Iran’s ongoing nuclear programme is a hot matter of debate in the chancelleries of the world and in the world’s public opinion: The Western world is accusing Iran of defying international norms and to proceed with uranium enrichment in order to possibly weaponise the enriched uranium. Iran defends its position by claiming that it needs uranium for “medical purposes” and for “electricity production”. Lately, Iran has announced that it will enrich uranium to %20.1But what is taking place behind the pro and contra shiny rhetoric that is taking place in world media?
First of all, it should be remembered that nuclear weapon is not like conventional weapons, it has unique peculiarities which confer a state “untouchability” in the competitive international security environment. This is called “nuclear deterrence” which is the ultimate guaranty against external intervention or a possible invasion.
Secondly, there is the fact that USA despite all her hyper-power, has not been able to threaten any country of nuclear deterrence with regime change or invasion. The episodic nuclearization of North Korea well illustrate the facts:While, Washington two years ago declared that “all options are on the table” for Iran6, they clearly renounced the military option against North Korea in favour of diplomatic negotiations, especially after the date of 9 October 2006 when North Korea tested a nuclear device.7 Thus an important lesson had been learnt: USA is unable or unwilling to militarily deal with Third World powers which effectively demonstrate that they have reached nuclear status. This lesson might have been, also grasped in Tehran, especially when they contemplate over the fate of neighbouring Iraq. USA and her allies had invaded Iraq on the rationale that Saddam Hussein’s regime was “producing” weapons of mass destruction. “Had Iraq really got nuclear deterrence, could the Allies so easily occupy and overthrow the Baath regime there?” the decision makers in Tehran might have pondered. In a historic setting, where the clerical regime in Tehran feels much less insecure due to the activities of reformist and opposition street movements after the disputed elections and open US and Israeli threats against the country, Iran’s decision makers might have concluded that the only way to safeguard the current regime and territorial integrity of the country is through nuclearization.
Thirdly, Iran is not an ordinary country: Iran is a regional power with influence from the Levant to the Persian Gulf and the Caspian basin. The so called “Shiite Crescent” increases Iran’s reach inside Iraq, since a substantial portion of Iraqi people is of the same Shiite denomination of Islam. 2 Iran controles huge reserves of oil and natural gas, especially in a historic era where power struggles for the control of strategic resources escalate to unprecedented heights. 3Also,Iran is a major power in the “currency wars” ongoing since the depreciation of US dolar started. As a major hydro-carbon exporter Iran has a big leverage on the fate of the US dollar,and hence the health of the US economy.4
Iran is also a revolutionary power, which has assumed itself a mantle to speak for the world’s Muslims since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This date has also a symbolic importance of the beginning of the cold US-Iranian relations. Moreover, Iran has developed throughout the revolutionary years, a very intimate political and economic ties with Middle East’s non-state actors like HAMAS and Hezbollah, which USA has listed in the terror list of the US State Department5, where Iran calls them “resistance organisations” against Israeli occupation
Fourthly, Iran's nuclearization efforts is closely tied to Israeli calculus of security and Israeli grand strategy. For Israel, who lives in a chronic insecurity environment, its nuclear option8 is the ultimate guaranty of its survival as a “nation-state” in case it is defeated in a conventional war. Thus Israel is unwilling to lose its monopoly of nuclear weapons in the region. Iran's possible nuclearization will directly challenge Israeli monopoly, creating a situation of “balance of terror” between Israel and Iran and further destabilise the region by intensifying the already initiated arms races.9 Also it is possible that the Iranian- Syrian axis and its non-state proxies might feel emboldened visavis Israel if the senior partner of the alliance is nuclearized. Iran might want to provide Syria a kind of nuclear umbrella against the Israeli deterrence.
Fifth, Iran's close collaboration with terroristic formations bring forth the apprehension that 'what if Iran provides one of these possible nuclear devices to non-state actors?' In a historic setting of post 9/11, 2001 and growing risk of an hyper-terrorism10 event in which nuclear weapons might be used, Iran's nuclear proliferation is not welcomed by the Western capitals. Iran's possible proliferation will add another element of risk to nuclear calculus when the USA is in an intense effort to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in case of a government failure.
Sixth, Iran’s proliferation might trigger a “chain reaction” of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: Turkey and Arab states might be forced to develop their own nuclear technology and possible deterrences in order to redress the nuclear imbalance of power. The Gulf Countries are especially vulnerable and weak visavis Islamic Republic of Iran and nowadays USA is taking military assistance programmes in order to embolden them against Tehran.
Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world is feeling intense pressure because of Iranian progress in nuclear technology. Egypt, re-initiated its civilian nuclear project in 2006 which was terminated after Chernobyl accident.11 Saudi Arabia is also very concerned and worried about the Iranian accomplishments 12 and the Saudis are also named as potential proliferators if Iran goes nuclear.
Turkey has an interesting role to play in the nuclear crisis. On the one hand, Turkey is against weaponisation of Iran’s uranium enrichment and informs Turkey’s “friendly warnings” to Tehran via diplomatic channels.13 On the other hand, Turkey who is pursuing Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s “zero problem with neighbours” policy, is definitely opposes the escalation of the crisis to a military intervention by USA and/or Israel. Turkey wants play as a diplomatic broker to ease the crisis. In the coming months, Turkish diplomacy will be tried in a difficult test because Turkey is a member of the UN Security Council and Iranian sanctions issue will certainly come to the attention of the Council. Turkey might be forced to show its hand in a situation which will set Turkey between her neighbour/commercial partner and her NATO allies.
