Features | Security | Central Asia

Iran Risking Multi-Front War

Pursuing nuclear weapons makes Iran less safe. It’s putting itself in the crosshairs of its neighbours, the US and al-Qaeda.

The idea that nuclear weapons will usher in an era of peace and security for the Islamic Republic is likely to prove to be nothing short of an illusion—even if Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime succeeds in averting a military strike against its nuclear installations before it reaches its military goals for its nuclear programme.

History has shown that there are many countries against the idea of a powerful Islamic Republic.

In 1979, the newly born Islamic Republic of Iran was armed to the teeth with sophisticated US military technology that had been purchased by the Shah, making it a regional military superpower in its own right. But this was deemed a threat to Western and Arab interests in the region, who believed that something had to be done to weaken Iran and to keep the regime’s ambitions and power in check.

The solution was found in Saddam Hussein and his long-held Iranian territorial desires. The Arab world financed his invasion. France and the USSR sold him sophisticated weaponry, while the US provided political support.

The war served its purpose for eight years—it cost Iran more than one million dead or maimed, and approximately $300 billion of damage to its economy. Had Iraq not invaded, the Islamic Republic of Iran could have been (after Israel) the most powerful military force in the region. In terms of political influence beyond its borders, it could have been the most powerful.

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Since the end of the conflict, Iran has slowly but surely rebuilt its armed forces and regional influence.

And if it gets its hand on a bomb, it will become a regional nuclear and military superpower again. That would mean that as well as influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, its armed forces would be protected by a nuclear umbrella, thus allowing the regime the opportunity to increase its influence with more confidence.

This is something that the Arab world and the West are unlikely to accept.

But if history is set to repeat itself, a new enemy to keep Iran in check is likely to be searched for. And this time, the West, and especially the Arab world, will not be short of motivation. Nuclear Iran aside, they’re already furious at what they see as Iran interfering in Iraq. Or as Sabah Al Mukhtar, president of the Arab Lawyers Association, put it in a recent debate on Al Jazeera English, ‘Iranian dogs tearing Iraq to bits.’

In 1980, an all out invasion by Iraq was used to weaken Iran. This time, a different method is likely to be applied.

Instead of a conventional war, initially the West and the Arab world are likely to sponsor a war of attrition against Iran, one likely to present itself in several formats.

When it comes to the Arab world, support for al-Qaeda attacks against Iran and Iranian interests are likely to be used. Despite limited cooperation in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s leadership and rank and file see Iran and the Shiites as their second biggest enemy, after the United States.

Once the United States leaves Iraq and Afghanistan, this organization is likely to turn its guns against Iran and its allies across the Middle East. Financed with Saudi money, al-Qaeda would likely have more firepower at its disposal.

As well as attacks against Iran’s Shiite allies, al-Qaeda agents could start launching attacks against Iranian border positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They could also continue with their terrorist attacks inside Iran, which they started on June 24, 2007 when unidentified gunmen believed to be al-Qaeda operatives assassinated Hojjatoleslam Hesham Seimori, the resident Shiite cleric at the Fateme Zahra mosque in the Iranian city of Ahvaz near the Iraqi border. This was followed by a warning issued on July 9 of the same year by Abu Omar Al Baghdadi, a purported leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq. In his message, he warned Iran to walk away from Iraq and cease its support for Shiite parties or expect a ‘fierce war’ which would strike ‘every spot’ where Iranians are found.

In the face of such attacks, Iran would have to retaliate against border positions in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, otherwise its allies would become disheartened and its deterrence posture would be eroded. Although Iran has already bombarded Kurdish areas near its borders with Iraq, as attacks intensify, so would Iran’s retaliations. In fact, such attacks could lead to incursions by Iranian land forces.

Yet, this would likely serve the interests of its enemies further, especially politically, as part of their efforts to isolate Iran in the region and in the international arena.

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Meanwhile, the West might well engage in its own war of attrition against Iran. This would likely come in the form of sanctions, coupled with an arms race. With Iran’s economy becoming weaker every year, the impact of continuous sanctions against Iran are likely to cause major damage to its economy. This is especially true regarding its biggest money earner—the oil industry.

According to a 2007 study by Roger Stern of John Hopkins University, unless significant investment is made in Iran’s oil industry, it could run out of oil by 2015. It’s unlikely that the West will lift sanctions when Iran does become nuclear, meaning it will become more difficult for the Iranian oil industry to raise the investments it needs to allow it to continue operating. Furthermore, sanctions are likely to decrease investment in other sectors of Iran’s economy, while driving the cost of imports higher. With oil income likely to fall, these are near mortal economic factors which cannot be ignored by Iranian authorities.

At the same time, the West is likely to engage Iran in an arms race. Unwilling to fall behind, the Iranian government is likely to divert money from important areas such as health and education to its defence industry, thus causing further damage to stability and the foundations of its economy

This method succeeded in bringing the USSR down. It could do the same to the Islamic Republic.