Iran is facing a historic opportunity to shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. This opportunity has little to do with Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead it involves Iran’s conventional military capability, its covert and overt political influence, and the decision of the United States to withdraw its military from Iraq.
For centuries, Iran has seen itself as deprived of its rightful position as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, boxed in by the Ottomans, the British, and finally the Americans. In the absence of a global power, Turkey’s distance and Ankara’s reluctance to project force beyond its borders, Iran is left as a potential dominant conventional power in the Persian Gulf. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq late last year thus paves the way for Iran to emerge as the region’s dominant land power.
This in no way means that Iran is about to invade someone; Tehran acts more subtly than that. Having force is more important than using it, particularly when that force is supplemented by political power. While it is not fair to say that Iran has turned Iraq into a satellite state in the wake of the United States’ departure, Tehran does wield substantial influence over the political process in Baghdad.
It is easy to understand why Iran would seek to build that influence. After a long and bitter war with Iraq in the 1980s, during which Iran suffered more than a million casualties, Tehran built its national security policy on ensuring that Iraq would never again pose a similar threat. Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics was therefore predictable. It took place while the United States was in Iraq, and has intensified since the United States left. Iran’s power and influence in Iraq extend an Iranian sphere of influence to the borders of a number of countries. Indeed, Iraq is the most strategic country in the region, bordering Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Whoever holds sway in Iraq is in a position to influence the entire region, as the Americans knew.
The events in Syria compound the growth of Iranian power. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has survived insurrection for a year, and Iran’s support in the form of supplies and training is one of the reasons. Should the Alawite regime survive, even without Assad at its helm, it will depend heavily on Iran. What had been a relationship between equals, where Syria kept its distance from Iran at times, will tilt massively toward Tehran. When we consider Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, with its substantial power in Lebanon, we can see the ongoing formation of an Iranian sphere of influence that stretches from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.
This would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the region. Iran would hold sway over an area that runs along the northern border of Saudi Arabia and abuts the southern border of Turkey. Depending on how robust Iran’s influence proves within this sphere, and the degree to which it might be supplemented with the presence of Iranian conventional forces, it could put substantial pressure on regional actors, in particular Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
It is important to note that the existence of nuclear weapons in Iran does not enter into this equation. Had Iran never started developing nuclear weapons, or if the weapons program were decimated, the Iranian sphere of influence would still be emerging. The incipient shift was triggered first by the US invasion of Iraq, which destroyed the Iran-Iraq balance of power, and later by the American withdrawal, which created the vacuum that Iran is now filling.
The nuclear issue has obscured the underlying concern: For the first time in centuries, Iran has a reasonable opportunity to be the dominant power in the region. It is clear that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. What is not clear is whether they want to actually possess them and if they possess them, how they will use them. For all of its aggressive rhetoric, which is directed at mobilizing domestic support, Iran’s foreign policy has been extremely cautious. While engaging in covert operations and tacitly supporting friendly regimes and groups, Tehran has been careful to avoid overt involvement and to not overextend itself.
Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons seems primarily intended as a bargaining chip to deflect attention from Tehran’s growing sphere of influence and to focus it on a peripheral issue. Ultimately, positioning a handful of nuclear weapons would prove more dangerous to Iran than not having them, and using them on Israel would bear catastrophic results. The Iranians, again ignoring their own rhetoric, have been extremely careful to avoid conflicts in their homeland, as well as any action that would threaten the regime. Using a nuclear weapon against Israel would guarantee the annihilation of both.
Still, given their rhetoric, our comfortable assumptions of what Iran is likely to do cannot be the foundation of Israeli policy, especially as a handful of nuclear devices could annihilate Israel. The problem for Israel now is deciding how to address the threat. The rule in strategic planning is to focus on capability and not intent, since capability changes only over time, while intent can change very quickly. The question for Israel thus becomes: What exactly is Iran’s nuclear capability?
Enriched uranium does not constitute a deliverable nuclear weapon. It might allow an underground detonation, but that only requires a stable device in a controlled environment. A weapon must be miniaturized to fit on a delivery system and ruggedized to withstand the extreme environments a missile-delivered device would face. The weapon must be able to detonate after passing through conditions of extreme stress. A missile vibrates while traveling at 10 Gs or more. After entering a vacuum with extreme variability of temperature, the weapon reenters the atmosphere at extraordinarily high temperatures. Creating a viable weapon thus requires substantial engineering and quality control capabilities, and it is not clear that the Iranians have these. In order to extract diplomatic concessions, however, it is sufficient for the Iranians to create uncertainty about whether they can create a viable weapon.
Still, from an Israeli standpoint, the room for doubt is narrower, and this imbalance in priorities is the underlying problem in dealing with Iran. The real issue is Iran’s growing power and influence; a side issue is its problematic nuclear capability. However, for Israel, the side issue is the core issue, while for the United States, Iran’s sphere of influence remains the greater concern. Therefore the United States and Israel have different perceptions of the Iranian problem and different potential responses. The United States wants more time, which is a commodity Israel cannot afford.
The Israeli problem is military in nature. It is not clear that the Israeli Air Force, a small force designed to handle missions of shorter range, can destroy Iranian facilities. First, there is the question of gathering reliable intelligence to determine which facilities really matter. Second, there is the question of whether non-nuclear munitions can penetrate the hardened facilities. Third, there is the question of whether the Israelis would be able to determine damage from the air. It is clear that this would be a multiple-sortie campaign and not the single-strike attack that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility. The ability of the Israelis to wage such a campaign effectively, particularly in the face of attrition from Iranian air defenses and from mechanical failure, is not clear. So while there is risk for the Israelis in not acting, there would also be risk in acting and failing.
There is an even greater risk. Iran would likely respond to any Israeli attack by attempting to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil exports pass. This would hurt the Iranians of course, but could devastate the global economy. This is Iran’s real nuclear weapon. The United States and Europe cannot afford a closure of the Straits, and Israel cannot afford to alienate the United States. Since Israel does not have the ability to deal with the Iranian Navy, the idea that it could attack Iran without first notifying Washington is far-fetched. The US Navy would have to strike the Iranians first, to prevent mines from being laid – and even then, US forces could not guarantee that no mines would be deployed. The Israelis would be transferring significant risk from themselves to the United States and others – all without guaranteeing a successful outcome.
So Iran’s growing sphere of influence, and not its nuclear program, is the issue. The United States cannot invade a country of 80 million, while an air campaign against Iran’s conventional forces would take months and might still fail. Therefore, the American goal has to be to limit the spread of Iranian influence. This is why Syria is so important to the United States. It also explains why the Russians and Chinese have no interest in solving the crisis in Syria. They like the current US-Iranian balance of power, as it protects them from American interests overtaking their own. For the United States, bringing down the Assad regime has become a core strategic imperative.
But in Syria as well, there are risks and efforts the United States cannot afford to take. This leads to a situation where Washington either accepts the Iranian sphere of influence or enters into negotiations for accommodating it. This would in turn create serious complications for Saudi Arabia, a traditional American ally. But at this point, each option poses significant difficulties to someone. In the end, the United States and Europe want to buy oil, while the Iranians want to control its sale. Whom the purchasers buy oil from is not as important to them as the oil’s availability, which creates a common interest between Iran and the West. Ultimately, I suspect the Iranians would sacrifice their nuclear program in exchange for domination of the Persian Gulf. This is the issue that the United States, along with Europe, will have to face next.