During the past decade, Western diplomats have been engaged in protracted negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. Though a deal remains elusive, Western policymakers remain adamant that an agreement is possible. Much of their optimism is driven by a willingness to test the proposition, put forward by their Iranian counterparts, that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons on religious grounds.
Iran has tirelessly presented itself as a victim of Western arrogance – a much maligned and misunderstood country–whose history proves, in its leaders’ minds, that Iran never sought to threaten anyone. Iran, they opine, is a benign power whose aspirations to regional prominence and global influence should be recognized and accommodated. Iran, they quip, never attacked anyone. Iran, they insist, is in fact an ideal partner for Western powers – better relations would be mutually beneficial in more than one sphere. Iran’s Supreme Leader, they posit, has repeatedly ruled out nuclear weapons as “un-Islamic” – and therefore Western suspicions should dissipate. Iran is adamant, therefore, that the decade-long diplomatic quarrel should subside; since Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot possibly be construed as a threat to anyone.
Iran’s History of Protagonism
The most risible of all propositions, which seek to minimise the impact of an Iranian nuclear capability, is that Iran has never threatened anyone. It did. It does. And it will continue to do so in its subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To Iran’s credit, the Iran-Iraq war – the only occasion when Iran fought a conventional war under the Islamic Republic’s regime – was initiated by Iraq, not Iran. Even so, Iran has been involved in aggression ever since the Peacock Throne was replaced by Khomeini’s Revolution.
First, within months of the Revolution, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized and about seventy U.S. diplomats were taken hostage for more than a year. Since then, Iran has made extensive use of suicide bombers, exporting their lethal menace to areas where its enemies could be slaughtered in great numbers. In 1983, its wholly-owned Hezbollah proxy struck first the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (sixty dead), and then the barracks of the U.S. Marine peacekeepers in Beirut (two-hundred-and-forty-one dead) and the barracks of the French peace-keeping paratroopers (fifty-three dead). The then-prime minister of Iran, Mirhossein Moussavi, who in 2009 rose to fame for galvanizing Iran’s reformist forces against then-President Ahmadinejad, was directly involved in the decision to order the attack. Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of U.S. diplomat William Buckley in Beirut in 1984. Hezbollah was responsible for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the cold-blooded murder of an American passenger on board – U.S. Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem. In the midst of the hijacking, his body was thrown onto the tarmac of Beirut airport after he was executed. U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel W. Higgins had a similar fate three years later: in February 1988 he was kidnapped and murdered by Hezbollah while serving with the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO) in southern Lebanon. Then, in April 1988, a car bomb exploded outside a USO club in Naples, killing five, including one U.S. sailor, Angela Santos. A group called the Organization of Jihad Brigades (OJB) claimed responsibility. Although a Japanese Red Army terrorist was later convicted for the attack, the State Department considers the OJB to be an affiliate of Hezbollah. The use of front organizations did not end in 1988. Two car bomb attacks against American targets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (on November 13, 1995) and Dahran, Saudi Arabia (on June 25, 1996), were claimed by a shadowy group called the Islamic Movement for Change. Five U.S. servicemen died in the first attack, and nineteen in the second. Though some assume this group to be an al-Qae’da affiliate, many sources link it to Iran – and there would be little contradiction if this had been a joint operation, since Osama bin Laden’s franchise, at that time based in Sudan, was benefiting from the help and training of Imad Moughniyah, the Lebanese terror mastermind of Hezbollah.
Speaking of Moughniyah, Iran was certainly responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires (twenty-nine dead) and of the Jewish communal organization AMIA in 1994 (eighty-five dead, mostly non-Jewish Argentine citizens). Following the AMIA attack, Argentina’s authorities issued an international arrest warrant for several Iranian officials – including the then-serving president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his foreign minister, Ali Velayati and Ali Fallahian, who was the minister of intelligence at the time.
In addition to its campaign of mass-murder across the world, Iran also fanned the flames of conflict across the Middle East and Europe, dispatching assassins to kill its opponents in exile, often in friendly countries. Fallahian, for example, is wanted for the murder of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992 (the Mykonos restaurant attack) and later was accused of having ordered the murder of prominent dissidents inside Iran as well. The trail of death left behind by Tehran’s assassins is considerable – the most prominent being, probably, former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, who was murdered in his Paris home in 1991. But the list of Iranians murdered at the hand of the regime is long – more than a hundred prominent activists, former member of the Shah’s army, civil service or political elites, and agitators from disparate opposition movements. More often than not, they met their death in Europe, where they thought they had found a safe haven. Their assassins frequently managed to flee – and those who were caught were often acquitted, or freed too soon.
