Towards a Nuclear Middle East

Within a matter of months, Iran could be in possession of nuclear weapons. The evidence for this was considered last week here. This is a state perfectly content to finance, train and arm with conventional weapons terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. This is a state with political discourse dominated by nationalism.

These are the two major impacts from Iran’s decision: nuclear proliferation, and the possibility of terrorist organisations obtaining weapons of mass destruction. It is often easy to forget these consequences and simply focus on the prospect of the Ayatollah with his finger on the button, hoping that mutually assured destruction will save us.

Regional players will, over time, feel their influence curbed by a nuclear Iran and seek to redress the imbalance. However, Barry Posen of MIT argued that the sale of terrorist weapons is unlikely amongst self-interested states and deems proliferation manageable through American influence around the Gulf.

Although Egypt and Saudi Arabia are reliant on international allies for many reasons and will continue to be so, it will become difficult politically for their leaders not to respond. Their development of nuclear weapons would place pressure on their relationship with the US, but there is no guarantee they can be convinced to remain in such an asymmetrical position.

There is also no forecasting American influence fifteen years into the future. Even if we could, these arguments that deny proliferation rely on states in the Middle East being content to entrust their security to external allies.

It would be illogical for a state to do so, given that the time necessary to develop nuclear weapons is so long. If states in the Middle East admit the possibility of being unable to turn to the US for security guarantees in ten years, then it would be in their interests to begin development of nuclear weapons right now. These arguments also ignore Syria.

The resulting cascade effect has disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, Iran’s frosty relations with so many states in the Middle East are the certain route to nuclear proliferation, when coupled with the regional power dynamics and compounded by the likely increased beligerence from Tehran.

Given the fraught nature of diplomacy in the region, these events exponentially increase the probability of nuclear confrontation or accidental launch if allowed to develop unchecked. Poor control mechanisms and the underlying instability in the region could place nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, even if this is not intentional. Pakistan’s risky behaviour during stand-offs with India provide a prime example.

The US, in the even of a terrorist attack, could never under such circumstances prove compliance from the Iranian government. It would be impossible to identify the perpetrators of this ‘dirty bomb’, and then trace the origin of the weapon, when there are so many nuclear weapons in the world unaccounted for (such as those of the former USSR).

If Iran are simply motivated by the desire to negotiate on an equal par with the US, and many commentators agree, then threatening that state with annihilation and disarmament through force is counter-productive. It just increases the political will to develop these weapons, when the state of Iran is treated so disrespectfully. President Obama would be better to treat them with respect to reduce political incentives.

Even if the Iranian regime can be rationally deterred in the event that they obtain a nuclear device, the same cannot be said of all actors who might be incentivised to obtain weapons under such circumstances. Iran might not be the nuclear power that we’re afraid of right now. But the Middle East full of nuclear weapons is a frightening prospect, and Iran is just the first step.

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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