What would the world look like under the shadow of an Iranian nuclear arsenal? Does Iran seek nuclear capability merely as an instrument of dissuasion against what it sees as powerful and threatening enemies? Or is the bomb an instrument to fulfil Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East? Can Iran be deterred much like the Soviet Union was?
To understand Iran's goals, we must grasp the nature of Iran's regime.
Thirty years after its Revolution, the Islamic Republic remains devoted to its founding ideals - not just the establishment of an Islamic order inside Iran, but also its export to the region, in open antagonism with the established Sunni Arab powers, and beyond, in the name of a Shia brand of anti-Western revolutionary zeal. Iran's revolutionary worldview poses a direct challenge to Sunni dominance in the Islamic world and Sunni monarchic rule in the heartland of Islam - Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. It proclaims Iranian leadership in a worldwide front of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist forces and it seeks to limit or nullify the influence of its enemies in the region and beyond. The new world that Iran seeks to create will be dominated by Tehran. It will be characterised by fierce competition with the US for hegemony over the Gulf and by efforts to cement alliances to confront Iran's ideological antagonists: America and Israel.
In the context of Islam, Iran's aim is to redress what is clearly perceived as a terrible injustice of Islamic history - the dominance of Sunni over Shia Islam. Traditional Shia Islam sees the origins of this schism - the martyrdom in Karbala of Ali, the Prophet's grandson, at the hands of his political adversaries - as a tragedy to mourn. Iran's fiery brand of revolutionary Shi'ism views the martyrdom of Ali as an injustice to be redressed.
But this should not be construed, simplistically, as evidence of Shia hatred for Sunni Muslims or proof of the irreconcilable nature of the Shia-Sunni divide. The combination of the divine and the subversive is the recipe that makes Iran a country constantly searching for a new regional status quo. Iran's revolution sought a synthesis between Islam and revolutionary Marxist politics that transcended both Iran and Shi'ism. Its goal was to put Iran at the helm of a revolutionary front stretching across the barrier of Persian/Arab, Shia/Sunni and East/West divisions in the name of a common struggle against imperialism, the dominance of Western values and their underlying international economic and political order.
Iran's nuclear ambitions do not necessarily serve the logic of apocalyptic politics, though its rhetoric suggests otherwise. The fact is that an Iranian bomb would enable Tehran to fulfil the goals of the revolution without using it. A nuclear bomb is a force multiplier that, as US President Barack Obama aptly said, constitutes a "game changer". Iran's success will change the Middle East for ever-and for the worse.
Under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, terrorists will be able to act with impunity and its neighbours will enter into a dangerous arms race. Less understood are the dynamics that will emerge even if Iran chooses not to use the bomb against its enemies. It matters little that Tehran may act rationally. The possibility of an uneasy peace that a nuclear equilibrium may guarantee tells us next to nothing about the conventional proxy wars that nuclear powers wage against one another. During the Cold War, the price of equilibrium was the recognition of spheres of influence. If Iran goes nuclear, the Western world will have to negotiate a Middle East Yalta with Tehran - one that may entail a US withdrawal, an unpleasant bargain for the smaller principalities on the Gulf's shores and an unacceptable one for Israel and Lebanon's Christians.
And in the end, we may not avoid a conflict either. Even the Soviet Union and the US teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuba missile crisis. It happened between two countries which knew each other well, had diplomatic relations and kept important official and discreet channels of communication open even as they competed for ideological dominance. Iran and many of its prospective nuclear adversaries do not share such luxuries - there are no Israeli or American embassies in Tehran, no hotline between the Supreme Leader and the Saudi King. The potential for misreading, misunderstanding and miscalculating is immense. We cannot afford this risk. That is why Iran must be stopped.
*Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is the director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute and the author of Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb (Profile Books)
He will deliver public lectures in Perth, Western Australia as follows:
Prospects for a Palestinian State
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
6:00pm for 6:30pm start
Woolnough Lecture Theatre, Geography Building, University of Western Australia
Israel confronting a challenging strategic environment
Wednesday 10th June, 2009 at 8:00pm
Jewish Community Centre (Admission: $5.00)