The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report leaked on Nov 8, 2011 confirmed the obvious: Iran is striving to obtain military nuclear capability, and at this point it is a few months away from materializing it. The spiraling debate about the steps that the US, NATO or Israel should now take mask an important point – namely, that Iran itself has a strong incentive to stop just short of having a nuclear arsenal, and convince the world that it can arm a bomb on a few months notice but that at the same time it is deliberately avoiding this last measure.
To understand why, it is worthwhile considering the motive behind the Iranian military nuclear plan. One potential motive is that Iran simply wants to destroy Israel physically. The Iranian president Ahmadinejad has made it clear, time and again, that he would have liked to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. It is therefore conceivable that once Iran builds a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying Israel, Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership will immediately order to launch it at Israel.
This scenario is conceivable but not necessarily very likely, though. Ahmadinejad cares about his country – he has, for instance, expressed concerns that in a confrontation of Iran with the west over its nuclear plan Iran might receive a blow which will not allow it to rise again for 500 years; he also believes that upon a nuclear strike against Israel mainland, Israel will still be able to respond with a nuclear strike against Iran’s main cities from its submarines – a strike that might withdraw Iran much more than 500 years back.
For this reason, a more likely motive for the Iranian military nuclear plan is to gain prestige and influence as a regional power. Being by now just a step away from possessing a nuclear arsenal, Iran has already gained this payoff from its nuclear plan. It is feared by its neighbors and it is considered a bigger threat than before by Israel, Europe and the US. But somewhat paradoxically, by making the last move to own an armed nuclear arsenal it might jeopardize its own achievement.
The reason for this is the policy that Israel (and likewise the US and Europe) is most likely to adopt upon a nuclear armament by Iran. Israel will have to declare that it will consider Iran, its only known nuclear rival, as responsible for any nuclear attack whatsoever it might suffer – even though *conditional* on a nuclear attack against Israel, its most likely source will not be Iran but rather some evasive terrorist organization, which got its bomb in the international black markets, and against which it is extremely difficult to retaliate. Iran does not control all the organizations which might want to launch a nuclear attack against Israel. Nevertheless, by making itself the unique nuclear Muslim power in rivalry with Israel, technically able to delegate nuclear capability to organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah (even if Iran will never willfully do so), Iran makes itself vulnerable – from its own perspective – as the sole target for Israeli unavoidable retaliation.
There are additional low-probability but pivotal scenarios in which nuclear armament by Iran might literally back-fire. Israeli radars detecting an approaching missile launched from the Shat-el-Arab region might not be able to discern whether it was fired from Iraq or from Iran. Since Israel is such a small country, it might have no choice but to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, treating any such missile as a nuclear one and launching an automatic extreme response. However, Iran cannot actually control any missile launching that Israel might suspect as coming from Iran.
Currently, Iran seems to be humiliated by the IAEA report and by the response of the international community. Humiliating Germany and impoverishing it in the Versailles agreement at the end of World War I led to the rise of Hitler and to the worst atrocities ever in the history of mankind, during World War II. Iran is a large nation with an ancient and rich culture, and humiliating it can only be counter-productive.
A potentially better strategy would be to encourage Iran to follow its own interest by transparently staying only on the brink of military nuclear capability, and at the same time to admit Iran as a de facto member of the “nuclear club”. If, then, Iran nevertheless prefers to curtail transparency and renounce international recognition of its power, it will not only suffer the consequences of undermining its own interests, but might ignite an escalatory pace in which it is likely to suffer much more.