The reactions to the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 states have spanned the full gamut of emotions. In Tehran the principle feeling seems to be jubilation, mixed (perhaps understandably) with an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment. By contrast the Israelis are furious and (again understandably) talk of an ‘existential threat’ is once more being heard in the halls of the Knesset. But perhaps the strangest of reactions is the strongly negative response from the Americans. Obama has not made much out of the agreement, whilst the Republican right have been vocal in their opposition to the deal – opposition which will only grow in the coming days.
However, all of the parties to this agreement have missed a historic opportunity here to alter the balance of power in the Middle East. I speak, of course, of allowing Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. Though the P5+1 have spent the last two years desperately trying to avoid this eventuality, it may well be the case that a nuclear Iran will be a force for regional stability far more than a non-nuclear Iran.
The main opponents to a nuclear-armed Iran are the Israelis and the Saudis. Their concerns can be dealt with in turn, beginning with the Israelis. The fear amongst the Israeli people is that the Iranian regime will use nuclear weapons against Israel in a lunatic attempt to bring upon a messianic appearance of the Mahdi. In many ways this is a justifiable fear – whereas it took the Nazis five years and tens of thousands of men to exterminate 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, a handful of nuclear warheads aimed against Israel could do the same in a matter of hours. And it is not in doubt that senior Iranians have made blood-curdling pronouncements about their hatred of Israel; the erstwhile President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on record calling Israel a ‘cancer’ and Israelis ‘barely human’, whilst others have been quoted calling for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map.’
All this is not to be underestimated. There are a significant number of Iranians with a visceral loathing for Israel, and many of those would not shed many tears at a nuclear bomb hitting Tel Aviv. However, the Western reaction to this has shown a major misunderstanding in how Muslim cultures act. Far too many Western analysts have used these pronouncements as evidence that a nuclear-armed Iran would necessarily entail Iran using nuclear weapons against Israel. But this is not the case. Firstly and most importantly, Iranians are not stupid. They are aware that Israel has spent billions on anti-missile technology that virtually guarantees that an Iranian strike would not hit the intended target. They are also aware of the long-standing Israeli policy that the IDF will use nuclear weapons in the case of an existential threat to the state of Israel. They are aware that the IDF is vastly better armed and more competent than the Iranian military. And as such they know that any attempt to attack Israel would fail and result in Iran being turned to rubble.
But there is also something more than strategic calculation which holds the Iranians back. Iranians are one of the most pro-Israeli nations in the Middle East. Though the fact is not often talked about, in reality Israel and Iran were exceptionally close allies before the Islamic Revolution. Tens of thousands of Israelis lived and worked in Tehran, whilst the two armies co-operated on naval technology. This was part of Israel’s so-called ‘alliance of the periphery’, in which non-Arab countries like Iran, Turkey and Uzbekistan were courted to act as a regional counterbalance to the Arab League. The people of Iran have never been exceptionally anti-Semitic, and in fact there is a great deal of support for Jews and for Israel. Many Iranians have far more antipathy towards the Arab world than towards Israel, and in some circles Israel is even praised for standing up to the Arabs.
It is not in question that the current regime is anti-Zionistic and even anti-Semitic. But the people of Iran are not – and it is they who will persist, not the regime. At present the Islamic Republic has a decade more, no longer. It is heavily corrupt and disliked by the majority of Iranians. Moreover, several viable alternatives exist – the most notable of these is the monarchist opposition led by Prince Reza Pahlavi, a hugely popular figure in Iran. It is virtually guaranteed that increased living standards will lead to the production of a liberal intelligentsia and an increase of opposition towards the regime that will eventually result in a coup or a revolution. Once that happens, there are two choices; a militarily weak Iran that will be balkanised and dominated by its’ neighbours, or a strong nuclear-armed Iran capable of dictating its’ own foreign policy.
The usual counter to the ‘rational operator’ argument is the claim that the Islamic Republic is not in fact rational; that instead it is led by religious fundamentalists hell-bent upon bringing about the coming of the Mahdi. This is Orientalist claptrap of the highest order, and shows a serious misunderstanding of the Iranian position. If the Iranians wanted to bring about the end of times, they could do so very easily without nuclear weapons. At present they possess the capability to cause millions of Israeli casualties, both directly and through their proxy of Hezbollah. The fact that they have not done so is testament to the fact that the Iranians are greatly reluctant to escalate the tensions of the region. Moreover, there exists an extensive body of evidence suggesting that the clergy of Iran are strongly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons; this further shows that Iran is not an unstable actor.
