The current stand-off with Iran should be called "Middle East WMD 2.0." No one knows Iran's true intentions.
There is little concern with the outcome that Iran is not pursuing a weapons program and the West does nothing -- this is the right course of action. Nor is there too much concern with the outcome that Iran was pursuing a weapons program and the US stops the program through force -- if it is truly justified and can be proven, then so be it.
But what if we get it wrong?
What if the skeptics are right? Suppose nothing is done and Iran develops a nuclear bomb.
There is no evidence to prove that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, but there is evidence to suggest that their nuclear program may not be exclusively intended for peaceful energy purposes. So what would a nuclear armed Iran look like?
First, there would be little chance that the US or Israel would attack Iran if Iran had a nuclear weapon. In fact, talk of attacks on Iran are the result of the uncertainty that Iran's nuclear program is causing. So, if Iran didn't want to be attacked in the long run, it should have a nuclear weapon program. But in doing so, it would invite an attack in the short run. Either way, the current regime is mainly interested in self preservation, and more so that monopolizing the region.
A nuclear-armed Iran may stimulate an arms race, or it may not. No other nation in the Middle East is pursuing a nuclear program even though Israel has a program. Admittedly, Iraq, Syria and Libya once did but each country at the time of their programs was under the rule of severe despots, something that other nations of the Middle East may not be subjected to at the same degree. Moreover, the degree to which Israel has a nuclear weapons program and this was the primary motivator for these three nations to pursue a program of their own is debatable.
A nuclear-armed Iran would also raise concerns about a WMD being given to a terrorist group for delivery to Israel or other nations. But a nuclear attack would likely be suspected of Iranian origin and this would put at-risk the regime's number one priority, which is self preservation. Also, on this idea, the regime would probably not want to give nuclear weapon to a terror group; once it is transferred, a huge concession of power has been granted and one that can't be controlled. Iran's Mullahs are unlikely to go this route.
It is hard to say what kind of tense stand-offs would occur between Iran and the West (who is Iran's chief antagonist). The US had tense stand-offs with the USSR, China, and Pakistan on a number of occasions. None of these resulted in a nuclear exchange; it may be the same with Iran.
There exists the possibility that through Venezuela, Iran could introduce nuclear weapons into the Western hemisphere as the USSR did back in 1962. If this happened, internal heated debates for a fence or wall along the US-Mexico border would increase, and justifiably so. The US gets about 11% of its oil from Venezuela and the introduction of Iranian nuclear weapons into the Western hemisphere would likely result in sanctions against Venezuela, with the effect that oil prices would increase and the price of all commodities would increase as well. This could push our fragile economic recovery back into a recession.
Much of the world would not be too concerned if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. China, Russia, most African nations and even many South American nations would not feel any imminent threat. Unfortunately, the number of countries that seem to be threatened by Iran are fewer than the number of countries that are indifferent. Certainly no country 'wants' to see another member of the nuclear club, but most seemingly do not seem threatened.
In short, the possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran would seriously complicate international relations and it would do so without even a nuclear attack. A nuclear attack is unlikely because as homicidal as the regime is, it is not suicidal.
What if the skeptics are wrong? Supposed Iran is attacked but there was no nuclear weapons program.
The first most obvious consequence would be that oil price speculation would increase. About 20% of the world's oil is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz and Iran would certainly try to curtail this. China, Russia, Venezuela and India would certainly protest and relations would be strained with the US. If Israel acts unilaterally, the US would be forced to step in and prevent a retaliatory strike. Iran is not Iraq or Syria and it would likely retaliate in one form or another. It may do so through proxy forces or it may do so with a few targeted strikes under the umbrella of China or Russia to prevent an all out war.
If on the other hand, the US attacked Iran's nuclear sites, there would be little Iran would be able to do directly to the US. Perhaps they could facilitate the use of terrorism on US soil, but this is unlikely since it would result in serious retaliation against the regime. Almost certainly, Iran would attack US interests in Afghanistan and even Iraq.
Another consequence of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is that the regime would suddenly enjoy the full support of a citizenry that it is currently at odds with. Moreover, this would probably result in loud internal calls for Iran to positively pursue a nuclear weapons program. The Iranian people are good people. I know from personal exposure. They are a nationalistic people and they do not want war. This is a point the West should be mindful of and work with.
Clearly, there has to be a balance between reasonable security and deserved reputation. The US cannot do well by striking another Muslim nation without iron clad evidence. The WMD debacle in Iraq in 2003 has put the entire world on alert US aggression in the Middle East. The US cannot afford any more costly military adventures. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the second largest contributor to the debt after the Bush Tax Cuts of 2001 and 2003. In addition to the monetary costs, the US has suffered politically from Iraq and would suffer from an incorrect attack on Iran (incorrect in the sense that there was no weapon program).
A Way Forward
With so many unknowns, there are no good options. Covert action against the Iranian nuclear program is advisable but provided it remains covert -- covert action in 1953 did not remain covert. However, the Stuxnet Virus that targeted Iran set Iran's program back several years and was untraceable and to this day; no nation or group has claimed responsibility.
But this sort of 'spy vs spy' approach is not sustainable. Eventually there will be a loser. The least worst option is for a dual approach of diplomacy and sanctions. If the West can convince Iran that it has much to gain by cooperating, then Iran will benefit. If Iran can convince the West that its nuclear program is truly intended for energy purposes, then Iran will benefit. Unfettered IAEA access will likely provide Iran with this. If the West can avoid striking Iran but still successfully resolving this stand-off, the West will benefit.
In short, there is much distrust on both sides of this issue. Poor reputation is the reason for much of this distrust. The way forward is reminiscent of the saying: "Take care of your character and your reputation will take care of itself." It seems that both the West and Iran have something to learn from this saying.
PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul is a candidate for US Congress from Massachusetts's 4th Congressional District and can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.