Whether exiled or foreign, Iran’s victims share a similar background – they are ideological threats to the purity and the survival of the Islamic Revolution – and a similar fate–violent death or a life as fugitives.
Ideology and the Bomb
To sum up, Iran has not launched a war in the traditional sense of the term – not yet, at least. But it is hardly a hapless victim.
Many Western diplomats tend to downplay this history because they assume that Iran’s misdeeds are the offshoots of a bygone era – the revolutionary convulsions of a regime that has since settled into the region and only wishes to be recognized. This optimism is misplaced though, because Iran remains, in rhetoric and actions, a revolutionary power.
Iran is not putting forward its nuclear achievements as a negotiating chip in a grand bargain with the West that is the prelude to accommodation and coexistence. Nor is Iran pursuing a nuclear option for purely defensive purposes. Iran does not simply aspire to obtain weapons that will deter enemies and guarantee its survival. Iran is seeking instruments of ideological coercion and intimidation, and a tangible threat such as a nuclear arsenal is a portentous political tool to advance its ideological agenda. Iran is less likely to drop nuclear weapons on the heads of its enemies and more likely to use them as a way of expanding and consolidating its influence.
Iran’s revolutionary ideology postulates that the Islamic Republic exists as a tool for “the realisation of God’s will on earth.” Iran’s Supreme leader is “God’s shadow on earth,” and as such, his word is final on what constitutes the realisation of divine will on earth. Opposing Khamenei’s will on the nuclear issue – and he has repeatedly said that Iran’s nuclear program is the realisation of God’s designs – is equivalent to opposing God.
What, then, are the goals that God supposedly bestowed on Iran which nuclear weapons would serve? God’s design is surely not so Iran-centric as to limit itself to deterring Iran’s enemies and guaranteeing the integrity of its borders. More likely, God wants Iran to become the beacon of Islam and to reassert Shiite predominance over the Sunni world. Khomeini himself explained that, “we shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry, ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world. There will be struggle.” Nuclear weapons greatly enhance the ability of a country like Iran, blessed with oil riches, to export its dream – by persuasion, if possible; by force, if necessary.
Naturally, while Islam is central to Iran’s revolutionary ardour, Persian nationalism and its aspiration to assert Iran as the dominant power in the region, are still very much alive. Persian nationalism, combined with Khomeini’s radical understanding of Islamic governance, creates an explosive cocktail: Iran obsessively sees itself as the target of plots and conspiracies. Its sense of vulnerability is in stark contrast with the greatness to which Iran aspires – a greatness which Islamic revolutionary zeal has exponentially enhanced beyond Iran and the region. In these circumstances, the combined weight of destiny, paranoia and zeal makes the bomb a profoundly dangerous instrument in the hands of those who are determined to promote imperialist aspirations.
Iran’s ideological push toward the bomb today rides on this explosive combination of the divine and subversive – a recipe that makes Iran a country constantly searching for a new regional status quo. The new world that Iran seeks to create will be dominated by Tehran. It will be characterised by fierce competition with the U.S. for hegemony over the Gulf and by efforts to cement alliances to confront Iran’s ideological antagonists: America and Israel first, and Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Iran would use its acquired nuclear capability as a force-multiplier in order to project its power across the region and beyond in unprecedented ways in pursuit of its imperial and revolutionary ambitions.
New Power Abroad
Sooner or later, a revolutionary power aims to export its revolution, both as an instrument of radical change and as a tool to establish its hegemonic role. If that is so, then the revolutionary power sooner or later will find itself at war with its neighbours or other regional and global powers that see themselves as guarantors or beneficiaries of the status quo. In the case of Iran, the objective is to export Khomeini’s revolutionary vision. Such acts will sooner or later set Iran on a collision course and drag the Islamic Revolutionary Republic into theatres of conflict, near and far, wherever Iran sees fertile territory for intruding its vision. If that were to happen under a nuclear umbrella, Iran would be able to act with far more impunity that at present.
