No more than five years from now, and probably fewer than five, Iran likely will cross the threshold to become a nuclear weapons state. Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability will significantly affect the politics of the Middle East—for instance, Israel’s four-decade-old regional monopoly on nuclear weapons will be a thing of the past. Yet the region’s military balance of power will not be transformed. In particular, Israel will continue to enjoy military superiority over all its potential enemies, and will maintain the support of the world’s only superpower, the United States.
The circumstances under which Iran acquires the bomb will carry important consequences. If Israel or the United States attacks Iran in an attempt to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, Tehran is likely to become even more determined to get the bomb—and, when it does get it, Iran may be more inclined to use it. If Iran surprises the world with an unexpected nuclear test, as India did in 1998, the international community will react with shock and perhaps impose more sanctions. If, on the other hand, Iran simply acquires the capability and begins to build a nuclear arsenal without either a test or any public acknowledgement that it has crossed the nuclear threshold, as Israel is believed to have done in the 1960s, the impact on the region’s military balance and political dynamics will occur in slow motion.
Assuming Iran is not attacked by either the United States or Israel, its acquisition of nuclear weapons will constitute a major achievement for the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Iran will become more or less invulnerable to invasion, and this will have political implications.
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The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.