What If Iran Really Went Nuclear?

Some say it might not matter as much as you think

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Today, the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his country a "nuclear state." Experts agree that the claim is "impossible" given the raw state of its nuclear program and the slow pace of its enrichment. But there's little doubt that it remains a goal of Iran. Western commentary has focused on deterring Iran and diplomatic talks, and a new strain of debate is emerging: What would happen if Admadinejad had been telling the truth and Iran truly did become a nuclear state?

  • Middle-Easterners Ally With U.S. Against Iran  Military analyst Adam Lowther argues in The New York Times that it would push Iran's neighbors into a closer alliance with the U.S. "Washington could offer regional security — primarily, a Middle East nuclear umbrella — in exchange for economic, political and social reforms in the autocratic Arab regimes responsible for breeding the discontent that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." Additionally, "becoming the primary provider of regional security in a nuclear Middle East would give the United States a way to break the OPEC cartel."
  • Middle-Easterners Ally With Iran Against U.S.  The New Republic's Matthew Kroenig predicts that Iran's nukes would be used in defense of its neighbors against U.S. influence. "The United States’ global power-projection capability provides Washington with a significant strategic advantage: It can protect, or threaten, Iran and any other country on the planet. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, would greatly reduce the latitude of its armed forces in the Middle East," he writes. "[A] nuclear-armed Iran would certainly mean a more constrained U.S. military in the Middle East."
  • Good News for China and Russia  Matthew Yglesias suggests "Iranian nuclear weapons program as a possible countermeasure against American power-projection" would limit that projection in China and Russia's respective back yards. "I think too little attention has been paid to another aspect of the situation from the Russian point-of-view, namely that Russia would be a major beneficiary of a disruption in production/export of oil from the Persian Gulf. If I were in Moscow, I’d be thinking that some kind of military confrontation between the US and/or Israel and Iran would likely do wonders for Russia's finances."
  • In Today's World? Won't Change Much  Defense professor Robert Farley looks at Pakistan's nuclear program. "The Pakistani nuclear deterrent hasn't prevented the United States from overthrowing Pakistan's client in Afghanistan, continuing the fight against that client for nine years (as the fight destabilized Pakistan's border regions), and even launching a long campaign of attacks within Pakistan's borders. It's almost enough to make one doubt that nuclear weapons actually provide any serious leverage in ordinary diplomatic and military disputes."
  • Probably Means Less Than You Think  Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt is tired of the grand prognosticating about Iran's nuclear program.
In fact, history suggests that an Iranian bomb would have a far more modest impact than either side of this debate is now suggesting. Getting the bomb didn't transform Red China or North Korea into great world powers overnight; it was economic modernization that did the trick for Beijing, while North Korea remains a basket case with virtually no global influence. The mighty Soviet Union couldn't blackmail anyone despite having tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and having a few hundred nuclear weapons doesn't enable Israel to simply dictate to its neighbors either. You may have also noticed that America's own nuclear arsenal hasn't given Washington the capacity to compel everyone to do its bidding either.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.