The significance of the Iranian threat

One of the major developments dominating the Middle East since the early 1980s is the rise of the Iranian threat. It is perceived to be directed at Iran’s neighbors, at moderate Arab regimes, at American and western interests in the Middle East, and at Israel. Many Israeli leaders regard the Iranian challenge as the gravest strategic threat facing Israel. This perception emanates from the fear that the likely acquisition of nuclear weapons by the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, which calls explicitly for the destruction of Israel, may result in the attempt to use these weapons against Israel.

For the time being, the Iranian threat directed at Israel is relatively limited. For the last two years Iran has an operational ballistic missile, the "Shehab-3", which can hit targets inside Israel. Iran can also encourage terrorism against Israel–either by encouraging Hizballah to use its large rocket array against northern Israel, or by growing involvement in Palestinian terrorism.

The significant change might occur within a few years–if and when Iran acquires nuclear weapons. Since August 2002, many details of the Iranian clandestine nuclear program have become known. It was revealed that Iran has built a series of undeclared nuclear facilities, and has for many years conducted clandestine nuclear activities related to uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, all critical for the development of nuclear weapons. More importantly, western intelligence communities concluded that Iran was progressing toward nuclear weapons much more rapidly than was previously believed. These communities now estimate that Iran can acquire nuclear weapons within three to four years.

These revelations have brought about heavy international pressure on Iran to stop its suspected nuclear activities. The pressure was exerted by European governments that finally understood that Iran had been cheating them regarding its nuclear program. They were backed by an American demand to refer the issue to the UN Security Council, with an eye to imposing sanctions on Iran for the violation of its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The American administration also indicated that it did not rule out the use of the military option to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

These pressures have been augmented by the changes in Iran’s strategic neighborhood following the American military operation in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Iran is now surrounded on almost all sides by countries with regimes linked to the US, most of which have American forces deployed on their soil. America’s determination to use force against radical regimes and the weakening of the radical group in the region have also increased the US threat toward Iran. The American pressures have been translated into a series of demands presented to Iran: end the WMD programs; halt the attempts to increase Iranian influence in Afghanistan and especially among the Iraqi Shi’ites, thus undermining American efforts to stabilize the regimes in both countries; and stop involvement in terrorism and subversion against US allies, and specifically end the ties with al-Qaeda operatives, who fled from Afghanistan into Iran.

Under these pressures Iran has backed down, at least temporarily, especially regarding the nuclear issue. Iran was obliged by the International Atomic Energy Agency to uncover additional components of its nuclear program and accept tighter inspection of its nuclear sites. Moreover, in November 2004 Iran and three European governments concluded an agreement–for the second time–regarding Iran’s suspected nuclear activities. According to the agreement, Iran will suspend all its uranium enrichment and plutonium separation activities.

The agreement has deferred the crisis pertaining to Iran’s nuclear activities. It also reflects Iran’s sensitivity to its international posture. More importantly, the suspension, if protracted, might prolong the timetable for Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is clear, however, that Iran’s concessions are a tactical move, aimed at easing the pressure on it and driving a wedge between the European and American governments.

The agreement speaks about suspending nuclear activities, not ending them. The duration of the suspension is linked to the duration of the upcoming negotiations between Iran and the European governments regarding nuclear, technological, economic and security issues. There are no indications that Iran has made a strategic decision to change course and abandon its quest for a nuclear bomb. It should be assumed therefore that sooner or later Iran will resume its suspected nuclear activities. If and when this happens, Iran will again face the threat of sanctions, and perhaps even of military moves aimed at halting its nuclear program.

If, despite these pressures, Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the regional rules of the game are likely to change. There are good reasons why Iran will not use nuclear weapons against any country. Iran is probably developing its nuclear capabilities in order to deter other countries–especially the US–from attacking it; and Iran itself is deterred by overwhelming American superiority.

Yet, even if Iran’s nuclear strategy is likely to be defensive-deterrent, not offensive–and this remains to be seen–there are still other concerns regarding Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran is likely to behave more aggressively toward various countries, including Israel. A nuclear capability would strengthen Iran’s status as the cornerstone of radical elements, and is liable to force moderate regimes to align their policy more closely to that of Iran and harm their relations with Israel. And the acquisition of nuclear weapons may encourage Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to try and develop their own nuclear capabilities, and thus accelerate the nuclear arms race in the region.