We have been at this point before almost two decades ago – an autocratic regime with significant human rights abuses has antagonised the global hegemon, rumours swirl of a WMD-program and a jingoistic media hypes itself into a frenzy. There is one key difference though: Iran is not Iraq.
Where Iraq’s nuclear reactors were destroyed in the early 1990s, long-before the 2003 invasion, Iran still possess theirs. Where Iraq’s nuclear program was one based on false pretences, Iran’s nuclear capacity is well-attested. Iran’s grasp for regional hegemony is not based on conventional invasions, as Iraq did to Kuwait. Instead, Iran uses various proxies to exert its control. Iranian forces are aiding and directing the Syrian regime, much like how they trained, equipped and directed Shi’ite militias in Iraq during the American occupation. Iran has supplied material to groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Iran has actively targeted oil shipping through the Gulf.
Iran has dishonoured previous agreements – including in developing and stockpiling ballistic missiles. One of the countries most prominent in helping Iran to develop this missile-capacity was North Korea, another country which has acquired nuclear weapons capable of eradicating nation-states, thanks to the handwringing and fear-mongering of pacifists.
Iran has recently signalled to the IAEA (who are responsible for overseeing that the Iranian nuclear deal is honoured) that they intend to break the limits placed on how much enriched uranium they are allowed to hold and they intend to begin enriching their stockpile towards 20% (nuclear weapons are technically possible to possess with an enrichment value of 20% although they are highly infeasible, most weapons’ grade uranium was enriched to between 85% and 97%). The JCPOA was supposed to limit Iran’s enrichment capacity to no more than 3.67% for 10 years.
But “the JCPOA can be honoured, Iran may not pursue nuclear-weapons after the agreements’ 10-year lifespan” you may hear – of course, they could. That depends entirely on whether or not you trust a regime that hangs young gay men from cranes.
But what you need to also keep in mind is that whatever deal Iran gets, whatever technical or productive capacity they possess, other regional powers will also seek to possess. Saudi Arabia (another flagrant rights abuser) has made it clear that whatever deal on enrichment Iran gets, they want a mirror image. Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan are also unlikely to be content to just allow Iran the technical ability to develop nuclear weapons within a matter of months (as the Institute for Science and International Security believes they can if they decide to).
Do you trust the Saudis, Emirates, Qataris, Jordanians, and Egyptians to all play nice and not develop nuclear weapons? This is the crux of the argument for the very existence of the non-proliferation treaty. If one country gets its hand on nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t their neighbour? Look at the case of India and Pakistan, where both have developed nuclear weapons and have come very close to using them on each other in the 1990s?
Now the question arises – how do you stop Iran getting its hands on the bomb? It is, after all, a country four times larger than Iraq with twice as many people, its topography is mountainous and isolated. If an insurgency in Iraq was hard to control, in Iran it would be herculean.
There are several other variables to consider however – Shi’ite militia in Iraq were so resilient because they received funding, training, equipment and direction from a powerful next-door neighbour. Iraq was also split into three distinct ethnoreligious sections, making conflict more likely (a la Syria). Iran does not have a particularly powerful ally next-door who will transfer men, materials and experience. Iran has also been under pressure and exclusion from Western-technology for longer. Where Iraq had chemical weapons provided by the Germans, Iran’s most recently purchased Western-weapons date from the 1960s. Indeed, one country (Pakistan) that Iran may find itself in bed with occasionally, would be unlikely to aid the regime – they want the Iranian region of Baluchistan on the border for themselves.
It is also unlikely that the mistakes made in Iraq would be repeated in Iran – America won’t be coming to Iran to bring liberal democracy it’ll be coming to remove a regime and stop a nuclear-program dead in its tracks.
And so, we come to the specifics of what an intervention in Iran would look like:
The first of several scenarios would be the complete dismantling of the regime and its replacement – an exact replica of Iraq. In a country the size of Iran, this would be a non-starter. The tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of people made unemployed and persona non grata would result in long-term instability and insurgency. It would also take an extreme toll on American (and other) resources, as well as on national morale. France deigned to follow America into Iraq and I can only imagine more would refuse to follow them into Iran without just cause. The ensuing instability would reverberate around the region on a scale much greater than Iraq’s did – as Iranian allies and proxies attack America, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia (et. al).
Even if this scenario succeeded, there would need to be a long-term deployment of forces to stabilise the new regime and to ensure that this regime didn’t decide that it needs to pursue nuclear weapons to ensure its longevity if it ever falls out of grace with the Americans (like how Mubarak fell in Egypt).
The second scenario would be regime-change by proxy – running a similar campaign to what the West has run against ISIS in Syria. Western airpower supporting insurgent groups against Iranian forces. This would be less resource-intensive, but finding the groups to rise against the Ayatollah would be a hard-find.
A third scenario would be limited strikes on Iranian nuclear and military facilities, and the immediate imposition of sanctions and blockades on Iran – leaving the regime intact but ensuring there was no way they could continue enrichment or nuclear programs. Although these attacks might embolden the regime, they did work to destroy Iraq’s nuclear program once and for all in the 1990s. When faced with overwhelming force and their own mortality, the regime would likely engage in conventional spats for a period of years to release the pent-up nationalistic fury of the regime’s supporters – but they wouldn’t pursue their nuclear program any further. The purpose of the weapons was to ensure survival – what’s the point in having them if they’re what cause your end?
I fully expect to be told I am fear-mongering or that I am an imperialist – but I will pose a question to you about where the greater evil lies:
Imagine a scenario in 15 years’ time when the JCPOA ends. The Ayatollah dies and is replaced by a new more jingoistic man who decides that he wants to replicate the Kim-dynasty in North Korea. Within months, he has acquired several nuclear warheads and now intervention is off-the-table. Now impervious to external pressures, the regime can openly bully and invade its neighbours.
Say a corrupt Iranian official decides that Israel really does need to be gotten rid of – and gives radioactive material to Hezbollah to be spread by a dirty-bomb in Tel Aviv. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia all decide that they too want nuclear weapons at all costs.
What is the greater evil – an intervention now that kills thousands but prevents nuclear-proliferation, or sitting on our hands and ultimately leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women and children through exposure to radioactive elements?
If you thought HBO’s Chernobyl was bad, just wait until you see what a nuclear Middle East would do.