On April 9, at a ceremony in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled new third generation of centrifuges which, according to the bombastic Iranian president, can spin six times faster than the version now available to the Iranian nuclear program. If the claim is true, the Iranians are on the verge of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, which would permit that country’s scientists to produce a nuclear bomb, a prospect the western world deemed unacceptable. In Ahmadinejadian fashion, the Iranian president also took a swipe at the West by declaring that his country is now a nuclear state and the program is irreversible. Meanwhile the five permanent members of the Security Council, (Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S, plus Germany), are negotiating a new round of sanctions meant to cripple Iran’s nuclear program which has, to date, been slapped with three set of resolutions that specifically forbade military actions as a tool for enforcement.
In this uncompromising environment, will the Iranians’ determination to proceed with uranium enrichment and the West’s avowed resolve to stop it from happening lead to unilateral western military actions? Though the previous Security Council resolutions specifically forbade military actions, many western powers, primarily the U.S, France and Israel, do not rule them out as an option to force Iran into compliance. Assuming that the West, frustrated with China and Russia’s passive engagement in the matter and Iran’s intransigence, chooses the military option, what will be the outcome?
In a prospective war, Iran will be defeated since its army is no match to the West’s technological superiority in armaments and military tactics. The ramifications however are hard to predict, because wars usually do not end when military objectives are achieved and the guns fell silent. Wars invariably created new issues and magnified existing ones, and a winner sometimes ended up losing more than it gained (Britain after WWII is one example). What’s more, the fact that a prospective war with Iran will not be one of conquest, the Iranians will still have the means and opportunity to nullify the West’s victory by waging a war of attrition, which could be economically ruinous to the victors, along with the use of proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shiite minorities in Sunni-dominated Arab countries.
Since the Iranians have consistently threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the body of water through which passes 40% of the world’s oil production, this prospect, if it ever comes to fruition, could hasten a geopolitical realignment. With an ascending and confident China lurking in the background and a restless Russia wanting to recover the glory of the former Soviet Union in global affairs, the alternatives to a western faux pas are too apparent to ignore. In the end the winner would neither be Iran or the West but China and Russia which stand ready and prepare to pick up the pieces. What are the alternatives to a war with Iran? Indeed there are many: regime change, fomenting ethnic unrests, or acceptance of an eventual Iranian nuclear bomb.
Anyone clamoring for a regime change in Iran is guilty of shortsightedness. The Iranian regime, unlike the late Saddam Hussein’s abstract Baathist ideology or the former Soviet Union’s utopian communism, is rooted in religion, a powerful cohesive force and antidote to induced subversion from the outside world. Hence the idea of a popular revolt toppling the theocratic Iranian regime in the wake of a military defeat by the West is farfetched and overrated.
Since Iran is a multiethnic society with the dominant Persian at its core, fomenting ethnic unrests in Iran is an attractive option that could however destabilize the region in a grander scale. Encouraging Iranian Kurds to seek independence from Iran will affect neighboring Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Iran’s largest minority, the Azeris are well integrated within Iranian society, with the most prominent member being none other than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Besides, Armenia, a western outpost in the region does not wish to see a Greater Azerbaijan carved out of Iranian territory. Despite feeling marginalized, the Baluchis, a small minority agitating for autonomy in Southwestern Iran are better off in that country than they would be in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Finally, the least attractive option, acceptance of a nuclear Iran, may actually be the most beneficial to the West’s interests. Firstly, despite Ahmadimejad’s rhetoric, a nuclear Iran would not dare engage in military adventurisms against Israel and U.S interests, since Teheran will open itself up to retaliations by enemies possessing vastly nuclear arsenals, a credible deterrent by any measures. Secondly, Iran, wanting to catch up militarily with Israel and the U.S, will, like the former Soviet Union, bankrupt itself in an unwinnable arm race with the West. Thirdly, a nuclear Iran will help cement U.S presence in the region, since the Arabs, fearful and resentful of the Persians, their eternal enemy, would seek the protection of the U.S nuclear umbrella, akin to the situation with Japan and South Korea in Asia. Fourthly, a farfetched but not impossible scenario could be an entente between Israel and Arab nations against Iran, their common enemy.
In the age of nuclear drawdown, (Russia and the U.S are slashing their awesome stockpiles), any nation wanting or building this apocalyptic weapon represents a clear danger to peace. Engaging the proliferators however may be the only practicable course to preventing nuclear proliferation.