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The Middle East and the Arab Gulf nations in particular fear a nuclear-armed Iran, based on Iran’s history of agitation and violent attempts to export the Islamic Revolution to other countries. During the 1980s, Iran engaged in acts of terror against almost all the Middle East countries.
Despite a decline of terrorism in the 1990s and rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, tensions have increased in the last few years as Iran found a means to change the balance of power. The fears expressed by Middle Eastern nations are not based on theoretical assumptions, but on previous experience with Iranian-backed terrorism and intimidation.
Nuclear Iran: Middle East’s Fears Well-Founded
Iran’s past has dictated the shape of these fears in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East. Iran is directly responsible for terrorist attacks in almost all Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. Those attacks include car bombings and café attacks in Kuwait, suicide car bombs, individual bombers at Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and targeted assassinations in various countries. These attacks were constant features of life in the 1980s after the Shah was deposed.
Iran became a direct supplier and enabler of terrorism in Lebanon through its Hezbollah organization. The violence was directed against Arabs and Muslims as much as, or more than, Christians or Jews.
German historian and Arab expert Henner Fuertig in his book Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars said that Iran felt “they had the legitimate right to operate outside the recognized norms of diplomacy and international law when pursuing their political aims.” This included their terror campaign as well as pursuing the export of the Islamic Revolution by any means: political, social or religious.
Even before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran had deeply known involvement in Yemen and its civil wars. Iran had invaded the Tumb Islands along with Abu Musa in 1971. Iran not only invaded these islands, but also placed heavy pressure on Bahrain to permit their annexation into Iranian control. These aggressive moves led to the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council or G.C.C.
Iran Could Influence Local Political Policy through Nuclear Blackmail
An additional concern is that a nuclear Iran would be in a position to dictate policy through the use of nuclear blackmail. Currently, Shia Muslims constitute the bulk of the population in southern Iraq, almost the entire population of Bahrain, and the vast majority of those living in the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia. The Shia (Twelver Imam) Iranian government already uses these Shia dissidents in these countries to shape policy and cause instability. This happened multiple times in the 1980s, but also very recently.
Oil production strikes and mass demonstrations have been the most common approach. However, a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to turn Shia dissidents into a much more imminent threat with the suggestion that some Shias in Saudi Arabia might be given nuclear arms.
In 1989, Iran supplied Shia dissidents with explosives that led to a suicide attack during the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Although the attack did not kill many people and only injured a few, it demonstrated that Iran was willing to go to great lengths to export its ideology and faith.
Tellingly, Iran has never disavowed nor sought forgiveness over these methods or acts of terror. A common saying in the Middle East is “stroke the hand that chokes you, until you can break it.”
Iran followed this method by adopting a more pragmatic approach to its still active ideology of exporting the Islamic Revolution to other nations. The terrorist acts and the undermining of various governments led Iran to be isolated by the Middle East, cutting off much-needed economic support and aid.
However, many people perceive this not as a retreat from the radical ideology, but a biding of time. Iran’s leadership is not in a hurry. They fundamentally believe that they will outlast the West and that Islam will eventually prevail, no matter how long it takes.
Westerners Mistakenly Believe Nuclear Iran Is Less of a Threat
The change of methodology has led to a Western perception that Iran became more moderate since the Iran-Iraq War and the terror of the 1980s. However, this has been a well-crafted propaganda operation, carefully orchestrated to reduce the support that the Saudis receive from America and other allies.
The Ayatollahs still rule Iran. Iran operates on a theocratic basis, with the President serving in a more figurehead and advisory capacity.
In 2009, there was a chance for what might be termed pre-Reform in Iran through the media-labeled “Green Revolution”. The movement was led by students and moderates in Iran to elect what in Iran was a moderate President.
The movement did not succeed. Without the support of the U.S., oppressive measures crushed the movement. It would have changed the nature of the engagement with Iran over its nuclear program and perhaps bring it into line with actual civilian use.
Middle Eastern Leaders Wary of Iran’s Future Behavior
The Middle East recognizes Iran’s readiness to violate treaties and eliminate those others it perceives as blocking the path of liberation in the Middle East. Once Iran has nuclear capability, the Middle East worries they will be hostage to the government of Iran, its vision and the export of the radical Twelver Imam Shia faith that they practice. This faith is the cornerstone of Iran’s social and political life.
Iran will force other Middle Eastern nations into joining the nuclear club, which could lead to disastrous consequences. In January, according to another Middle East expert, Saudi Arabia and Iran came within 48 hours of a conventional ground war over the execution of a Shia cleric. Had either or both nations possessed nuclear arms, we would have seen a nuclear conflict.
About the Author
James Bowden is a 2013 graduate of American Military University with an M.A. in Ancient & Classical History. James focused on ancient Near East, particularly Sumer and Akkad, but has expanded to writing on modern Middle East. He has written for several magazines and journals, most recently for Modern War Magazine, Archaeological Diggings, and for the upcoming Sage Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives (due out 2016). He blogs regularly on the Middle East on LinkedIn.