While everyone is watching events unfold in Libya, Syria and the rest of the Arab world, Iran is watching, too. And the leaders in Tehran may decide that this is the time to rush for the bomb. Moammar Gaddafi gave it up. Bashar al-Assad fell short of getting it. Would they be next?
The mullahs probably ask themselves a fair number of “what if” questions. What if Gaddafi had had the bomb? Would NATO have dared to bomb Libya? Would the Europeans even have thought to take Gaddafi on if he had had nuclear-armed missiles aimed at Italy and France? And what if Assad had the bomb? Would Syria’s leader be as vulnerable? Would Turkey be able to act independently if Ankara and Istanbul were within the reach of Syrian nuclear weapons? Would Israel be so concerned at the prospect of being targeted by Syria that it would have asked allies not to pressure Assad?
As they watch this year’s developments throughout the Middle East, Iran’s leaders see the potential for great gains and losses. They took over Iran in 1979, the same year Egypt signed the first-ever peace treaty between an Arab state and Israel. Where will current events take the region? Which of these two opposite trends will prevail?
On the one hand, a moment of great opportunity for the Iranian regime could emerge. Pro-Western Arab autocrats are falling; Sunni leaders who hate Shiites are shaking; rivals for hegemony are weakening. The Israeli Embassy in Cairo is under siege, while the Egyptian secretary of the Arab League has called for a review of the peace treaty with Israel. The possibility of the old structures being replaced by weak systems, or merely removed, presents Iran with a sizable opportunity to develop non-state actors as its partners and agents throughout the Middle East.
On the other hand, this moment could deal a significant setback to the Iranian regime. Syria is Tehran’s only Arab ally and is its partner in backing and strengthening the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. What will happen to Iran’s interests if Assad loses control over Syria? New forms of less fundamentalist Muslim political expression may emerge in the Arab world, making the Iranian model less attractive. New Arab regimes may be less hated by their people and thus less vulnerable to Iranian pressure.
Above all, the mullahs must prioritize the future of their regime and the Islamist revolution. What will happen to Iran if the rage sweeping the Arab world inspires Iranians to take to the streets again, aiming, together with mounting international pressure, to oust the mullahs? Will they follow in Gaddafi’s footsteps? Will they be better prepared than Assad?
While the world might be looking elsewhere, the Iranians have boosted the production of enriched uranium, upgraded the level of enrichment closer to weapons-grade and are reportedly moving essential production aspects to a well-protected underground facility. To the mullahs, who face growing uncertainties and are trying to draw their own lessons from events around them, what could better protect them and enhance their clout than the possession of a nuclear bomb?
While the Iranians are watching the Arab world, the world should watch Iran.
By Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2009 and the chairman of Glilot Venture Capital Fund.