4. The reason Iran wants nuclear weapons. Ten years ago, Iran wanted to be nuclear armed so she could deter US policy, drive us out of the Middle East, and pluck away Israel’s friends and options.
Now the Arab Spring has happened, and Iran’s relative position in the region has been eroded. Iran is in a less stable and preeminent position than she was two years ago. Her emerging competition then was Erdogan’s Turkey, but Ankara’s competition for leadership as an Islamist state was ambiguous up until the past year, since Erdogan has sought to retain Turkey’s ties with the West and keep good relations with Russia, Iran’s main patron. Erdogan has presented himself as an Islamic alternative to state Islamism, even while systematically undoing Turkey’s liberal reforms and guarantees from the Ataturk era.
Turkey has her drawbacks as a focus of Islamist aspirations, with a political history in the region that automatically alarms much of Europe and Central Asia. Turkey has even been a source of discouragement to modern Islamists. The Ottoman Empire was defeated and dismantled by the West, after all, and Ataturk’s Turkey gave in to Western mores and ideas. Arab Islamists are not necessarily anxious to rally behind Turkey’s leadership in a neo-Ottoman consortium.
Still, Erdogan is, as noted, heavily armed, and has been able to put together political successes recently, bolstered by the Obama administration. Now, with the Arab Spring, has come an emerging Islamist Egypt. Ten years ago Iran was the only Islamist theocracy in the region. Now there are two others emerging, and vying for leadership of the global-Islamist ideology. Syria is up for grabs, and might, with US help, migrate into Turkey’s orbit. The Arab Spring brought strife to most of the region, and Iran was implicated in some of it – in Bahrain and Yemen – which created greater alarm for Saudi Arabia, and has lined the Saudis up behind the push to eject Assad and Iran from Syria.
Iran’s relative situation has deteriorated. To regain a sense of leadership and invulnerability – as well as to vindicate Shia Islam over the recent Sunni triumphs in the region – Iran needs a big strategic win. She needs a trump card over the emerging Sunni centers of gravity in Cairo and Ankara.
She will have to win out over those competitors if she wants to have an Iranian-led army waiting for the Mahdi in Jerusalem. She’s not just planning a long game against the US now; she’s jockeying against regional competitors – who are already making their moves – for the whole ball of wax.
For this reason, I now think there is a real possibility that Iran will try to detonate a warhead this year. The movement in the rest of the region makes the task more urgent from Iran’s strategic perspective. And the US election may well create a frame for Iran’s intentions. The clearest frame would be drawn if Obama loses in November. His lame-duck period would be the time Iran would want to shoot for.
If he wins again, Iran would have a little breathing room in terms of whether the US would take action against an Iranian “breakout.” But there isn’t much time to be lost in establishing regional preeminence for Iran through acquiring nuclear weapons. The aftermath of the Arab Spring has made sure of that.
If Israel is seeking to be prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US election, I believe it is because the urgency of a breakout for Iran has ratcheted up in 2012. In the wake of the Arab Spring, if you’re standing still in the race to Jerusalem, you’re falling behind.