Should Iran's nuclear ambitions be such a big deal?

Global powers should be worrying about Tehran's destabilising activities in the Arab world

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2021, file photo, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with spokesman of Iran's atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi upon his arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport, Iran. Iran has said it plans to cease its implementation of the "Additional Protocol," a confidential agreement between Tehran and the IAEA reached as part of the landmark nuclear accord that grants the U.N. inspectors enhanced powers to visit nuclear facilities and watch Iran's program. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Once again, gallons of ink are being spilled on articles arguing for and against US efforts to secure a new nuclear weapons pact with Iran. Will the regime in Tehran return to the talks? Will Washington agree to Iranian terms (and vice versa)? And at this point, do the Iranians even want a deal?

While at times interesting, the entire discussion is focused on an issue that I feel is a dangerous diversion. Similar to my thoughts during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA – as the 2015 nuclear deal is called – I find myself asking again why we are expending so much political capital, imposing so many sanctions, and involving so many important countries to address a problem that doesn't yet exist, while doing nothing to address real problems plaguing the region.

The simple fact is that Iran doesn't have a nuclear bomb and, as difficult as it may be for some to accept, even if it did have one, the chances of using it are next to zero. Meanwhile, the real problem posed by Iran is the meddlesome role it is playing across the region. Let's look more closely at both of these matters.

First, Iran has no bomb and even if it did, it is unlikely to use it for two reasons. In the age of "mutually assured destruction”, Iran’s use of a nuclear warhead would result in its becoming a radioactive parking lot within minutes. Even if it were not flattened by a counterattack, its use of such a destructive weapon would ensure not only worldwide condemnation, but also repercussions that would mark the end of the so-called Islamic Republic. Further, Iran could never use a nuclear bomb because of the consequences of the explosion’s fallout. If it bombed Israel, for instance, radioactivity (depending on the direction the wind was blowing) would also take countless Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese lives, and possibly many others as well. In fact, if Iran were to use a nuclear bomb in its neighbourhood, the impact would devastate the entire region, including Iran itself.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, left, with then US secretary of state John Kerry, right, in Vienna in 2014. The 2015 nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, was flawed and limited. Reuters

For these same reasons, Israel, despite reportedly possessing hundreds of nuclear warheads, has never used them in any of its many wars with its Arab neighbours, nor can it use them in the future. The same is true for India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Given this, the only apparent reason for possessing such a weapon is the bragging rights. In reality, our obsessive preoccupation with Iran's programme is giving it more attention and bragging rights than Iran would ever get from actually having a bomb it couldn't use. Iran sits centre stage with all of the world's powers meeting with and cajoling its leaders. It's exactly the type of attention "bad boys" crave and we're giving it to them, while not paying attention to the really dangerous things Iran is doing across the region.

Ironically, it was Israel that pushed the Iranian "nuclear threat" to the front burner. When the Obama administration took the bait and negotiated the JCPOA, Israel led the charge against the deal. There are two reasons for this: first, Israel and Iran need each other as foils; and second, their intended audience is the Arab world that lies between them.

When Israel was bombing Lebanon during the 2006 conflict, Iran was able to play to the Arab masses saying: "Look at what Israel's doing and only our ally, Hezbollah, is standing against them and the US." As a result, a little more than a decade ago, Iran and Hezbollah had extraordinarily high favourable ratings in most Arab countries. But during the past decade, as Iran's machinations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have become increasingly clear, Iran's ratings plummeted across the region and some Arabs came to see Israel as a possible source of support against Tehran’s meddlesome behaviour.

A woman sits near a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Khiam, near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, in May. Reuters

It was for this reason that I could never understand why so much effort was expended on stopping Iran's nuclear programme while ignoring its dangerous and unsettling regional role. These are exactly the issues we should be addressing.

At this point, the P5+1 nations and their negotiators should focus on ways of assisting Iraqis and Lebanese in building non-sectarian governments that can rein in Iranian-backed militias, bringing them under the control of their respective governments. How the US polls in both countries makes clear that strong majorities support this. There should also be a concerted effort in Yemen to stop the Houthi assault on Marib and press for negotiations that can bring an end to that years-long conflict.

At home, Iran has problems on all sides that must be addressed, facing unrest with their substantial Azeri population in the north and their Arab citizens in the Ahwaz region. Iran also faces the renewed threat from the unsettling situation resulting from the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. And, if that were not enough, young Iranians in major cities continue to demand more jobs and personal freedoms.

These are the issues that need to be on the table. The US should direct diplomacy and apply economic pressure on efforts to make Iran see the benefits of becoming a responsible citizen in the region by reining in its meddlesome behaviour and putting its own people's needs first. Such an effort might not yield immediate results or even work at all. But it would at least be focused on the right issues.

Published: November 2nd 2021, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National