Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Why does Iran want nuclear weapons?

Apr 14, 2014 | Emanuele Ottolenghi

Essay: Why does Iran want nuclear weapons?

Emanuele Ottolenghi


During the past decade, Western diplomats have been engaged in protracted negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. Though a deal remains elusive, Western policymakers remain adamant that an agreement is possible. Much of their optimism is driven by a willingness to test the proposition, put forward by their Iranian counterparts, that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons on religious grounds. 

Iran has tirelessly presented itself as a victim of Western arrogance – a much maligned and misunderstood country – whose history proves, in its leaders’ minds, that Iran never sought to threaten anyone. Iran, they opine, is a benign power whose aspirations to regional prominence and global influence should be recognised and accommodated. Iran, they quip, never attacked anyone. Iran, they insist, is in fact an ideal partner for Western powers – better relations would be mutually beneficial in more than one sphere. Iran’s Supreme Leader, they posit, has repeatedly ruled out nuclear weapons as “un-Islamic” – and therefore Western suspicions should dissipate. Iran is adamant, therefore, that the decade-long diplomatic quarrel should subside, since Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot possibly be construed as a threat to anyone.


Iran’s History of Antagonism

The most risible of all propositions, which seek to minimise the impact of an Iranian nuclear capability, is that Iran has never threatened anyone. It did. It does. And it will continue to do so in its subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To Iran’s credit, the Iran-Iraq war – the only occasion when Iran fought a conventional war under the Islamic Republic’s regime – was initiated by Iraq, not Iran. Even so, Iran has been involved in aggression ever since the Peacock Throne was replaced by Khomeini’s Revolution.

First, within months of the Revolution, the US Embassy in Teheran was seized and about seventy US diplomats were taken hostage for more than a year. Since then, Iran has made extensive use of suicide bombers, exporting their lethal menace to areas where its enemies could be slaughtered in great numbers. In 1983, its wholly-owned Hezbollah proxy struck first the US Embassy in Beirut (60 dead), and then the barracks of the US Marine peacekeepers in Beirut (241 dead) and the barracks of the French peace-keeping paratroopers (53 dead). The then-Prime Minister of Iran, Mir Hossein Moussavi, who in 2009 rose to fame for galvanising Iran’s reformist forces against then-President Ahmadinejad, was directly involved in the decision to order the attack. Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of US diplomat William Buckley in Beirut in 1984. Hezbollah was responsible for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the cold-blooded murder of an American passenger on board – US Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem. Then, in April 1988, a car bomb exploded outside a USO club in Naples, killing five, including one US sailor, Angela Santos. A group called the Organisation of Jihad Brigades (OJB) claimed responsibility. Although a Japanese Red Army terrorist was later convicted for the attack, the State Department considers the OJB to be an affiliate of Hezbollah. The use of front organisations did not end in 1988. Two car bomb attacks against American targets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (on November 13, 1995) and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (on June 25, 1996), were claimed by a shadowy group called the Islamic Movement for Change. Five US servicemen died in the first attack, and nineteen in the second. Though some assume this group to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, many sources link it to Iran – and there would be little contradiction if this had been a joint operation, since Osama bin Laden’s franchise, at that time based in Sudan, was benefiting from the help and training of Imad Moughniyah, the Lebanese terror mastermind of Hezbollah.

Speaking of Moughniyah, Iran was certainly responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires (29 dead) and of the Jewish communal organisation AMIA in 1994 (85 dead, mostly non-Jewish Argentine citizens). Following the AMIA attack, Argentina’s authorities issued an international arrest warrant for several Iranian officials – including the then-serving President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his Foreign Minister, Ali Velayati and Ali Fallahian, who was the minister of intelligence at the time.

