Iran: Middle East May be Bound for a Destabilizing Explosion
As a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs and the Chung-Ju Yung Fellow for Policy Studies, Peter Brookes develops and communicates The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign policy and national security affairs through media appearances, research, published articles, congressional testimony and speaking engagements.
Since joining Heritage in 2002, Brookes has become a major presence in print media with more than 300 published articles in at least 50 newspapers, journals and magazines. He is a columnist for the nation's fifth largest newspaper, the New York Post . His column also runs in several other domestic and foreign newspapers, and on numerous news and opinion Web sites.
Brookes also is a force in electronic media as well, with at least 1,300 appearances as a commentator on TV and radio. Channels he has appeared on include ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, NPR, BBC, CBC, VOA, Al Hurra and Radio Free Asia. He has hosted major market talk radio programs, including XM satellite radio.
Before coming to Heritage, Brookes served in the George W. Bush administration as the Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs, where he was responsible for U.S. defense policy for 38 countries and five bilateral defense alliances. Prior to the Bush administration, he worked as a Professional Staff Member with the House Committee on International Relations. He also served with the CIA, the State Department at the United Nations, and in the private sector defense and intelligence industry.
Brookes is a decorated military veteran, having served on active duty with the Navy in Latin America, Asia, and Middle East in aviation and intelligence billets. Brookes has more than 1,300 flight hours aboard the Navy's EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft. Now a retired reserve Commander, during his reserve career he served with the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Naval Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of the Vice President, working as an intelligence analyst, strategic debriefer, Russian language interpreter, defense attaché, policy adviser and Associate Professor at the Joint Military Intelligence College.
He has traveled to more than 50 countries on five continents and has served as an international election observer in Indonesia and Cambodia . He has served in political positions at the local, state and national level, including being a drafter of the Republican National Committee's 2000 foreign policy platform at the Philadelphia convention. Brookes served as an adviser to the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns on foreign policy and has briefed the 2008 presidential candidates.
- Mr. Brookes, Iran is involved in a nuclear weapons program. And the world can not anything with it make?
- With the exception of a handful of capitals friendly to Tehran, and of course the Iranian regime itself, few now dispute the notion that the Islamic Republic of Iran is involved in a nuclear weapons program—and one that will, unfortunately, come to fruition in the next few years. News of Iran’s seemingly-unstoppable drive for nuclear status is no real surprise, of course; despite four UN Security Council Resolutions condemning Iran and imposing punitive economic sanctions, Tehran continues to enrich uranium for those weapons virtually unhindered.
Making matters worse, Iran recently informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would move beyond the three to four percent uranium enrichment level normally used for reactor fuel, alarmingly increas-ing enrichment to 20 percent.1 While not illegal under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, there is no benign reason to enrich uranium beyond those levels, leaving little doubt about Teh-ran’s strategic intentions. It clearly puts Tehran on track to being able to enrich uranium to 80 percent or more—the levels needed for a nuclear weapon.
Putting a finer point on it, Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta told an American national news program this summer that “[w]e think they [Iran] have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.” The U.S. intelligence community now believes Iran will be able to weaponize this fissile material in the next one to two years.
American officials aren’t the only ones worried. Intense suspicion over Iran’s nuclear program, combined with nervousness over Tehran’s already-capable short-range and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal, is increasingly palpable in the Middle East, where a dangerous domino effect is taking shape.
- Tehran’s efforts are not taking place in isolation from the rest of the region?
- Commentators tend to focus on the United States, Israel, and Iran in the seemingly quixotic struggle to prevent Tehran from joining the once exclusive nuclear weapons club. But Tehran’s efforts are not taking place in isolation from the rest of the region; Iran’s nuclear program increasingly is garnering the rapt attention of countries in the Middle East.
The consequences are potentially profound. When a country becomes a nuclear weapon state, its clout, leverage, prestige, and even legitimacy are bolstered significantly, often at the expense of others. In addition, the development of a nuclear deterrent, depending on the circumstances, can provide a state with a new degree of freedom to undertake policies that it might not otherwise be able to conduct due to political, economic or conventional military opposition. A dramatic development such as the one embodied in a nuclear breakout can shift existing balances of power, destabilize security situations, create or increase existing tensions, and infuse regional dynamics with additional levels of uncertainty. Tehran’s neighbors are justifiably concerned about the effect a new nuclear weapons state will have on the neighborhood—and how such a development will affect their own respective national security interests.
Not surprisingly, questions regarding Iranian behavior in a post proliferation environment are now generating significant discussion and debate, especially in the Middle East.
Geopolitically, some Sunni Arab states clearly feel threatened by the rise of a Shi’a Persian superpower in their midst, and are worried about Middle Eastern leadership shifting towards Tehran and away from the region’s traditional centers of power, Cairo and Riyadh. Once in possession of a bomb, Iran could quickly become the region’s dominant state, reasserting its long-lost place as a historical, cultural and political hegemon in the Middle East and even South Asia. It might also see an opportunity to redress what it perceives as pernicious discrimination against Shi’ism by Sunni-led states, animating Shi’ite minorities along the Persian Gulf, across the Middle East—and beyond.
And, less challenged by conventionally- armed rivals, a nuclear Iran might flex some military muscle in the Persian Gulf, affecting commerce and the flow of energy through the Strait of Hormuz, a major regional chokepoint.
