A number of analysts believe that Iran will reach a critical stage in its pursuit of nuclear capability sometime within the next few months. This is a terrifying new development, far more worrisome than the wars and uprisings that have plagued the Middle East to date.
Indeed, as Ray Takeyh, director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center at the National Defense University, said at a recent Washington conference, Iran may have already passed the point of “political no return” in its bid for nuclear competence. If the Islamic republic has already passed that political landmark, then the actual point of no return cannot be far away.
Iran’s urge to join the elite “nuclear club” has been encouraged by a number of patrons who would like to see a second Islamic nation, after Pakistan, develop a nuclear weapon to counter Israel’s atomic arsenal. Takeyh believes that if Iran has not crossed the threshold, it is “awfully close.”
Stressing the Islamic republic’s objective, last June Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi asked that his nation be recognized as a member of the nuclear club. “This is an irreversible path,” Kharrazi stated. He went on to reveal that his country is now able to operate the full nuclear fuel cycle. Then, in a tentative reassurance to the West, added that Iran is “not now enriching uranium.” Not yet—but intelligence analysts believe it will soon begin processing this vital nuclear component.
Iran has long wanted to be recognized as a regional superpower, a desire that began under the shah, if not earlier, possibly as far back as 580 B.C. with Cyrus the Great. The country’s mutation from an imperial dynasty to an Islamic theocracy did little to alter Iran’s visions of regional grandeur. From their perspective, Iranians feel they have good reason to want nuclear deterrence.
First, the United States’ invasion of Iraq served as a reminder to autocracies around the world of their need to be strong enough to deter potential U.S. intervention. If nothing else, Iraq’s invasion served as the poster child for nuclear deterrence against unilateral military action from the world’s remaining superpower. Repeated threats of regime change by the Bush administration have only increased Iran’s fears that they could be next in line. President George W. Bush’s campaign promise about “finishing the job,” if re-elected in November, is a slogan that must keep more than one ayatollah awake at night—and pushing for nuclear deterrence.
Immediately following the 1991 Gulf War, India’s then chief of staff was asked privately what strategic lessons should be drawn from the rapid and overwhelming U.S. victory over Iraq. “Make sure you have your own atomic bomb before you challenge the United States,” he replied.
Second, Iran cannot predict how a highly unstable Iraq—a longtime foe—will turn out once this initial post-Saddam chaotic phase passes. And third, some members of Tehran’s ruling theocracy believe that if Israel is permitted nuclear weapons, why not Iran? Being lumped into the “Axis of Evil” has helped justify a level of paranoia.
While the United States is keeping an eye on Iran’s nuclear progress, there is another country watching even more closely. Israel, feeling the most threatened by Iran’s march towards nuclear competency, is reportedly preparing a repeat of its 1981 raid on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. With about 140,000 American troops in neighboring Iraq, chances that the U.S. will intervene militarily are slim, making it all the more probable that Israel will feel it has to act unilaterally.
According to a recent report, Israel has built replicas of Iran’s nuclear facilities in the Negev Desert, where their fighter-bombers have been practicing test runs for months. Israel realizes it has a small window of opportunity if it is to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities before they go “hot” and leakage from an attack causes harmful exposure to tens of thousands of civilians caught by radiation forced into the atmosphere by such a raid.
Israel is unlikely to accept Iran’s word that its nuclear program is meant solely for peaceful purposes and aimed at developing commercial energy. The possibility of decisive military action is, indeed, high.
What follows is the unfolding of a worst-case scenario, an imaginary yet all-too-possible depiction of how events might develop if Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Day One: Wednesday
In a pre-dawn raid, undisclosed numbers of Israeli warplanes, taking off from military airbases in the Negev, destroy Iran’s main nuclear facility at Bushehr. Israel’s armed forces have released no details, but it is believed the planes flew over parts of Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, refueling in mid-air before reaching their target. Military analysts speculate that the planes must have refueled somewhere over Iraq.
During the one-hour raid, Iran claims to have shot down “several” Israeli fighters. Television images show pilots being lynched by furious mobs before Iranian authorities could reach them. The after-effects of the raid shake the Arab and Islamic world. Millions take to the streets demanding immediate action against Israel.
In planning the attack, Israel weighed the threats of Arab and Muslim reaction. The only other nuclear threat, and a possible danger to Israel, is Pakistan. Israel considered striking Pakistan’s nuclear sites, too, but Indian intelligence reports that Pakistan lacks long-distance delivery for its warheads. Bombay is the farthest they can reach. Additional reassurance from American intelligence convinced Israel that as long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan does not represent an imminent threat. The decision was made not to hit Pakistan.
