Nightmare Scenario In the Middle East as Iran Inches Closer to the Bomb

That new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency? No big whoop. All it says is that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

“The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the report concludes. As a result, IAEA, the U.N. “watchdog” responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, now “has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Welcome to the club, IAEA. The rest of the sentient world has known about Tehran’s “secret” program to build the bomb since 2002.

What is most troubling is not IAEA’s belated confirmation of what’s up with the Iran nuclear weapons program, it’s how the world has changed since Tehran started its bomb-building quest. The prospect of Iran joining the nuclear club is far more terrifying today.

Practically speaking, nuclear weapons are good for only one thing: deterring overt atomic war with another atomic power. While that strategy worked during the Cold War, it was not without peril. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, trigger fingers itched in both Washington and Moscow. Two decades later, Soviet intelligence misinterpreted the 1983 NATO Able Archer military exercise as a prelude to a nuclear strike; the doomsday clock ticked close to midnight.

Nuclear competition was a far simpler exercise when those confrontations occurred. There were only two players on the field. That “stable” nuclear environment no longer prevails. And things will get even more unstable if and when Iran becomes a player.

Analysts on the right and left agree that the most likely and immediate outcome of a nuclear-armed Iran is that many of its neighbors will follow suit. They will acquire their atomic weapons of their own as a check to Iranian power.

The problem is that after they arm themselves, the nuclear camps won’t cleanly line up into two sides. Atomic competition in the Middle East will look like a soccer game with a half dozen teams on the field, each trying to score their own goals. Here's a look at the likely scenario in the region:

Turkey—There were nuclear weapons here during the Cold War, but they belonged to NATO. If Istanbul goes nuclear again, it will most likely build its own weapons. The Turkish arsenal will be controlled by a different government as well. Today, Istanbul charts a more independent course from the U.S. and Europe. Odds are Turkey’s nuclear strategy will follow its own path as well.

Saudi Arabia—There’s no love lost between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia might well be the first out of the blocks in the race to arm itself once Iran gets the bomb.

Egypt—This nation has long considered itself the region’s principal military power. Moreover, Egypt’s top brass may decide that getting nuclear arms will solidify their position as the guardian of the nation.

IraqBaghdad is the big question mark. With President Obama’s rapid drawdown of U.S. forces, it is less clear how much influence the White House will have on the new regime. It would be ironic if the U.S., having overthrown one Iraqi regime seeking nuclear arms, were to set the conditions so that the new government felt it had no choice but to acquire nuclear arms to defend itself from Iran.

And then there are the countries that already have nuclear arsenals.

Russia—Under the New START treaty negotiated with Russia by Team Obama, Moscow will be able to build up its strategic nuclear force to match the United States. In Western Europe. Russia already has a 20 to 1 advantage over the U.S. in tactical nuclear weapons.

Israel—Again thanks to President Obama’s “smart diplomacy,” the Middle East’s only democracy feels increasingly isolated and alone.

This is not a part of the world that needs more nuclear powers. In 2009, The Heritage Foundation organized a war-gaming exercise that examined how stable the world would be with a number of independent nuclear powers in the Middle East. The answer was clear: It would be deeply shaken indeed.

Sadly, the administration’s mishandling of foreign affairs over the last two years has made this nightmare scenario more likely, not less. It has done too little to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. It has been aloof from the Iranian democracy movement and a bystander in Egypt’s Arab Spring. It has botched relations with Iraq. It has calmly watched Turkey’s drift and taken the U.S.-Israeli alliance for granted. It’s much ballyhooed “reset” with Russia has accomplished nothing other than to make Moscow a more dominant nuclear power.

The region—and the world—is far more dangerous today than when Tehran first set its sights on getting the bomb. The IAEA report confirms that stability will be even harder to come by in the not-too-distant future.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.