Of course, its new status might also encourage Tehran to increase its support for terrorist proxies such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, further roiling the region’s security situation, especially for archnemesis Israel. If its recent, inflammatory language is to be believed, a nuclear Iran also might look for opportunities to engage Israel directly in some way on a conventional military level or, worse yet, opt for the unspeakable nuclear option. And while Tehran has been quietly meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan for some time now, possession of a nuclear bomb might prompt it to play an even larger, more destabilizing role in those places.
And because they do, countries in the region are taking steps to protect their national interests and address the security dilemma that Tehran is creating in the Middle East.
- Whether it is possible nuclear weapons spread across the Middle East?
- In just the last four years, no fewer than fourteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa have announced their intention to pursue civilian nuclear programs—programs which, irrespective of their stated purpose, many believe are a hedge against the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
Of course, it is possible that the intentions of these states are honest ones, spurred on by domestic energy needs. Not all countries are blessed with abundant natural resources, and consequently could be seeking an efficient and durable source of energy. There are even those that may be attempting to diversify their energy sources beyond simply oil and natural gas, or seeking to free up their energy reserves for profitable international export instead of costly domestic consumption. In addition, due to increasing concerns about climate change, some have come to see nuclear power, once considered an expensive investment, as an attractive alternative to fossil fuels, due to its reduced emissions and potential cost efficiency.
In some cases, it could also be an issue of national pride—a matter of keeping up with the nuclear Joneses; or even an effort to demonstrate to your neighbors and the world the scientific and technical achievement involved in developing, building, and safely operating a peaceful, civilian nuclear power industry.
Of course, developing an indigenous nuclear industry is a significant undertaking. A nuclear reactor can take a decade and three to ten billion dollars to build. Even more time and money is required if a full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment capacity, is desired. But such work is transformative. The development of scientific and technical capabilities for a civilian nuclear power program is instrumental to the subsequent building of the bomb. Even if it remains in compliance with the tenets of the NPT, a state can go quite a long way toward developing a nuclear program with a potential military dimension. Having the necessary nuclear infrastructure, especially that which would provide for a full nuclear fuel cycle, would allow concerned states to offset an Iranian nuclear breakout by possessing the theoretical potential to create a nuclear arsenal themselves.
Egypt, the longstanding leader of the Arab world, operates two research reactors, has significant scientific and technical capabilities on nuclear matters, and is interested in nuclear power. Of course, developing a nuclear program with a military dimension is a possibility; however, doing so would surely hurt its ties with United States, could increase tensions with neighboring Israel, and drain less-than-plentiful government coffers.
Other countries that have expressed an interest in nuclear power, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, are likely doing so because of more local concerns. None of them have significant indigenous energy sources, and as a result are focused on the development of alternative energy sources. But that isn’t true for all of the states that have launched atomic plans. Kuwait and Qatar have significant holdings of oil and natural gas, which makes their respective decisions to pursue a nuclear program difficult to explain in a context other than that of a hedge against Iran’s growing capabilities.
And in some cases, these nuclear dreams have started to become reality. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country with the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the Middle East, last year completed agreement with the United States, paving the way for heightened nuclear cooperation and technology transfer between Washington and Abu Dhabi. During the Bush administration, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia also signed Memoranda of Understanding related to nuclear cooperation that—if pursued by the Obama White House—could lead to additional agreements such as the one struck with the UAE.
A shift in Ankara’s sentiments toward Tehran could incite interest in a nuclear program with a military dimension. And the current strains in Turkey’s existing relationships with the United States and Europe may make such a decision less taboo than in the past.
- And Syria?..
- Then there is Syria. Damascus was caught with its hands in the nuclear cookie jar when Israel destroyed its undeclared nuclear facility at al-Kibar back in 2007. That plant—likely a reactor capable of producing fissile material—was being built with North Korean assistance. Of course, Syria’s nuclear activities are not focused on checking Iran; indeed, given the enduring partnership between the two countries, Syria might be receiving nuclear assistance from Iran. Rather, Syria’s strategic efforts are directed toward Israel.
And, of course, Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, has also taken steps to deal with the growing challenge, including acquiring bunker-busting JDAMs and conducting air exercises simulating a raid on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Rumors also abound about the possibility of the Israeli Defense Forces using Saudi airspace to conduct a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, which now seems increasingly plausible considering the poor state of relations between Israel and its onetime ally, Turkey, whose border once provided an alternative route to Iran.
Israel is also playing defense. Squarely in the crosshairs of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, it has developed and deployed the Arrow missile defense system, and is now seeking to expand its missile defense capabilities with a three-tiered program designed to deal with a full spectrum of rocket and missile threats.
- Range and depth of Iran’s nuclear program makes a limited military strike a difficult undertaking?
- There is little doubt today that Iran’s rise, especially its troubling nuclear work, has stirred up a sandstorm of interest and activity. But whether Iran can actually be stopped from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold to become the tenth nuclear weapons state is the subject of significant debate. The believed range and depth of Iran’s nuclear program makes a limited military strike a difficult undertaking—one which may delay, but not derail, Tehran from its goal of assuming a seat at the global nuclear table.
One thing almost all observers do agree on, however, is that once Iran goes nuclear, the Middle East will never be the same. Iran’s nuclearization will, by necessity, entail a significant shift in the regional balance of power. While all parties would prefer a peaceful, diplomatic solution that would keep Iran’s nuclear genie in the bottle, many in the region are taking deliberate steps to counterbalance what some see as the inevitable emergence of a nuclear Iran. Unless Tehran changes course, or is compelled to abandon its nuclear program, the Middle East may be bound for a destabilizing explosion of nuclear weapons-capable states and more dangerous times ahead. And that would be in the interest of no one—not even Iran.