In addition to its campaign of mass-murder across the world, Iran also fanned the flames of conflict across the Middle East and Europe, dispatching assassins to kill its opponents in exile, often in friendly countries. Fallahian, for example, is wanted for the murder of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992 (the Mykonos restaurant attack) and later was accused of having ordered the murder of prominent dissidents inside Iran as well. The trail of death left behind by Teheran’s assassins is considerable – more than a hundred prominent activists, former members of the Shah’s army, civil service or political elites, and agitators from disparate opposition movements. More often than not, they met their death in Europe, where they thought they had found a safe haven.


Ideology and the Bomb

To sum up, Iran has not launched a war in the traditional sense of the term – not yet, at least. But it is hardly a hapless victim.

Many Western diplomats tend to downplay this history because they assume that Iran’s misdeeds are the offshoots of a bygone era – the revolutionary convulsions of a regime that has since settled into the region and only wishes to be recognised. This optimism is misplaced though, because Iran remains, in rhetoric and actions, a revolutionary power.

Iran is not putting forward its nuclear achievements as a negotiating chip in a grand bargain with the West that is the prelude to accommodation and coexistence. Nor is Iran pursuing a nuclear option for purely defensive purposes. Iran does not simply aspire to obtain weapons that will deter enemies and guarantee its survival. Iran is seeking instruments of ideological coercion and intimidation, and a tangible threat such as a nuclear arsenal is a portentous political tool to advance its ideological agenda. Iran is less likely to drop nuclear weapons on the heads of its enemies and more likely to use them as a way of expanding and consolidating its influence.

Iran’s revolutionary ideology postulates that the Islamic Republic exists as a tool for “the realisation of God’s will on earth.” Iran’s Supreme Leader is “God’s shadow on earth,” and as such, his word is final on what constitutes the realisation of divine will on earth. Opposing Khamenei’s will on the nuclear issue – and he has repeatedly said that Iran’s nuclear program is the realisation of God’s designs – is equivalent to opposing God.
What, then, are the goals that God supposedly bestowed on Iran which nuclear weapons would serve? God’s design is surely not so Iran-centric as to limit itself to deterring Iran’s enemies and guaranteeing the integrity of its borders. More likely, God wants Iran to become the beacon of Islam and to reassert Shi’ite predominance over the Sunni world. Khomeini himself explained that “we shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry, ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world. There will be struggle.” Nuclear weapons greatly enhance the ability of a country like Iran, blessed with oil riches, to export its dream – by persuasion, if possible, by force, if necessary.

Naturally, while Islam is central to Iran’s revolutionary ardour, Persian nationalism and its aspiration to assert Iran as the dominant power in the region, are still very much alive. Persian nationalism, combined with Khomeini’s radical understanding of Islamic governance, creates an explosive cocktail: Iran obsessively sees itself as the target of plots and conspiracies. Its sense of vulnerability is in stark contrast with the greatness to which Iran aspires – a greatness which Islamic revolutionary zeal has exponentially enhanced beyond Iran and the region. In these circumstances, the combined weight of destiny, paranoia and zeal makes the bomb a profoundly dangerous instrument in the hands of those who are determined to promote imperialist aspirations.

Iran’s ideological push toward the bomb today rides on this explosive combination of the divine and subversive – a recipe that makes Iran a country constantly searching for a new regional status quo. The new world that Iran seeks to create will be dominated by Teheran. It will be characterised by fierce competition with the US for hegemony over the Gulf and by efforts to cement alliances to confront Iran’s ideological antagonists: America and Israel first, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Iran would use its acquired nuclear capability as a force-multiplier in order to project its power across the region and beyond in unprecedented ways in pursuit of its imperial and revolutionary ambitions.


New Power Abroad

Sooner or later, a revolutionary power aims to export its revolution, both as an instrument of radical change and as a tool to establish its hegemonic role. If that is so, then the revolutionary power sooner or later will find itself at war with its neighbours or other regional and global powers that see themselves as guarantors or beneficiaries of the status quo. In the case of Iran, the objective is to export Khomeini’s revolutionary vision. Such acts will sooner or later set Iran on a collision course and drag the Islamic Revolutionary Republic into theatres of conflict, near and far, wherever Iran sees fertile territory for intruding its vision. If that were to happen under a nuclear umbrella, Iran would be able to act with far more impunity that at present.

Iran, for example, could blackmail its neighbours by issuing credible threats aimed at forcing them to reduce oil production quotas, thereby raising world prices. Iran could also link levels of supply to political change. It could, say, demand a reduction in the US presence in countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, insisting that Iran alone would “protect” the waterways.

While the focus of concern is usually the Gulf – the immediate repercussions of a nuclear Iran almost certainly would be felt there – Iran’s nuclear arsenal would extend its shadow into the oil- and gas-rich Caspian basin, too. As the Georgia crisis of August 2008 and the 2014 Russian occupation of the Crimea peninsula clearly indicate, the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian basin is strategically vital for European interests. Much like Russia, Iran could exploit its nuclear status to blackmail neighbouring countries to the north, too, with the aim of controlling energy prices and, by extension, the policies of European countries that are most dependent on those supplies. It is wrong to assume that in this area Iran’s bullying tactics may be opposed by Russia. After all, the Kremlin is on the same page as Iran when it comes to energy prices. Europeans look to Iran as a potential solution to their dependence on Russian energy supplies and Russian-controlled energy routes. But if Iran and Russia join forces, their ability to fix prices and determine supplies may match OPEC. A nuclear Iran could seek closer cooperation with Russia precisely in this area.

Nor will Iranian interference stop at threats and provocations over oil prices. There is further potential for Iran to project its aggressive power in the drive to expand its influence. For one, its Gulf neighbours, already at a significant disadvantage, would be unable to resist Iranian interference. With significant Shi’ite communities across the Gulf, Iran might be tempted to use the model of Russia’s intervention in Georgia and Crimea “on behalf of its ethnic kin” to act in a similar way “on behalf of the Shi’ite populations” in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.


Subverting Regional Stability

Such provocative demands could be made with greater effect if backed by even a tacit nuclear threat. Would Europe risk Paris, London or Rome for Manama? What if Iran engineered the overthrow of the monarchy and got a friendly Shi’ite government installed? What would the US do, faced with the dilemma between acquiescence to the decline of its influence in the Gulf and the possibility of a direct military confrontation against a nuclear armed Iran?

Hegemony does not require bombs to rain down on neighbours. Simply possessing the option is enough to scare others into submission and force even the most formidable adversaries to change their strategic calculus to your advantage. And while submission might be the political posture of states in the area, individuals might choose to seek safer shores for their businesses and their endeavours. An exodus of elites would not be a surprising side-effect of Teheran’s nuclear rise.

Bahrain is not the only Gulf country to fear Iranian interference. Iran could destabilise any country in the area, support subversion inside their territories and use the threat of Armageddon to coerce their governments. Even Saudi Arabia, which, unlike the Gulf emirates, is not a tiny city-state but a powerful and populous nation, is bound to suffer, perhaps even more than its smaller Gulf neighbours.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Teheran has been competing with Saudi Arabia for dominance within the Islamic world. Indeed, Khomeini defined the Revolution as an attempt to redress the “wrongs” of Islamic history. This was generally interpreted to mean the restoration of Shi’ism and the successors of Imam Hussein as the rightful heir to the Prophet after the Sunnis defeated and martyred him in Kerbala in the seventh century. The Saudis, for their part, regard Shi’ism as apostasy.

And then there is the millennia-old rivalry between Persia and Arabia which still exists. A nuclear-powered Iran would finally be in a position to humiliate the Saudi monarchy and destabilise it from within, perhaps even bring it down. This could be achieved by financing and supporting terror inside the Kingdom targeting sensitive and strategic oil sites inside Saudi Arabia, which are largely inhabited by Shi’ites. Iran could promote Shi’ite insurgencies, as it is already doing in Yemen. It could use the 400,000 Iranian residents in the Emirates to wreak havoc among the flourishing but fragile economies of the Gulf. It could intimidate its rulers and force them to expel Americans on their soil. It could even force the indigenous rulers themselves to go.

