Misjudging Iran's rationality is a recipe for more calamity

Would a nuclear-armed Iran really be a disaster? Or even a serious problem?

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Amid signs that negotiations between the international community and Iran over the Iranian nuclear programme are going nowhere, the debate as to whether the Islamic Republic should actually be permitted to develop nuclear weapons has resurfaced.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, the American scholar Kenneth Waltz maintained that, far from destabilising the Middle East, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would do precisely the contrary. Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region, not Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability, is what has fuelled instability, he writes, because power begs to be balanced. "What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge," Mr Waltz notes.

Many will disagree with Mr Waltz's assessment, and have long provided arguments disputing approaches such as his. And yet most of those opinions are unpersuasive, no matter how distasteful is the prospect of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

The first contention, and the one most often echoed by Israeli and American politicians, is that Iran's regime is fundamentally irrational. The premise is that mad mullahs rule in Tehran, and that their religious zeal may push them to press the button if it means that they can destroy Israel. Notions of deterrence, therefore, are irrelevant, because an eschatological ideology has taken over.

This line is useful in public statements, but if there is one thing that Israelis and Americans have learnt over the years, it is that Iran's leaders are eminently rational in the pursuit of their interests, and in the protection of their authority. A nuclear attack on Israel would be matched by more severe Israeli, and probably American, nuclear retaliation against Iran.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would be killed in a first strike against Israel. No Iranian leader will sign off on such a scheme, religion or no religion.

Iran has also shown exceptional rationality in working through proxies and in building up alliances far and wide to compensate for its shortcomings internationally. The Islamic Republic has, of course, transformed Lebanon's Hizbollah into a powerful military force on Israel's border; it has bolstered Muqtada Al Sadr in Iraq, and even rival groups to his; and it has extended its reach to Latin America and Africa. These patient endeavours are hardly those of a rabid regime hell bent on provoking Armageddon in the Middle East.

A second argument is that, while Iran may not deploy nuclear weapons against Israeli directly, it might encourage proxies or terrorist groups to do so. But as Mr Waltz writes, two things work against this: it would be easy to discover Iranian responsibility, and countries that develop nuclear weapons generally retain tight control over their arsenals. "After all, building a bomb is costly and dangerous. It would make little sense to transfer the product of that investment to parties that cannot be trusted or managed," he believes.

Iran's intention to closely monitor its weapons was plain during the Lebanon war of 2006, when the Iranians apparently gave final approval for use of, or even operated, Hizbollah's most advanced systems. But that begs another question, namely whether an entirely trusted Hizbollah might receive nuclear weapons from Iran.

Such an alternative cannot be discounted, but it is improbable. First, Israel would not hesitate to engage in a ferocious pre-emptive strike against Lebanon, perhaps even initiating a ground war to prevent such an outcome. And Lebanese society, with many Shia among them, recognising the potentially disastrous consequences of a nuclear-armed Hizbollah, would angrily challenge the party, undermining the national unity required to give a nuclear deterrent its value.

A third basis for opposing a nuclear Iran is that under a nuclear cover it would become more aggressive throughout the region. That's possible, but it's not clear that there is a correlation between aggressiveness and nuclear weapons. Without such weapons, Iran has already been exceptionally assertive in the region in the past years.

But would it be more so with a bomb? Mr Waltz believes that history shows otherwise. "[W]hen countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers."

The merits of the discussion are imposed by the stark reality that Iran, if it does indeed pursue nuclear weapons, will not be dissuaded from doing so whatever the political and economic pressures, assuming there is no change of regime. Nor will a military attack, Israeli or American, necessarily halt Iran's nuclear programme, even if it delays it for a time.

On the other hand, the cost of bombing Iran would be exceptionally high in the region and beyond, dividing the international community more than it already is.

Strangely, the United States has not factored Syria into its approach to the Iranian nuclear question. The Iranians will lose a great deal if the regime of President Bashar Al Assad falls. Yet few officials in Washington have asked whether an Iran minus its Syrian partner - with Hizbollah therefore isolated in an increasingly hostile environment and wary of waging war - would still constitute a major threat in the Levant, with or without nuclear weapons. In other words the situation in Syria may prove as decisive, if not more so, in defining Iranian influence than whether it has weapons it can never use.

Iran has done enough to worry its neighbours. However, careful and multifaceted political containment is the best way to oppose Tehran, not a military onslaught that will unite Iranians, strengthen their leaders, spawn great and small wars, and ultimately alter little. An Iran with the bomb is thoroughly undesirable, but it is not the existential calamity it has been made out to be.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling