The Iranian threat: Military or political?

Despite hyperbolic talk over Iran’s nuclear programme, it’s unlikely the country would deploy potential nuclear weapons.

It has been reported that Israel plans to attack Iran after US presidential elections in November [GALLO/GETTY]

While Iran’s nuclear programme has been at the centre of foreign and economic policy debates for months, what seems unclear is the precise nature of the threat it might pose.

Is Iran striving for nuclear latency (the ability to produce nuclear weapons) or is it actually striving to build weapons? Would they deploy them, or use them as a means of further establishing its power in the region?

There have been a series of inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities over the years, with mixed results and levels of cooperation from Iran.

Tensions have neared the boiling point several times over the years, and in the wake of yet another report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stating concern and doubt about the civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear programme in November, Iranian officials openly discussed shutting down a key global oil transport route, the Strait of Hormuz, running along Iran’s western and southern coastlines.

“Every country that has reached the level of nuclear potential has realised that you maximise this potential by refraining from the use of your weapons. It’s equivalent to a situation where you’re torturing somebody – you never want to kill them, because then, it’s over. “

– Stephen Kinzer

It’s hard to determine what is going on within the country, where a heightened power struggle is taking shape after the recent parliamentary elections and in the lead up to the 2013 presidential elections.

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintains that Iran never has and never will seek nuclear weapons.

“There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons,” he said in a speech in February. He went on to say that Iran, “logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous”.

The same month, talk of war reached a high point, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu trying to drum up support for a military strike against Iran. But the logistics of such an attack, lack of public support from the US and a fresh round of nuclear talks (a strategy Israel decries as Iran simply “buying time”) have put those plans on hold.

A spokesperson for the IAEA declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, saying that the agency preferred that its “reports do the talking”. The agency’s newest board report expresses frustration with Iran’s lack of cooperation and refers to outstanding issues connected to the “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”.

In the latest round of talks on its nuclear programme in Istanbul, Iran rejected bilateral talks with the US, but the diplomats nonetheless said Iran gave some positive signals in the talks.

Nature of the threat

The US has been concerned with Iran’s influence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and becoming a nuclear power in the region is only bound to increase that clout.

“The main reason Iran is trying to reach that point is that Iran is suffering from lack of legitimacy and recognition on the International level – they think that the West will not recognise the Islamic Republic without a nuclear Iran,” said Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

“Iran wants to be treated like Pakistan – which has a nuclear programme. It fears giving up its nuclear programme and becoming another Libya,” said Khalaji.

“I do not believe that Iranian leaders are suicidal – using a nuclear bomb against any country will be the end of the Islamic Republic and the current leadership,” said Khalaji, himself a native of Qom and the son of reformist cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Khalaji.

“I think they don’t want a nuclear bomb to use it. I think they want nuclear capability to just have full hegemony in the region.”

He added that another effect of a nuclear Iran may be a potential cascade effect, as other countries in the region rush to become nuclear states.

Although there have been reports aplenty about a potential attack on Israel, it seems more likely that Iran would wield its powers as others do.

“Every country that has reached the level of nuclear potential has realised that you maximise this potential by refraining from the use of your weapons,” said author and Iran expert Stephen Kinzer.

“It’s equivalent to a situation where you’re torturing somebody – you never want to kill them, because then, it’s over.”

Marvin Weinbaum, former intelligence analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US State Department and a current scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, recently argued in an article that a war against Iran would be a mistake, but not because of the questionable ethics of a pre-emptive war or the mass casualties it would cause.

Weinbaum wrote that if Iran was a rational actor and decided against striking back, it would manage to make the world see the US and Israel lumped in as “aggressors”, thereby winning hearts and minds while justifying the need for nuclear weapons.

“What we’ve seen is that Iran can be provocative … If the kind of attack that they’re likely to suffer is going to be one of a limited, surgical kind, and where they can recover from that in the matter of a few years, then there is far more to be gained in taking advantage of the political opportunities that it may afford,” Weinbaum told Al Jazeera.

But he also said that he did not believe Iran was aiming to build nuclear weapons to “destroy the Jewish state”, as he said is Israel’s stated case.

“Do I believe it? No. Because … were it do to so there would be massive retaliation, not just from Israel – because I think Israel would be limited – but by the United States,” said Weinbaum.

“The Iranian leadership, above all, wants to survive. That’s their number one objective right now.”

The real ramifications of Iran achieving nuclear latency or acquiring weapons, he said, would be in allowing Iran “to throw its weight around in the region” against not only Israel, but other countries in the Gulf region.

“The Arab countries would be living in a very different environment than they are today,” said Weinbaum, who dismisses the importance of Israel’s nuclear programme in the region, saying that it is “useless” and has failed to “force anyone to do anything”.

