At Large

Persian Prospects and Pretensions

The ups and downs of becoming a regional power.

By 4.27.12

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Iran has constructed a strategy that poses a serious dilemma for the United States and the West in general. Imposing sanctions against Tehran may cause economic pain, but is, as George Friedman has written for STRATFOR, "…a pretext not to undertake the military action Iran really fears and that the United States does not want to take."

The failure of North Korea's supposedly improved long-range missile that was to have carried a satellite into orbit is not an error that Iran will make in its own missile development. The Iranian defense scientific team has been very careful not to rush its own long-range missile development and has benefited to a far greater extent from the past failures of their friendly Asian counterpart. It is just this comparatively more careful, less rushed weapon development program of Tehran that keeps the Pentagon planners focused.

The Israelis have planned against missile attacks from the east since their experience with Iraq during Desert Storm. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) war-gamed against Iranian missiles even before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Any encouragement the Israeli Defense Ministry gave to the U.S. plans to invade Iraq had to be accompanied by an awareness that America's ultimate withdrawal from Iraq would place Iran as a principal confrontation state.

Of course there supposedly was going to be a continued American presence in Iraq to counter the ability of Iran to join forces with Syria. It didn't happen. The Shia-dominated post-war Iraqi government and the Iran/Syria alliance, linked with the increasingly powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, has created an anti-Israeli Shia front all the way west to the Mediterranean.

While the Shia connection between Iran and Syria depends on the Assad family's remaining in power with their Shia-related Alawite tribal following, there is no reason to believe that the majority Sunni anti-Assad forces will have a different sense of enmity regarding Israel. Iran's easily adjusted foreign policy certainly can accommodate an anti-Israel position of a new Sunni-ruled Syria. Iranian financial assistance would go far to prolong its existing friendly relationship with a new non-Assad Damascus. This is, after all, the Middle East and Iran's skill at adjusting to new realities is historically proven.

Becoming a regional power is a clear ambition of Iran's leadership, even if the focal point of its nuclear weapon development is Israel. While holding itself out as the leading Islamic foe of Israel, Iran's greatest advantage in "going nuclear" may be in advancing itself ultimately in terms of global influence and thus, effectively, international power. In more simple terms the Iranian clerical leadership desires the same international role sought by the Pahlevi dynasty. The difference is that the Shah was encouraged by American foreign policy to take on this larger role as a regional power.

This irony has not been lost on the sector within Iran's older clerical community who view Iranian nuclear development as carrying at least as much danger to their own nation as posing a threat to Israel. It wasn't until after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini allowed reconsideration of proceeding with the nuclear power program begun by the ousted Shah. What began as a power-generating project not unexpectedly morphed into a weapons project encouraged by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani with the technical assistance of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan. But even that evolution was not inconsistent with the Shah's own dreams.

The Iranian leadership of today is not unmindful of the fact that the Saudis and Turks will quickly move to duplicate Tehran's nuclear weaponry as soon as any such project is operational. That's been a given in regional and global defense scenarios for years. Similarly accepted by Iranian defense strategists is that a future nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia is as dangerous potentially as Israel in that the Saudis have always feared Iran's ambitions in the Persian Gulf -- and are not inhibited by distance. Whether or not the fear is realistic matters less than the fact that it exists.

The mutual fear shared by Tehran and Riyadh was made manifest with the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council's military wing in 1984. Saudi and Pakistani official cooperation on nuclear matters has been in effect for many years, giving rise to speculation regarding secret plans of Islamabad and Riyadh to expand nuclear weapon liaison as Iran's advanced armament comes into existence.

It is sometimes overlooked that Iran fears the development of a nuclear weapon capability among its Gulf neighbors. This anxiety was expressed privately years ago by the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. seeking to justify his own country's claim that they had legitimate reason to fear the capability and intent of the monarchies on the other coast of their shared Persian Gulf. "The weaker party can be counted on to strike first in order to overcome the advantages of the stronger opponent," the diplomat said. The question exists as to who now is the weaker party? In a potential of nuclear-armed conflict no one wants to wait around to find out the answer.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.