ISTANBUL — Are you afraid of Iran yet? Shrill warnings of war or imminent apocalypse over Iran's nuclear program have never been so strident, or so ominous.
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A window is closing fast, the narrative goes, to prevent a fanatical and suicidal religious regime from acquiring the ultimate tools of Armageddon: nuclear weapons. Within months, some politicians claim, either Israel, the United States, or both may have no choice but to attack Iran to remove this "existential threat" to the Jewish state.
The world is facing another Hitler, declares Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this moment of decision is akin to the eve of World War II. Iran is a threat to Israel and "a real danger to humanity as a whole," warns Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The tone on the US presidential campaign trail is no less dire. GOP hopeful Rick Santorum recently told a crowd that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, "let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri." One of his opponents, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, claims an Iranian strike on the US is "a real danger" that would make the 9/11 attacks look small. "Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros, and it's 300,000 dead," he said in early February. "This is not science fiction."
Experts: Coexistence may be possible
Yet it is also far from likely – even if Iran were to build a nuclear arsenal. In fact, say analysts and nonproliferation experts who have studied the effect of the bomb on countries, coexisting with a nuclear-armed Iran – or at least a nuclear-capable Iran – may well be possible, even inevitable, whether a military strike delays that outcome or not.
Analysts say Iran is not an irrational, suicidal actor that can't be deterred. Nor do they believe it is determined to destroy Israel at all costs. A recent Israeli think tank simulation of "the day after" an Iranian nuclear test came to the same conclusion: that nuclear annihilation will not automatically result.
Yet a nuclearized Iran would precipitate some profound changes across a chronically unstable region. Military balances would shift. Political relations among antagonists – and allies – would become more complicated. Israel would lose its nuclear hegemony in the Middle East.
Underlying it all loom major questions. Would Iran, implacable foe of the US and Israel, suddenly become beyond attack, like North Korea? Would Iran and Israel settle into a decades-long regional cold war, like that between India and Pakistan? Would Iran's jittery Persian Gulf neighbors rush to become nuclear powers themselves, setting off a dangerous and irreversible new arms race?
The questions swirled as Iran signaled on Feb. 16 that it was ready with "new initiatives" to resume long-stalled talks over its nuclear program with the US and other big powers. But the Iranians were nebulous about any possible concessions to previous Western demands – demands that diplomats say have only risen higher in a US election year. Renewed chances of talks came during a week when Tehran also proclaimed new advances in nuclear technology. As a result of all this, the possibility of any political breakthrough is far from certain.
It is not a fait accompli, of course, that Iran will build a bomb, even though it sometimes seems as if it is – and many Americans believe the country already has. As recently as 2010, for instance, a CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed Iran has a nuclear arsenal.
No decision yet by Tehran?
Yet American intelligence agencies agree that Tehran hasn't yet decided to go for a nuclear bomb – and that even if it chose to, it would take years to create one and the means to deliver it. Israeli intelligence is also reported to have reached the same conclusion.
In testimony before Congress in late January, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said Iran is "keeping open the option" to develop nuclear weapons. But, he added, "we do not know" if it will. TheUnited Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in its latest report last November, detailed alleged weapons-related work for the first time, but said "systematic" work was halted in 2003.
Tehran has long claimed it wants only to make nuclear power peacefully, and in Iran, embracing "nuclear rights" enjoys wide, popular support because it blends national pride and scientific prowess. Publicly, Iranian rulers profess to reject atomic weapons, and at the highest levels they evoke Islamic religious reasons to oppose all weapons of mass destruction.
Yet analysts and diplomats note that Iran does have many reasons to develop at least a "breakout" capability – the ability to assemble a bomb quickly should it want to. Tehran has watched modern history unfold around it and no doubt has drawn its own conclusions. Acquiring nuclear weapons helped preserve regimes in North Korea and Pakistan, for instance. But in Iraq and Libya, two nonnuclear countries, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were deposed. The Iranian media, in fact, tut-tutted last year that Mr. Qaddafi's fatal error was relinquishing his secret nuclear weapons program in 2004.
"If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons," Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in January.
"Look at the neighborhood that I live in: Everyone else has nuclear weapons who matters; and those who don't, don't matter, and get invaded by the United States of America," Mr. Riedel said on a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
This article, “What would happen if Iran had the bomb?” first appeared on CSMonitor.com
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