‘A nuclear Iran is not just Israel’s problem. Stopping its programme is a paramount Western interest’

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Attending a world food programme summit in Rome on June 3, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared that Europe was suffering because of the “Zionists” — but went on to reassure his audience that, though Europe was “bearing” the political burden of this “false regime”, Israel would soon cease to exist “with or without” the involvement of Iran. Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric is sure to strengthen the view that Iran’s nuclear programme is a problem for Israel — but not necessarily a threat to the West, which can afford to live side by side with a nuclear Iran and somehow deter it, as it once deterred the Soviet Union.

Even if deterrence spares the West from a nuclear holocaust, what would the world look like if Iran acquired nuclear weapons — as the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests it will? The Soviet Union, it should be recalled, gained nuclear status long after it ceased to be a revolutionary power — and it still managed, under its nuclear umbrella, to act with impunity in many corners of the world. Iran, by contrast, is a revolutionary power, bent on trying to upset the status quo of the region — and beyond.

As a power bent on exporting revolution abroad, Iran is not only involved in destabilising Iraq and sabotaging Western efforts to pacify Afghanistan. It also sees itself as the sponsor of radical Islam throughout the region — whether Shia or Sunni — and the champion of all radical causes. It is therefore involved in various crisis points — not only in Iraq, where Iran trains, funds and arms Shia militias, but in Lebanon and Gaza too, sponsoring Palestinian terrorism, destabilising Lebanon’s fragile democracy, rearming Hezbollah and offering a strategic alliance to Syria. Everywhere one sees trouble in the area, Iran is involved. Even in Afghanistan, Iran is supplying its former Sunni foe, the Taliban, in order to check the West on its borders.

With a nuclear umbrella, Tehran would act with even more impunity and guarantee that no effort to quell these crises would ever come to fruition unless it got Iran’s blessing first. Western efforts to bring a modicum of stability to the area and ensure that pro-Western regimes are not toppled would become even more remote. If Iran’s propensity for mischief is so high now, a nuclear-capable Iran would be even more agg­ressive in its ­actions to assert its hege­mony beyond its ­borders.

In the wake of Iran’s ascendance, regional powers would be confronted with tough options. The US nuclear umbrella would not be enough to protect the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan from Iran’s bullying. Their rulers would have to choose between falling under Tehran’s sphere of influence, or upping the ante and going nuclear themselves. Not that these two options are mutually exclusive — a warming-up to Tehran will no doubt happen if the West fails to confront the Iranian threat effectively as a matter of survival — but the risk of proliferation is very real. Many Middle Eastern countries — 13 at the latest count — are likely to pursue their own nuclear programmes in response to Iran, triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and casting a giant shadow over the oil-rich region.

During the Cold War, the principle of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) ensured a fragile balance between the West and the Communist bloc. Even then, with just two blocs and lines of communication to fend off crises, MAD could malfunction — as was the case during the Cuban missile crisis. This time, though, with several nuclear powers trying to balance one another, MAD might go mad. There is also the risk that some of the likely proliferators could be toppled by radical Islamic movements or, just as bad, lend a nuclear bomb in a suitcase to non-state actors. Instead of one erratic revolutionary power with nukes, we might soon have several. Can we risk a world where Iran’s warmongering may drive oil prices through the roof? Can we afford a miscalculation that would bring a nuclear winter over the biggest known oil reserves for cent­uries to come?

Meanwhile, proliferation would spill into Europe — Turkey is a likely candidate to join the nuclear club in response to Iran’s ambitions. And a nuclear Turkey would bode ill both for the future of the Nato alliance and for Europe’s ability to remain nuclear-free.

This, then, is what the world would look like were Iran to go nuclear: our capitals would be threatened by nuclear ballistic missiles from Iran; there would be many unstable and unpredictable nuclear powers on our doorstep; our collective security mechanisms would be put under severe strain, or break down altogether; and the strategically vital region of the Middle East would fall under the spell of a revolutionary Islamic power determined to export its world-view far and wide.

The tidal wave unleashed by the rise of a new nuclear power in the East is not just Israel’s problem, then. Stopping it remains a paramount Western interest.