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.
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.
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.