By John Bolton
Specifics of Barack Obama’s incipient deal legitimizing Iran’s nuclear-weapons program (and even whether a final understanding can be reached) will doubtless provoke debate for the next several months. The separate, often contradictory claims announced in Lausanne on April 2 hardly meet the dictionary definition of “agreement.”
But beyond the still-evolving accord’s evanescent terms are larger strategic implications. While Obama has hinted at his vision of U.S. relations with Iran, his real objective remains unknown. Most dramatically, some speculate that the White House dreams the nuclear deal will trigger sweeping changes in Tehran, which will evolve from the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ideology and become a “normal” Middle Eastern state.
In reality, no other regional power believes evidence of such developments is even vaguely on the horizon.
Ironically, Obama has succeeded in creating a rare unity of analysis between Israel and almost the entire Arab world. And, without a radical shift in the ayatollahs’ philosophy (and, even more importantly, that of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who actually control the nuclear-weapons program), there is no chance of a “new Middle East” emerging.
More immediately, without an ideological revolution in Tehran, it is virtually certain Iran will cheat on whatever nuclear deal is signed before the ink is dry.
Since other Middle Eastern governments see no prospect of dramatic change in Tehran’s policy or behavior, the real question is how they will respond while both Iran’s leadership and its nuclear program are being legitimized and empowered by the United States. The answers are truly disturbing, far more dangerous than merely the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
The last two years of negotiations – and the universally accepted perception of American weakness thereby conveyed – have accelerated a regional nuclear-weapons race. Once only likely after Iran actually tested a nuclear device or otherwise demonstrated unequivocally it possessed such devices, the arms race already has started.
The logic is not difficult to follow. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others realize that a nuclear-capable Iran – given its sizable conventional armed forces and its massive financial support for international terrorist groups – would be well on the road to regional hegemony. An Iran with nuclear weapons, surrounded by countries without that asset, would not actually have to use the atomic trump card but merely threaten it to extort whatever it desired from its neighbors.
Because the outcome of conflict between, say, Riyadh without nuclear weapons and Tehran with them is foreordained, regional actors see no option but going nuclear themselves.
That logic was clear before the last two years of U.S. concessions and retreat. But the negotiations have accelerated the likelihood of proliferation, not reduced it. Misguided negotiations like these do not reduce the chances for military action; they actually increase them.
The Saudis likely already have options on a sizeable number of existing nuclear warheads in Pakistan’s substantial stockpile. Moreover, the kingdom recently has ramped up its efforts to acquire nuclear technology that in due course will give it an indigenous nuclear infrastructure fully capable of sustaining a weapons program.
Egypt, Turkey and others will do the same and already are joining the race, looking to acquire both reactors and other broader nuclear capabilities across the nuclear-fuel cycle, especially uranium enrichment, so they will not be dependent on outside suppliers.
Egypt, the largest Sunni Arab state, also has moved, within the Arab League, to enhance cooperation against Iran’s threat in Yemen and radical Islam more broadly. But Cairo will not rely on Riyadh for a nuclear umbrella.
Turkey, also Sunni, is not Arab, and visions of the Ottoman Empire still fill the dreams of some Turkish political leaders. Whatever course Turkey ultimately pursues, it too will not remain on the sidelines while other states obtain nuclear weapons.
These are the already evident consequences of Obama acquiescing to Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, as three or more Middle Eastern states move toward acquiring nuclear weapons, still others, alarmed at these first ripples of proliferation, will also launch efforts to obtain the necessary technology. That is the nature of proliferation, once unleashed.
That reality underlines the strategic dilemma facing Israel. Not only is Iran now virtually a nuclear-weapons state but relatively soon there could be half a dozen across the region. What Ariel Sharon feared as a “nuclear holocaust” has twice led Israel to attack nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states. If Israel were to strike Iran in the near future, it has the possibility of thwarting not only Tehran’s program but other nascent programs as well.
No one beyond a small circle of decision-makers really knows what Benjamin Netanyahu will do. But his concerns that Obama’s Iran policy constitutes an existential threat to Israel are already on the public record. Since no one truly believes Obama will use military force, we must now await Israel’s decision. And we must make it clear that America will support Israel if it acts where we have defaulted.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.