How Iranian nukes would reshape the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 9 2009 10:40 AM

If Tehran Gets the Bomb …

How Iranian nukes would reshape the Middle East.

Even after U.S. diplomats met with their Iranian counterparts last week in Geneva, it's unclear what the White House's next move is, beyond more talks at the end of the month. While President Obama had promised to "do everything that's required to prevent" Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the fact that "engagement" has given way to new catchwords, like deterrence and containment, suggests that we may well choose to learn to live with an Iranian bomb. In that case, we will probably see the birth of a new Middle East, but not as we have ever envisioned it.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 

In the past, the ambition to create "a new Middle East" was underwritten by American power. For example, in the 1990s, the U.S.-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process was supposed to usher in an era of prosperity and comity. Instead, that decade ended with the second intifada and 9/11. The George W. Bush administration decided that the Arab political culture that had engendered Osama Bin Laden was nonetheless ripe for democracy, and so it is not surprising that amid the carnage of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discerned the "birth pangs of the new Middle East." In fact, that war was just the old Middle East explaining itself, as the region usually does, through patterns of violence.

Many were surprised when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Sunni powers quietly cheered on Israel in its battles against Hezbollah and later Hamas. But this was extraordinary only to those inclined to see the region in terms of 300 million Arabs pitted against 6 million Jews. Instead, conceive of it rather like this: There is an American-backed regional system, and then there are those—from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Soviet Union to Bin Laden and the Islamists and now Iran and its regional assets Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—who are eager to create a new Middle East of their own design.

Advertisement

Since 1944, Saudi Arabia, home of the world's largest known oil reserves, has been the anchor of the American order, with the other Gulf states and Jordan also safely within our orbit. Over the years, other players have jumped sides—for instance, Egypt became pro-United States after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Iran turned against Washington after the 1979 revolution, the PLO moved more or less into the American camp in the 1990s, and Iraq shifted into the U.S. column after Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since Israel became a significant part of Washington's Middle East strategy in 1973, it should hardly come as a surprise that the U.S.-friendly Arab regimes (albeit not all the Arab masses) were pulling for the Israelis in their wars with those who want to destroy the American order.

And so, even after all the apparent upheaval of the last eight years—war, a tenuous democracy in Iraq, and more war—the essential structure of the Middle East remained the same. However, an Iranian nuclear program would rearrange the region's political, economic, and cultural furniture. Therefore, what's most dangerous is not an Iranian bomb but the new Middle East that would issue from it.

If Iran gets the bomb, other regional powers will pursue nuclear programs—if they are not already doing so. Inevitably in a region as volatile as this, there will be a few small-scale nuclear catastrophes, probably rulers targeting their own people. Saddam gassed the Kurds and slaughtered the Shiites, Hafez Assad massacred the Sunnis of Hama, and mass graves throughout the region testify to the willingness of Arab rulers to kill their own people—in their hands, a nuclear weapon is merely an upgrade in repressive technology. Still, it's extremely unlikely the regimes will use these weapons against their regional rivals. Remember, the main reason these states support nonstate terror groups is to deter one another and thus avoid all-out war.

However, the prospect of states transferring nukes to so-called nonstate actors is a nightmare for the United States, which does not fare well against such tactics. Consider that our response to 9/11 was to use our armed forces to democratize the Middle East. Also, consider that the most convoluted reason for making war against the Taliban is to keep the nukes of a neighboring country out of the hands of its intelligence service's dangerous elements. That is to say, we cannot even deter Pakistan, our ally.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola: It Preys on the Compassionate

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 19 2014 12:33 PM The Precarious Predicament of Russia’s Neighbors
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 19 2014 12:08 PM The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 12:10 PM Watch the Trailer for Big Eyes, a Tim Burton Movie About People With Normal-Sized Eyes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.