic rule of the religious fundamentalists, one that offers them no future worth pursuing in an increasingly globalized world that demands far more rational rule sets.
Iran most resembles the late-Brezhnevian period of the Soviet Union: A bankrupt ideology, a vastly underperforming economy and workforce, a sullen majority detached from political life as well as economic ambition and an out-of-touch political leadership (the mullahs) increasingly at odds with the technocratic leanings of its government's bureaucratic elite.
However, as the presidential election of 2005 proved, most Iranians will nonetheless vote for a hard-liner as president if he promises a reduction in the political regime's pervasive corruption — such is the state's perpetual failure in Iran.
Like the late Soviet Union, Iran does not wield military power so much as security vetoes. It can prevent security from arising but it cannot deliver security effectively anywhere beyond its borders.
Because Iran lacks any true client states, its regional security influence is derived primarily from its support of transnational terrorist groups and its persistent quest of weapons of mass destruction.
But even in its quest for the bomb, Tehran displays a calculated cynicism throughout, demonstrating all too well that it understands that nukes are for having, not for using.
Iran will get the bomb, no matter how the United States or its allies seek to prevent that outcome. Tehran was the regional power most pleased by seeing both the Taliban and Saddam deposed.
In many ways, the U.S. global war on terrorism has inadvertently made Iran the greatest beneficiary so far in the region in terms of security obstacles removed, begging the question "Would it not be nice to get something in return from Iran for all that effort?"
So if Tehran is going to get the bomb no matter what, the question shifts from "What can the United States do to prevent it?" to "What does the United States get out of it?"
If Iran was our natural security partner in the past for a lot of good reasons, then most of those reasons remain today, simply obscured by the continuing dictatorship of the mullahs (of which we have some very bad memories).
Our natural goal with Iran, then, is to marginalize that religious leadership while capturing the same security partnership we once enjoyed.
Inconceivable? No more than having Russia acquiesce to our growing military domination of both the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, not to mention Eastern Europe's merging with both NATO and the EU.
After all, we once pursued détente with a very similarly "evil" regime in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s (e.g., tired authoritarianism, bankrupt ideology, enabler of transnational terrorism, finger on the nuclear button), only to effectively kill that regime with connectivity over the subsequent years, yielding a compliant security ally in the process.
Why not pursue the same pathway with Iran? Iran is the one country in the region where it is the rulers who hate the United States and the public that loves us.
Yes, the Iranian hostage crisis was a hugely embarrassing experience for us a quarter-century ago, but typically the passage of that much time allows us to move beyond such humiliations as a new generation of political leadership ensues.
Our grand bargain with Iran is not hard to imagine. Iran gets the bomb, diplomatic recognition, the lifting of sanctions and the opening of trade, and its removal from the axis of evil.
In return, what Iran must offer the United States is long-term support for both the two state solution in Palestine and a stable Iraq dominated by a Shiite majority, the cessation of its support for terrorist groups in the region, joint pressure on Syria for an end to its hegemony over Lebanon (removing their troops is only a nice start) and — most symbolically — its recognition of Israel diplomatically and its formal declaration of that country's right to exist.
Is this bargain too much to hope for? Ask yourself this: Can you imagine a future Middle East peace where these steps have not been achieved? I cannot, and so I choose to see Iran's reach for the bomb as possibly the best thing that's happened to the Middle East peace process in decades.
Why? Because a huge hang-up in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle has been the Muslim world's sense of military inferiority, which was first proven in a series of wars across the latter half of the twentieth century and which remains codified in the popular imagination by Israel's possession of both the bomb and a nuclear superpower sponsor willing to wage war on its behalf — two things the Middle East's Muslim states have always lacked.
Iran's possession of nuclear weapons levels that playing field in a proximate sense, by finally allowing the Muslim Middle East to sit one player at the negotiating table as Israel's nuclear equal. This is not just opportune, it is crucial.
As for the fears that Iran's possession of the bomb will destabilize the region, there is no good historical evidence for that.
Rather, the historical record is quite clear: Two relative equals with nuclear weapons is a far better equation than one that features a permanent imbalance.
Would Iran give terrorists the bomb? Only if terrorists could get Iran something that it could not otherwise achieve directly with the West.
Tell me, since Iran is getting the bomb anyway eventually, would you feel less comfortable about this possible scenario if Iran were to open up to the West or if it remained isolated and surrounded by hostile American troops?
In which scenario do you think Tehran might risk it all by sponsoring a terrorist WMD strike against Israel or the West — when it has something to lose or nothing to lose? If America wants Iran to act responsibly in the region, it needs to give Iran some responsibility for regional security.
Meanwhile, offering Tehran's government-reform elements economic carrots in exchange for denying the hard-line mullahs their self-perceived nuclear security blanket remains an unworkable approach.
In sum, this scenario pathway presents wins for all sides. The United States finally gets a Muslim security partner in the region worth having (as opposed to, say, the "sick man of the Arab world," Egypt, or even the let-them-eat-cake royal mafia in Saudi Arabia).
Israel finally gets enough buy-in from the Islamic world for the two-state solution to proceed. Iran gets to return to its rightful place as regional-power-of-note and its public experiences growing economic connectivity with the outside world, which in turn, will inevitably restart a political reform process that rapidly marginalizes the mullahs' religious-based political rule.
Thomas P.M. Barnett
Senior Managing Director, Enterra Solutions Thomas P.M. Barnett is a strategic planner who has worked in national security affairs since the end of the Cold War and has operated his own consulting practice (Barnett Consulting) since 1998. Recently, Mr. Barnett founded a consulting partnership called The New Rule Sets Project. The consultancy was acquired by […]