Iran, for example, could blackmail its neighbours by issuing credible threats aimed at forcing them to reduce oil production quotas, thereby raising world prices. Iran could also link levels of supply to political change. It could, say, demand a reduction in the U.S. presence in countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, insisting that Iran alone would “protect” the waterways.
While the focus of concern is usually the Gulf – the immediate repercussions of a nuclear Iranian almost certainly would be felt there – Iran’s nuclear arsenal would extend its shadow into the oil- and gas-rich Caspian basin, too. As the Georgia crisis of August 2008 and the 2014 Russian occupation of the Crimea peninsula clearly indicate, the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian basin is strategically vital for European interests. Much like Russia, Iran could exploit its nuclear status to blackmail neighboring countries to the north, too, with the aim of controlling energy prices and, by extension, the policies of European countries that are most dependent on those supplies. It is wrong to assume that in this area Iran’s bullying tactics may be opposed by Russia. After all, the Kremlin is on the same page as Iran when it comes to energy prices. Europeans look to Iran as a potential solution to their dependence on Russian energy supplies and Russian-controlled energy routes. But if Iran and Russia join forces, their ability to fix prices and determine supplies may match OPEC. A nuclear Iran could seek closer cooperation with Russia precisely in this area.
Iran might be able to manipulate prices in a far more direct and protracted manner when it actually acquires nuclear capability. The price of oil is destined to remain affected as long as regional instability persists. A nuclear Iran would compound that instability for decades in a far more damaging way than it can through the occasional harassment of U.S. warships by fast-moving dinghies.
Nor will Iranian interference stop at threats and provocations over oil prices. There is further potential for Iran to project its aggressive power in the drive to expand its influence. For one, its Gulf neighbours, already at a significant disadvantage, would be unable to resist Iranian interference. With significant Shiite communities across the Gulf, Iran might be tempted to use the model of Russia’s intervention in Georgia and Crimea “on behalf of its ethnic kin” to act in a similar way “on behalf of the Shiite populations” in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
Subverting Regional Stability
Such provocative demands could be made with greater effect if backed by even a tacit nuclear threat. Would Europe risk Paris, London or Rome for Manama? What if Iran engineered the overthrow of the monarchy and got a friendly Shiite government installed? Instigated by Tehran, a new regime could move quickly to denounce the 1991 agreement with the U.S. for the prepositioning of military equipment, could rescind its assent to the stationing of U.S. forces at the Juffair naval base and quickly demand that they evacuate. What would the U.S. do, faced with the dilemma between acquiescence to the decline of its influence in the Gulf and the possibility of a direct military confrontation against a nuclear armed Iran?
Hegemony does not require bombs to rain down on neighbours. Simply possessing the option is enough to scare others into submission and force even the most formidable adversaries to change their strategic calculus to your advantage. And while submission might be the political posture of states in the area, individuals might choose to seek safer shores for their businesses and their endeavours. An exodus of elites would not be a surprising side-effect of Tehran’s nuclear rise.
Bahrain is not the only Gulf country to fear Iranian interference. Iran could destabilize any country in the area, support subversion inside their territories and use the threat of Armageddon to coerce their governments. Even Saudi Arabia, which, unlike the Gulf emirates, is not a tiny city-state but a powerful and populous nation, is bound to suffer, perhaps even more than its smaller Gulf neighbours.
Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Tehran has been competing with Saudi Arabia for dominance within the Islamic world. Indeed, Khomeini defined the Revolution as an attempt to redress the “wrongs” of Islamic history. This was generally interpreted to mean the restoration of Shiism and the successors of Imam Husayn as the rightful heir to the Prophet after the Sunnis defeated and martyred him in Kerbala in the seventh century. The Saudis, for their part, regard Shiism as apostasy.
And then there is the millennia-old rivalry between Persia and Arabia which still exists. A nuclear-powered Iran would finally be in a position to humiliate the Saudi monarchy and destabilise it from within, perhaps even bring it down. This could be achieved by financing and supporting terror inside the Kingdom by targeting sensitive and strategic oil sites inside Saudi Arabia, which are largely inhabited by Shiites. Iran could promote Shiite insurgencies, as it is already doing in Yemen. It could use the four-hundred-thousand Iranian residents in the Emirates to wreak havoc among the flourishing but fragile economies of the Gulf. It could intimidate its rulers and force them to expel Americans on their soil. It could even force the indigenous rulers themselves to go.