However, Iran, he said, “has the capacity to overthrow those regimes in the region”.

US ‘war drums’ grow louder

Still, despite the lack of clarity as to what Iran wishes to do with potential nuclear warheads (destroy Israel or flex its muscles) and the stated reluctance of many US military and security experts to support a war against Iran, within the US, there’s an increasing sense that Iran poses a serious threat.

“The beating of war drums has intensified, without a doubt, in recent months. It’s a matter of great concern because these two countries are now really in each other’s faces,” said Kinzer.

“We’re right in front of Iran with our ships in the Persian Gulf and people are being blown up on the streets of Tehran,” he said, referring to Iranian scientists who have been the target of assassinations in recent years.

“Meanwhile, Iran is pushing into what Americans consider to be their own sphere of influence … The enmity between these two countries has become an institution of American foreign policy, but with the elections coming up in the United States, the situation is reaching troubling new heights,” said Kinzer.

Issues with logistics and a shortage of international support have lead to talk that Israel might postpone a possible strike for another year, which gives the situation time either to diffuse or intensify.

Indeed, it’s uncertain if an attack on its nuclear facilities would act as a final deterrent.

“It is highly unlikely that an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would succeed in preventing an Iranian bomb over the long-term,” said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, who specialises in issues of national security with a focus on nuclear weapons and terrorism.

“In fact, it could well bring the day when Iran tested a weapon closer, rather than delay it. Despite recent press excitement, my estimate of the likelihood of an Israeli air strike against Iran this year is about 25 per cent,” said Allison – who added that he agreed with the view of the US intelligence community – that Iran was seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons, but has not yet decided to build them.

The efficacy of sanctions and wars

While China, Russia, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela are among countries that maintain decent ties with Iran, with Russia and China at times being the strongest of these allies, the West has largely responded to Iran with 30 years of sanctions. 

“There have been various approaches and so far, the American approach seems to be dominant – and this is the approach that we should just hector and criticise and sanction and isolate Iran an push Iran into a corner and make Iran suffer until Iran surrenders,” said Kinzer. 

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That said, he adds that Iran ‘s “biggest misstep” has been its lack of transparency.

“We don’t really know what Iran is doing, and meanwhile they’re testing missile delivery systems,” said Kinzer.

Iran, he said, has seen the US refrain from attacking North Korea, one of its “axis of evil” enemies, because that enemy has nuclear weapons, while attacking Iraq, which did not.

If a war against Iran doesn’t seem likely to act as a long-term deterrent to the nuclear path – some analysts hold that a war would only delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons – it seems unlikely that sanctions will achieve more. 

The effects of the financial pain are reaching average Iranians, with a group actually mobbing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s convoy in the southern city of Bandar Abbas earlier this month, shouting that they were hungry and suffering. 

Although sanctions worked against Libya’s nuclear programme, Allison points out that the programme there was not advanced. Sanctions failed to work in Pakistan because the US, he said, relaxed them due to “common interests [for example] the fight against al-Qaeda”.

Bringing up Israel’s own nuclear weapons programme is non-starter, as the country is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, therefore is not compelled to submit to IAEA inspections and has not faced sanctions for its weapons programme. 

But Iran, said Allison, “has hidden behind the rights to dual-use nuclear technology given to it by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while at the same time seeking a nuclear weapon capability” – hence the ever-hardening sanctions, regardless of minimal returns.

Dealing with a nuclear Iran

What seems untenable at the moment – that the world could possibly accept Iran as a nuclear power – might indeed be the case.

But Kinzer believes that accepting Iran as a nuclear power is “inevitable”.

“The fact is … more countries are going to becoming nuclear armed. We’re going to have to get real and find the kinds of security mechanisms to help deal with that reality. You can’t just pick and choose the members of this club forever and that’s just something the West is going to have to deal with,” he said.

Weinbaum is unsure that any measure would prevent Iran from reaching nuclear capability.

“The jury’s out on that,” he said.

“We have to see who prevails in Iran … we have to see what they decide. There is some honest probing here to see how far they are willing to go.”

But it seems that, acceptable or not, a mixture of internal politics – which sees the current government struggling for legitimacy – and international struggles – will keep Iran on its current course.

“Khamenei, and others in charge of the nuclear programme, believe that the only way to save the economy, to lift the sanctions and become a normal country is to go nuclear,” said Khalaji.

“The Islamic Republic wrongly thinks that if it’s more dangerous, it will be more likely to impose its recognition on the world. That’s wrong,” said Khalaji.

“I don’t know anyone who believes that a more dangerous Iran would be safer.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera