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Too close for comfort
As Iran prepares to enter the final stretch of its nuke development, the frisson of concern and even panic in Israel and the US is palpable. The issue uppermost in their minds is not that Iran will come to acquire nuclear strike capability. Rather, their cause of agitation has more to do with the regional strategic advantage that Iran will gain in the process. The US has been pulling at all the levers to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear goal, but with little effect. US President Barack Obama could not have been more unequivocal in warning Iran about the consequences of persevering with its nuclear ambition. “What we’re going to be doing is to continue to engage internationally with Iran. If we can resolve this diplomatically, that’s a more lasting solution, but if not I continue to keep all options on the table.”
What are these options available to the US and Israel? The US is not in a position, economically, to wage an all-out war with Iran. That leaves it with the option of going for strategic air strikes on Iranian installations, which will, at best, only delay the process of nuclear empowerment for Iran but won’t fix the problem. Not only will it further constrict the room for diplomacy, exercising the air strike option will most likely push Iran to double down on its nuclear game plan.
While there are legitimate apprehensions about Iran’s nuclear mission, the US should not give in to paranoia. As in the case of Iraq, which the US foolishly came to believe was developing biological weapons of mass destruction, fears about Iran developing its Islamic nuclear bomb with the devious aim of wiping off Israel are surely misplaced and overblown. Iran is no match to the Jewish state even in conventional military terms and it will take generations of nuclear physics wizardry for it to come anywhere near to matching the nuclear potency of either Israel or the US. Even if Iran succeeds in making a nuclear bomb, it would not, unless its government were to lose sanity, be so presumptuous as to risk military hara-kiri by taking a swipe against Israel or American interests in the region.
However, the difference that a nuclear Iran will make is to realign the balance of power in the Middle East, which the US considers its strategic area of influence. A nuclear-armed Iran will induce many Muslim states in the region to look up to it for geo-political leadership, which has so far been the prerogative of Saudi Arabia, a traditional US ally. The prospects for this kind of political realignment will also deal a body blow to the American-Israeli hegemony in the region, and accentuate the Jewish state’s vulnerability in a region surrounded by inimical neighbours.
The prospect is also abhorrent to Saudi Arabia, which thanks to it being the seat of two of the holiest of Muslim sites in the world, its oil wealth and petro-dollar affluence, is given to calling the shots in the Muslim world. Understandably, the Gulf kingdom is loath to giving up its pre-eminent position in the region to a neighbourhood rival. Iran and Saudi Arabia share a long history of mutual animosity and are known not to see eye-to-eye on several issues. It is believed that Saudi Arabia has been nudging the US to ratchet up the heat on Iran to force it to give up its nuclear ambition. That’s plausible considering the two neighbours in the Gulf have always jockeyed to leverage influence in the region. With the overt support of the US, Saudi Arabia has been able to steal a march over Iran economically and geopolitically. But possession of nuclear power could change the status quo in favour of Iran, which is not an appeasing outcome for many players with stakes in the region.
Apart from upsetting the delicate balance of power in the Middle East, a nuclear Iran is also sure to trigger a nuclear race in the region. Such a development would set into motion a chain of events that could shake the very foundations of global stability and world order. Iran may have a lot at stake in plugging away at its nuclear project. But there are even larger issues at stake if the world fails to stop Iran in its track.