Nor would it end there. Iran could demand safe and unfettered passage for its navy through the Suez Canal in order to supply its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, in the Mediterranean. Iran has already created a bridgehead in Sudan. Its ships already travel the busy waterways of the Red Sea to carry illicit cargoes to and from Iran. What its fleet is doing now quietly, clandestinely and circumspectly, a nuclear Iran could do openly, brazenly, and impudently.

Iran’s potential for blackmail would stretch beyond its immediate neighbourhood. A nuclear Iran would certainly continue to support terrorist organisations across the region and beyond. Today, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza operate under the aegis of Iran. They are trained, funded, ideologically guided and politically supported by Teheran, which also supports Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Shi’ite guerrillas in Yemen, as well as elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Already an actor in all these theatres of conflict, Iran’s behaviour could degenerate still further. Today, it is trying to gain a foothold in those areas by destabilising them. Tomorrow, supported by a nuclear fist, Iran will become indispensable to solving all of those conflicts (most of which it instigated and nourished in the first place).
Finally, one cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might transfer weapons of mass destruction to its clients. Iran is equipping Hezbollah with missiles that are capable of carrying non-conventional warheads. Iran might soon be able to hand a briefcase nuclear device to a terrorist commando. As the French security and non-proliferation expert Bruno Tertrais says, “If you like the way Hamas and Hezbollah are behaving now, you are going to love it when Iran goes nuclear!” And Iran has a history of operating in the shadows, through proxies and alter-egos that do its bidding while the leadership in Teheran pleads innocence and laments threatening conspiracies against a peace-loving nation.


Beyond the Gulf

All these are strategies Iran could adopt and goals which Iran could achieve once it has nuclear capability. But Iran aspires to much more than just removing America from the Gulf or empowering Shi’ite communities in the region. Iran’s true wish is to export the revolution, as France did after 1789. The French armies did not invade and conquer Europe only to raise the revolutionary flag on the palaces of Europe’s ruling dynasties. They aspired to export the universal values of July 1789 beyond their borders, changing the social structures and balances of power in European societies. Iran wants nothing less.

Regional hegemony would not stop at a confrontation with America. Alongside Iran’s embassies and military bases would sprout myriad “revolutionary cultural centres,” a massive physical presence of Iranian emissaries and institutions. Iranian money would pour into projects (it already does in places like Lebanon and Syria) and Iranian missionaries would spread Iran’s version of Shi’ism throughout the region. Soon, the project would cross the waters, a symbol of Iran’s rising power and prestige in the Levant and the Gulf. European diplomatic sources indicate that Iran’s missionary activity is already in full swing in Europe among Sunni Muslims. As the champion of the oppressed, Iran could easily appeal to Muslim grievances and use its ecumenical approach to “resistance movements” – regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite – to win the hearts and minds of Europe’s Muslims.

Iran would claim patronage over Shi’ite communities throughout Europe and would offer its protection to Muslim communities outside the Middle East. Iran already transformed southern Lebanon into an Islamic Revolutionary republic in its own image. Iran would aspire to do the same elsewhere. And it might just succeed if its quest is backed by the might of a nuclear arsenal.


Nuclear Prestige

The prestige of a nuclear arsenal and its emergent military power would exponentially enhance Iran’s reach, influence and power. Teheran makes no secret of its aspiration to become the reference point for all anti-Western and anti-global movements. Today’s Iran dreams of transforming itself into a Soviet Union redux, racing to the aid of anti-Western revolutionaries. Tomorrow’s nuclear Iran will be able to fulfil that dream. It will be in a position to act as the sponsor for myriad radical, possibly violent, groups. Teheran will then be a small step from being a potent sponsor of subversion throughout the world – and with nuclear weapons in its arsenal, there will be little succour for those who wish to stop Iran from succeeding.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. Reprinted from Standpoint Magazine. © Standpoint ( reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.



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