Day Two: Thursday
Believing that Israel would never undertake such actions without U.S. approval, or at least a tacit nod from the American administration, Iran retaliates. Thousands of Revolutionary Guards are dispatched across the border into Iraq with orders to inflict as many casualties on American troops as possible. Fierce clashes erupt between coalition forces and Iranians. Within hours, more than 400 U.S. troops are killed, and many more wounded in heavy fighting. Iranian sleeper agents, who have infiltrated Iraq since the downfall of Saddam, urge Iraqi Shi’ites into action. They cut major highways and harass coalition troops, preventing reinforcements from reaching units under attack. Several helicopters are shot down.
Tehran orders the Lebanese Shi’ite movement, Hezbollah, into action against northern Israel. Hezbollah launches scores of rockets and mortars against kibbutzim, towns, and settlements. Israel retaliates. Casualties are high on both sides of the frontier. Tension in the Middle East reaches a boiling point. In Washington, the Cabinet convenes in an emergency session.
Massive demonstrations erupt all over the Arab and Islamic world. Crowds of gigantic proportions take to the streets, ransacking Israeli embassies in Cairo, Amman, and Ankara. American embassies in a number of other cities are burned. With police overwhelmed, the military is called in. Armies open fire, killing hundreds, adding to the outrage.
Day Three: Friday
Following Friday prayers across the Islamic world, crowds incited by fiery sermons in mosques from Casablanca to Karachi take to the streets in the worst protests yet. Government buildings are ransacked, and clashes with security forces result in greater casualties. Martial law is declared, and curfew imposed, but this fails to prevent further mayhem and rioting. Islamist groups call for the overthrow of governments and for immediate military action against Israel.
In Saudi Arabia, Islamist militants engage in open gun battles with security forces in several cities. The whereabouts of the Saudi royal family are unknown. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, and a dozen other countries, crowds continue to run amok, demanding war on Israel.
Day Four: Saturday
A longstanding plan to overthrow Musharraf is carried out by senior Pakistani army officers loyal to the Islamic fundamentalists and with close ties to bin Laden. The coup is carried out in utmost secrecy.
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI—a long-time supporter of the fundamentalists—in agreement with the plotters, takes control of the country’s nuclear arsenal and its codes. Within hours, and before news of the coup leaks out, Pakistan, now run by pro-bin Laden fundamentalists, loads two nuclear weapons aboard executive Lear jets that take off from a remote military airfield, headed for Tel Aviv and Ashdod. Detouring and refueling in east Africa, they approach Israel from the south. The crafts identify themselves as South African. Their tail markings match the given identification.
The two planes with their deadly cargo are flown by suicide pilots who, armed with false flight plans and posing as business executives, follow the flight path given to them by Israeli air traffic control. At the last moment, however, the planes veer away from the airfield, soar into the sky and dive into the outskirts of the two cities, detonating their nuclear devices in the process.
The rest of this scenario can unfold in a number of ways. Take your pick; none are encouraging.
Israel retaliates against Pakistan, killing millions in the process. Arab governments fall. Following days of violence, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt succumb to Islamist rebels who vow open warfare with Israel. The Middle East regresses into war, with the fighting claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. A much-weakened Israel, now struggling for its very survival, deploys more nuclear weapons, targeting multiple Arab capitals. The Middle East is in complete mayhem, as the United States desperately tries to arrange a cease-fire.
This was all a bad dream, or rather one writer’s dark vision of what might happen if the current situation is allowed to continue unchecked. What precisely are the chances of any of this coming to pass? The probability of Israel striking Iran is very real. That could happen at any moment. As for the rest, there is really no way to know what will ensue once the demons are unleashed. Events could unfold as described above, or they could develop a bit differently, give or take a nuke or two. Whatever the outcome, it will not be good.
The solution is far from evident. Takeyh, the professor of national security studies, notes that in the past where there have been cases of “nuclear reversal,” such as in South Africa, it has happened due to a change in the region’s strategic environment.
The Middle East hardly falls into that category. Iran is unlikely to give up its nuclear deterrence as long as Israel remains a nuclear power. Israel is unlikely to cede its nuclear capability as long as it feels threatened by the Arab/Islamic world and as long as Pakistan holds on to its bomb. Pakistan, of course, points to India, also a nuclear power. India looks at Pakistan and across the Himalayas and sees nuclear-armed China and says it would never give up its cherished membership to the elite nuclear club.
In his campaign stops, President Bush keeps reiterating that the world is a safer place because of his actions. Yet looking at the state of world affairs it is very difficult to agree with him. The dead-ended Mideast peace talks, Saudi Arabia’s internal turmoil, continuing Islamist terrorist threats, the vulnerability of American troops in Iraq, and the question of Iran’s nukes all contribute to maintaining tensions at an all-time high.
Barring a solid and lasting peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the countries of the Middle East are far from nuclear disarmament. If anything, nuclear proliferation is only likely to increase as states like Saudi Arabia find that they, too, need to defend themselves against a nuclear-armed Iran. Recent reports have indicated that Saudi Arabia is looking to lease Pakistan’s nukes. The arms race of the Cold War may be dead, but the race for hot weapons has never been so alive.
Claude Salhani is foreign editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington.