Although Iranian and EU officials have recently agreed to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear activities, there is little optimism that such talks will lead to any breakthrough in the existing deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. As senior Iranian diplomats and nuclear negotiators have remarked, Iran is determined to continue work on the nuclear fuel cycle despite Western countries’ threats to have the UN Security Council impose economic sanctions and/or other coercive measures.
Western foreign policy think tanks and intelligence centers have speculated that if Iran is allowed to resume its uranium-enrichment activities and other sensitive nuclear work, it might be able to build nuclear weapons within a period ranging from five to 10 years. Given such a possibility, Western politicians and political analysts have warned of the repercussions a nuclear Iran would have for the security and political stability of the region and the world. The dramatization of this alleged threat has resulted in the adoption of a tough and unwarranted position by Western countries toward Iran.
The frequently cited fears about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran are that Iran might use nuclear weapons in a first strike against its adversaries in the region (or, if equipped with advanced delivery systems, further afield), or that Iran’s nuclear weapons might slip into the hands of terrorist groups dedicated to harming Western nations. But are such fears well-founded, and to what extent has the threat of a nuclear Iran been exaggerated? Finally, how reliable would a nuclear Iran be?
Most Western politicians and observers say their attitude toward Iran’s nuclear activities is justified by the character of the Iranian regime. Critics are skeptical about Iran’s ability to behave as a responsible member of the international community, and they often refer to the revolutionary, fanatical origins of the regime as reasonable grounds for suspicion. The climate of mutual distrust and anxiety has been aggravated by the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Western fears of Iran are often unreasonable.
First, it would be a mistake to think that the character of the Iranian government has remained unchanged since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In fact, the Islamic Republic has lost much of its revolutionary and ideological fervor over the past two decades, and its government has mellowed considerably. Iran’s has demonstrated moderation and pragmatism in its foreign policy of recent years, as national interests and strategic calculations have taken precedence over ideology.
Iran’s determination to maintain close relations with Russia serves as a conspicuous example in this regard. As part of a policy aimed at giving priority to its strategic ties with Russia above all else, Iran has kept silent over the suppression of Muslim separatists and the violation of human rights by the Russian army in Chechnya. In a similar development in the mid-1990s, Iran and Russia used their influence on the Tajik Islamist opposition group and the secular, formerly communist government of Tajikistan respectively to put an end to the long-lasting civil conflict in that country, a nation with which Iran enjoys common cultural and linguistic bonds. Iran’s pragmatic decision to collaborate with Russia in brokering a peace deal between Tajikistan’s warring parties, instead of supporting the Islamist militants, bolstered Iran’s growing ties with Russia.
Iran’s cordial relations with Christian Armenia despite its military conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan also stands in contrast to the prevailing view that Iran’s foreign policy is driven primarily by religious and ideological considerations. Iran’s position on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, for which it has received harsh criticism from some political groups in Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries, shows the overriding importance of national interests in Tehran’s decison-making.
Another notable demonstration of the precedence rational choice takes over ideology in Iran’s foreign policy is its largely neutral stance regarding the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. This position has enabled Iran to maintain good relations with both sides. The ongoing negotiations between Iran, India, and Pakistan over a multi-billion dollar project to export Iranian natural gas to India via a pipeline in Pakistan is the most prominent concrete gain resulting from this policy.
Iran’s shift from ideology to pragmatism is also illustrated by the normalization in recent years of its relations with the conservative pro-Western nations in the region. The easing of political tensions in the region has resulted in the expansion of economic relations between Iran and its neighbors, indicating Iran’s desire to give priority to creating a favorable climate in the region for pursuing its economic goals.
Iran also played an effective role in helping opposition groups allied with U.S. forces topple the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. It has contributed significantly to the development of democratic processes in post-conflict Afghanistan and Iraq and has undertaken substantial financial responsibilities for the reconstruction of both countries. These two cases prove that Iran is willing to collaborate with even hostile states, such as the U.S., in areas of common strategic interests. A similar process has been going on for years between Iran and the European Union in fighting Afghan drug-trafficking, for which Iran has paid dearly in both human lives and money.
The only major issue that runs counter to the mainstream, pragmatic trend in Iran’s foreign policy is its hardline stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the popularity of the Palestinian cause among Muslims in the region and around the world, Iran’s policy on the Palestinian issue is shaped by its desire to curry favor with the global Muslim public. The recent controversial comments by President Ahmadinejad about Israel should be interpreted in line with the above observation, as a tactical appeal to the sentiments of the Muslim masses. However odious its leaders’ statements, the Iranian government has confined itself to issuing propaganda rather than taking any significant practical measures to undermine the Middle East peace process.
Second, the notion of Iran launching a first-strike nuclear attack against any of its adversaries is absurd, as all its potential target countries are already either in possession of nuclear weapons or are under the nuclear umbrella of other powers. Given the viable retaliatory capability of such countries, any nuclear attack by Iran would result in its own assured destruction. Reason dictates that a nuclear weapons capability would serve Iran only as a deterrent against potential aggressors.
Third, while it would be controversial to argue from a religious perspective against possessing nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes, given the indiscriminate destructive nature of nuclear weapons, any nuclear attack against civilian population centers would definitely be against the ethical teachings of Islam. This consideration should serve as a check against a hypothetically nuclear-armed Iran misusing its nuclear weapon capabilities.
Fourth, there are no credible grounds to fear that Iran might arm terrorist groups with nuclear weapons to attack Western nations. Itself a longtime victim of terrorist attacks, Iran should feel no sympathy with terrorist groups who disapprove of its Shi’ite and Persian identity and whom it blasts for tarnishing the image of Islam through violent extremism. Iran is often referred to by visiting Western journalists as having the most pro-Western youth population in the region. While I can neither confirm nor reject this claim, no Iranian citizens have been implicated in any terrorist acts conducted in Western countries in recent years.
Finally, as Iran has no record of military adventurism or aggression against any of its neighbors in modern history, there is nothing to suggest that a nuclear-armed Iran would be any less peaceful than any other nuclear states in the region. In fact, while the world comes to terms with nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, Israel, etc., it would make little sense, if any, to overplay the threat of a potentially nuclear Iran. The discriminatory enforcement of nonproliferation in the region will not be sustainable.