Syria Foreshadows Future Crisis with Iran
A nuclear Iran, some wishfully argue, would pose manageable risks. But history, predictably, takes strange twists. Today’s Syrian crisis shows how unmanageable tomorrow’s Iranian crisis could become.
The Syrian crisis is now 18 months old. But only recently, as Syria’s tyrant weakens and adopts increasingly violent counter-measures, has focus shifted to the risks posed by Syria’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Not long ago, the Assad regime acknowledged holding large stockpiles of chemical weapons – heretofore denied – to underscore those risks.
On the one hand it is feared that in extremis Syria’s tyrant Bashir al-Assad might use chemical weapons to decimate his opposition or complicate Western intervention; on the other hand, it is feared that a collapse of the regime might lead to their dispersal and acquisition by other parties, especially terrorist organizations.
Recently, President Obama made those risks a primary American focus, going so far as to say that they are the principal grounds for an American armed intervention, which he has so far rejected. “We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”
Some argue that a nuclear-armed Iran, facing overwhelming Western arsenals, would have compelling reasons to handle such weapons responsibly. Set that questionable proposition aside for the moment and consider the abnormal times that may well lie ahead. The Iranian hard-line leadership rules from an unsteady base. For now, the widespread discontent shown by Iranians in the demonstrations of the summer of 2009 has been brutally stifled. But few consider that the regime’s problems have been resolved – not least because it is divided itself. Indeed, many in the West hope that a dramatic revolution will one day soon rid us of the Ayatollahs' dangerous regime.
But Iran gaining nuclear weapons would both delay that day and make it more dangerous when it comes. Between the onset of popular revolution and its outcome would lie nuclear risks unlike any the world has known.
We have no reason to expect that the radical rulers of Iran will go gently if and when revolution comes. Muammar Gaddafi and Assad fought back, and the Iranian mullahs hold even stronger ambitions and hatreds of the West. Indeed, the lessons they will likely draw from Libya and Syria is that a bloody-minded regime can repress its rebels if the regime can forestall outside assistance. So they are unlikely to lay down before their great enemy – the West and especially the United States, the forces of “Global Arrogance” and injustice, as they term them – and abandon the ambition, indeed, the proclaimed religious obligation to create an Islamic new world order.
Moreover, if Iranian hard-liners succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons, those weapons will most likely be kept in the hands of military leaders – the Revolutionary Guard - closest to the hard-liners. In short, the weapons will be where we would least want them in turbulent times.
So what might hard-liners - bloodied by rebellion, betrayed by apostates they despise, and fearing retribution for their crimes - do? Would they conceive of some final direct use of these dreadful weapons against us as some final “victory” over their enemies? Would they fear bringing retribution down on the revolutionaries supplanting them?
Of course, to many this would appear to be irrational and vicious in the extreme. But would it appear so to elements within the regime who consider the revolutionaries supplanting the Islamic state as unholy murderers? For by the time the former regime would face these decisions - after several months of vicious rebellion – it would likely consider the revolutionaries as anti-Islamic apostates (who, under Islamic law would merit death) and killers of the hard-liners’ friends and family.
Alternatively, might hard-liners on the run trade some weapons to other countries or terror groups for cash or sanctuary to save themselves and carry on the struggle in future and less direct ways? Might they stash other weapons away as future bargaining chips to prevent reprisals; weapons that would emerge among our enemies months or years later?
On the other hand, and as is now feared in Syria, the regime might simply lose control of these weapons. Terror groups or thieves might then sell them to other terrorist parties.
The very risk of these possibilities will present us not only with great dangers but also a great policy conundrum in addressing Iranian civil strife. Allowing the Ayatollahs to obtain nuclear arms will predictably empower their bloody suppression of Iranian democrats by steeply raising the risks of Western intervention. Will we side with anti-regime forces in their struggle against Iranian tyranny, knowing that Iran might exact an awful revenge? Or will we find ourselves held hostage to the fear of the loss of control or use of nuclear weapons? Will the regime itself try to hold us hostage? Will we then find ourselves in the position of having to conspire with the regime - tacitly or otherwise - to suppress its rebellion or to “manage” a transition in which the desires of the Iranian public are frustrated?
Worst of all, suppose we suffered a nuclear terror attack unleashed by the deposed Ayatollahs? Would we retaliate with nuclear strikes against the democratic rebels and innocent Iranians whom we had encouraged to take power? If you hesitate to say yes, then how can we be confident that we will deter such attacks upon us?
The strategy of mutual assured destruction of innocents under which we waged the Cold War was a necessary moral abomination. Are we so eager to embrace it again?
How the problem of Syrian WMD will ultimately be addressed and resolved remains to be seen. But it is clear that the only way to avoid much worse dilemmas is to prevent the existence of an Iranian nuclear arsenal.