Monday, June 30, 2014

Iran poses challenges (and threats) beyond nuclear weapons

Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons has been a problem for some time now, but it has never been the only issue of concern when it comes to this nation’s conduct in the region and around the world. Since 1979 the leaders of Iran have pursued an agenda characterized by violence, disregard for human rights and unbridled support for terrorism, a fact which should not be ignored, despite recent enthusiasm around a possible deal to slow or halt Iran's nuclear program

Personally, I would love to see diplomacy triumph and for Tehran to end its nuclear program. However, this alone would not represent a complete triumph in terms of neutralizing the threat Iran poses to peace and stability. Although it would be an important step in that it would deny Tehran a nuclear trump card  which it could use to act aggressively in an even more overt manner, the regime has had no difficulty supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and harassing US ships up until now without a nuclear weapon in its back pocket.

If and when a deal is reached, Iran still needs to be held accountable for gross violations of human rights, both past and present, as well as for its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and regional aggressor. In addition to a number of commentators on the region examining the likelihood and potential details of a deal, there are also experts looking at what may happen following an agreement, including Alireza Nader of the Rand Corporation, who recently released a paper entitled "The Days After a Deal With Iran, Continuity and Change in Iranian ForeignPolicy." 

This paper is well worth reading, offering an accessible, erudite analysis of the foreign policy power structure within the Iranian government and what kind of changes we might see within that structure following a nuclear deal. In it, Nader looks not only at the implications for the United States, but also for Iran's regional actions and relationships, including its long-running low level conflict by proxy with the Saudis.

When it comes to Israel, Nader aptly notes that:

The Islamic Republic’s opposition toward Israel, especially among Iranian    conservatives, is not merely due to a sense of geopolitical competition;  rather, it is defined at the most basic level by an ideological and religious hostility toward the Jewish state. Iranian conservatives may tolerate a toning down of rhetoric on Israel, but they are unlikely to change Iran’s policies toward Israel after a final nuclear deal.  

Such analysis should serve as a reminder to those who think that a nuclear deal will end the threat that Iran poses to Israel. Even without a nuclear weapon, there is no reason to believe that Iran would not continue its assault, both rhetorical and real, on Israel. A long track record of anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic speeches at the United Nations and support for Hezbollah tell us that hatred for the Jewish State seems to be hard-wired into the ideology of the post- Revolution Iranian regime. Nader also notes in his paper that in a sense the Iranian leadership needs the United States as its enemy, and I think the same is true in the case of Israel, which has long served as a convenient bogeyman for dictators and Islamist governments in the Middle East that use fear as a chief tool of domestic internal control. I don't see how a nuclear deal would end this practice within Iran. 

With the exception of Israel and possibly some of the Gulf States, the Middle East today is perhaps one of the most unstable and least predictable regions in the world. While there are any number of major actors involved, from Russia and Syria to Hezbollah and Hamas, one of the most influential and disruptive has undoubtedly been Iran. Stopping Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomacy would be a significant step forward, but it would not end the larger threat this country poses to peace and stability both regionally and globally. To think otherwise would be naive at best and potentially catastrophic at worst. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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