Iran’s possible proliferation will have grave consequences for the current non-proliferation regime, especially in a historic setting where the Obama Administration declared its intent of creating a world without nuclear weapons. 14 It is ironic that the American nation which introduced the world with nuclear weapons in 6 August 1945 to start an initiative to eradicate all nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. However, when it is considered more deeply, it is seen that a nuclear-free world is to the advantage of USA, hence serves US national interests. This might explained as follows: The proliferation of nuclear weapons to the smaller countries of the world,especially the Third World, diminishes the US ability to intervene in those areas. In other words, nuclear deterrence started to act as “great equaliser” in international relations which automatically confer a “great power” status to would be proliferators. Historically thinking, a dialectical contradiction occurred between the US role as a world-hegemon and the trend of nuclear proliferation to more “backward” parts of the world.
The realists criticise Obama’s vision as too optimistic and idealistic and rightly so: Because let alone de facto nuclear powers, de jure nuclear states as defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty15, stil keep nuclear arsenals and continue their efforts at “vertical proliferation”,just in case. 16 The realist theory foresees that there is a constant mistrust among states and states tend to recourse to (nuclear)armament in order to survive in a anarchic international setting. The security dilemmas form as a result, and the nuclear arms races are too costly in a world where basic needs of most of the people could not be satisfied. This is another major historical contradiction which preoccupies our times.
Obama administration perhaps started this initiative in “good faith” however the legacy of the former Bush adminisrations and their “axis of evil” approach has not made the world more secure, but instigated the small powers to seek for survival guaranty in nuclear deterrence.
To sum up, Iranian nuclear crisis is no doubt the most pressing global issue of our times since all major powers have stakes in the conflict. It should also be remembered that, Iranian nuclear programme has dimensions regarding both domestic politics of Iran and Iran’s foreign policy regarding the region and her appeal to the Muslim world. Nuclear Project is made a “national cause” in Iran which the local politicians have to pay lip service, especially when one considers the power of Persian nationalism in the country. Also, Iran’s rhetorical and bold defiance of the West, Israel and world-hegemon USA is an effective public diplomacy move to gather sympathy and support both in the Third World and in the “Arab street”.
The stability and welfare of the Middle East as well as Israel’s security,the bigger picture of global nuclear non-proliferation regime and Obama administration’s new “nuclear-free world” initiatives depend on the moves will be made by Tehran’s decision makers. Historical responsibility fall on the decisionmakers in the capitals of Washington and Tehran to save the world from a difficult and convoluted situation. The key to the peaceful solution of the conflict lies in the alleviating the aura of distrust and insecurity between USA and Iran. As some analysts call a “Grand Bargain” between USA and Islamic Republic of Iran might then be imagined.
*Evren İŞBİLEN is a Ph.D student of International Relations at Middle East Technical University at Ankara,Turkey. He is the author of the book “Nükleer Satranç: İran’ın Nükleer Politikası ve Türkiye” which was published in 2009 from Ozan Yayıncılık. He is also engaged in free-lance Turkish/English translation.
1“Iran to enrich uranium to %20 as nuclear fears grow”,http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8503555.stm[9.02.2010].
2According to CIA estimates %60 to %65 of Iraqi popultation is of Shia denomination. “The CIA World Factbook”, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iz.html [9.02.2010].
3According to CIA estimates, Iran is the second largest holder of proven natural gas reserves, second to Russian Federation with 28 trillion cubic meter of natural gas. “The CIA World FactBook”, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html[9.02.2010].
4For the workings of the petro-dolar system and the struggles around petro-dolars, consult Bülent Gökay's and Paul Roger's “Irak,İran ve Petrodoların Sonu”.First edition.Translation by Gamze Erbil.İstanbul:Versus Yayınları,2006.
5“Background Information on Foreign Terrorist Organizations”,http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/rpt/fto/2801.htm[9.02.2010].
6“Bush says U.S prefers diplomacy on Iran's nuclear efforts”, New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/world/americas/03iht-prexy.1.14199650.html[9.02.2010].
7“Nuclear Weapons Programme”, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/index.html[9.02.2010].
8Israel never publicly confirms or denies its nuclear capability but it is a known secret for decades.
9Evren İşbilen, “Nükleer Satranç: İran'ın Nükleer Politikası ve Türkiye”, Ozan Yayıncılık:İstanbul,2009.p.165.
10For such scenarios, consult Graham Allison, “Nükleer Terörizm:Önlenebilir Nihai Felaket.” Translated by Güneş Ayas. Salyangoz Yayınları, İstanbul,2006.
11 “Egypt's Nuclear Imbroglio”,http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?lng=en&id=106118[10.02.2010].
12 Rachel Bronson, “Bronson: Saudis ‘Deeply Concerned’ Over Iran’s Nuclear Program”, www.cfr.org/publication/10328/bronson.html[10.02.2010].
13 Turkey is apprehensive that Iran’s becoming a nuclear power will alter the delicate balance of power between the two countries which traditionally kept the peace on Turkey’s eastern borders for centuries. It should be remembered that Turkey oldest border is her eastern border which was set up by the Treaty of Kasr-ı Şirin, in1639. Notice that this date one and a half century earlier than the establishment of USA in 1,776.
14 “Obama promotes nuclar-free world”,http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7983963.stm#graphic[10.02.2010].
15 ‘The Big Five’ or the ‘Nuclear Club’ are comprised of USA,Russian Federation(former Soviet Union), Britain, France and China as implied in the NPT. http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html[10.02.2010].
16 “Vertical Proliferation” refers to the efforts of the existing nuclear powers to enchance the quality and quantity of their nuclear arsenals as opposed to the “horizontal proliferation” of new-comers to the ‘Nuclear Club’.