Other than Israel, the other main opponent to a nuclear Iran is Saudi Arabia, supported by the other Gulf monarchies. This has led to the ridiculous alliance between Israel and some of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world, whose hatred of Israel is matched only by a hatred of Iran. It is no coincidence that in Ba’athist Iraq a bestseller was the tome ‘Three whom God should not have created; Jews, Persians and Flies.’ Though the Saudis have tried to cloak their opposition in the guise of non-proliferation and moderation, the fundamental reality is that they oppose a nuclear Iran because of a near-pathological mistrust of Iranians and of Shi’a Muslims in general.
For all their Wahhabi posturing, the Saudis are at heart a deeply conservative monarchy who are far more concerned with political stability than with Islam. To them, Iran represents a radical revolutionary force which threatens to destabilise the House of Saud and turn Saudi Arabia into an Islamic Republic run along Iranian lines. This more than anything is the fundamental struggle in the Middle East – not between Sunni and Shi’a, but between radical and traditional Islamism, regardless of sect. To them, a nuclear-armed Iran would be empowered to threaten, cajole and frighten the people of the region to support the Iranians in revolting against autocratic monarchical rule.
Why not? The Sunni Gulf states have always held the balance of power, and have been able to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries freely. The war in Syria is a direct result of Qatari and Saudi plots against the Syrian state; in Yemen they supported the unpopular President Hadi against huge unrest. Even in apparently peaceful countries like Lebanon, dozens of politicians have been bought with huge amounts of Saudi petrodollars – the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is one such, having been convinced to abandon his formerly pro-Assad views upon the application of a considerable amount of Saudi pressure.
In such circumstances, why should Saudi Arabia have the sole privilege of controlling the Middle East? Why should Iran not be able to influence regional policy? The current ‘pariah state’ status of Iran is in no small part down to Saudi attempts to convince the Americans to remove all Iranian manifestations of power abroad. Though the nuclear deal will change this, it is evident that the only way Iran will be taken seriously is if it armed with nuclear weapons. This will give it the power to dictate its’ own foreign policy without being shouted down by the Saudis.
This will have an undoubtedly positive influence upon the region. At present totalitarian Sunni regimes and groups have far too much influence in the Middle East. They spread religious hatred and sectarianism whilst trampling over human rights and appropriating national wealth for selfish causes. It is this milieu which has caused IS; in many ways IS can be seen as a direct relation to Saudi Arabia, just with a subtly different form of government. Though IS gives its’ totalitarianism a particularly brutal veneer through manipulation of the media, in reality they are merely emulating the habits of Saudi Arabia. By recalibrating the strategic calculus of the region, groups such as IS will be weakened at the expense of secularist movements.
The argument which is always brought forward at this point is that it will lead to regional escalation. Already rumours have emerged that the Saudis are seeking a warhead from the Pakistanis in order to balance the field; from here, the naysayers say, it is a short distance to an arms race and a pre-emptive strike. Such fears are valid, but it seems unlikely that this will take place. Historical evidence shows that even if such an arms race took place, the fear of mutual destruction will lead to an implicit understanding that neither party will use nuclear weapons. But in some ways one might even argue that an arms race is already underway, and that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is simply the next stage. At present the Saudis have the most powerful weapon in the world – the support of the United States. Iran does not have this, and thus has to resort to nuclear weapons in order to gain strategic parity. It is probable that Iran developing nuclear weapons will simply lead to both sides becoming militarily equal, and an entente cordiale developing between the two, from which regional harmony will stem.
The present nuclear deal should not be dismissed. It is a damn good deal that permits the Iranian people to fulfil their national aspirations, whilst simultaneously assuaging Western fears about a nuclear Iran. However, due attention should be given to the possibilities that stem from an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Though in the short term such an arrangement would cause great consternation from many regional neighbours of Iran, the present imbalance of power is unsustainable and will lead to great bloodshed unless steps are taken to ensure that all major powers are able to act equally and without fear.