Nor would it end there. Iran could demand safe and unfettered passage for its navy through the Suez Canal in order to supply its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, in the Mediterranean. Iran has already created a bridgehead in Sudan. Its ships already travel the busy waterways of the Red Sea to carry illicit cargoes to and from Iran. What its fleet is doing now quietly, clandestinely and circumspectly, a nuclear Iran could do openly, brazenly, and impudently.
Iran’s potential for blackmail would stretch beyond its immediate neighbourhood. A nuclear Iran would certainly continue to support terrorist organisations across the region and beyond. Today, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza operate under the aegis of Iran. They are trained, funded, ideologically guided and politically supported by Tehran, which also supports Shiite militias in Iraq, Shiite guerrillas in Yemen, as well as elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Already an actor in all these theatres of conflict, Iran’s behaviour could degenerate still further. Today, it is trying to gain a foothold in those areas by destabilising them. Tomorrow, supported by a nuclear fist, Iran will become indispensable to solving all of those conflicts (most of which it instigated and nourished in the first place). The solutions that Iran would be prepared to accept would not be to the liking of the West. But at that point, the West, expelled from the region, will have lost its voice.
Finally, one cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might transfer weapons of mass destruction to its clients. Iran is equipping Hezbollah with missiles that are capable of carrying non-conventional warheads. Iran might soon be able to hand a briefcase nuclear device to a terrorist commando. As the French security and non-proliferation expert Bruno Tertrais says, “If you like the way Hamas and Hezbollah are behaving now, you are going to love it when Iran goes nuclear!” And Iran has a history of operating in the shadows, through proxies and alter-egos that do its bidding while the leadership in Tehran pleads innocence and laments threatening conspiracies against a peace-loving nation.
Iranian Aspirations Beyond the Gulf
All these are strategies Iran could adopt and goals which Iran could achieve once it has nuclear capability. But Iran aspires to much more than just removing America from the Gulf or empowering Shiite communities in the region. Iran’s true wish is to export the revolution, as France did after 1789. The French armies did not invade and conquer Europe only to raise the revolutionary flag on the palaces of Europe’s ruling dynasties. They aspired to export the universal values of July 1789 beyond their borders, changing the social structures and balances of power in European societies. Iran wants nothing less.
Regional hegemony would not stop at a confrontation with America. Alongside Iran’s embassies and military bases would sprout myriad “revolutionary cultural centres,” a massive physical presence of Iranian emissaries and institutions. Iranian money would pour into projects (it already does in places like Lebanon and Syria) and Iranian missionaries would spread Iran’s version of Shiism throughout the region. Soon, the project would cross the waters, a symbol of Iran’s rising power and prestige in the Levant and the Gulf. European diplomatic sources indicate that Iran’s missionary activity is already in full swing in Europe among Sunni Muslims. As the champion of the oppressed, Iran could easily appeal to Muslim grievances and use its ecumenical approach to “resistance movements”– regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite – to win the hearts and minds of Europe’s Muslims. Through the Trojan horse of political causes, Iran could aspire to win their loyalties and convert them in due course.
Iran would claim patronage over Shiite communities throughout Europe and would offer its protection to Muslim communities outside the Middle East. Iran already transformed South Lebanon into an Islamic Revolutionary republic in its own image. Iran would aspire to do the same elsewhere. And it might just succeed if its quest is backed by the might of a nuclear arsenal.
The prestige of a nuclear arsenal and its emergent military power would exponentially enhance Iran’s reach, influence and power. Tehran makes no secret of its aspiration to become the reference point for all anti-Western and anti-global movements. Today’s Iran dreams of transforming itself into a Soviet Union redux, racing to the aid of anti-Western revolutionaries. Tomorrow’s nuclear Iran will be able to fulfill that dream. It will be in a position to act as the sponsor for myriad radical, possibly violent, groups. Tehran will then be a small step from being a potent sponsor of subversion throughout the world – and with nuclear weapons in its arsenal, there will be little succour for those who wish to stop Iran from succeeding.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.