WATERLOO, Ontario — The United States, no more but no less than other countries, tends to make self-centered assessments of other countries’ policies. This is one reason Washington missed the Iran factor as the most likely explanation for Saddam Hussein’s deliberate ambiguity about a weapons-of-mass-destruction capability.
Washington may be committing a similar error with respect to Iran’s nuclear motives. Iranian security concerns are focused as much to the east on Pakistan as to the west on Israel. Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons may be aimed at meeting the Sunni threat — not just the Israeli threat.
Of course, like most other countries, Iran’s security policy is driven by multiple motives. Also like others, while it may hope for the best, Iran must be prepared for the worst. Since Iraq was attacked and occupied after having disarmed, other countries who have reasonable cause to fear a U.S. attack have a powerful incentive to acquire nuclear weapons to deter such an attack.
Given the long and lamentable history of Western interference and intervention in Iranian affairs, coupled with the continuing bellicose rhetoric directed at the Iranian regime, Tehran cannot discount an armed attack. Moreover, with so many of its neighbors nuclear armed — Israel to the west, Russia to the north, and Pakistan, China and India to the east — any prudent Iranian national security planner will most likely recommend an acceleration of the country’s nuclear program.
China embarked on a deliberate act of proliferation to Pakistan in 1982 with the transfer of weapons-grade uranium and a blueprint for making a bomb that China had already tested. Pakistan’s first nuclear test was carried out for it by China during Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership in 1990. This is why Pakistan was able to respond to India’s nuclear tests in 1998 within a fortnight.
Pakistan’s nuclearization in turn set the stage for Iran’s program to acquire urgency. Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal today. In ignoring and dismissing India’s warnings of a China-assisted weaponization program by Pakistan, Washington set the stage for India’s — and Pakistan’s — overt nuclear breakout in 1998.
In neglecting the Pakistan factor as a driver of Iran’s nuclear policy, Washington may be reducing its leverage over Iran’s actions. In projecting the threat from a potentially nuclear Iran to Israel, the West assimilates the problem into its nonproliferation agenda and keeps open the last resort possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran.
This is no reason for the rest of the world to leave it to the Western countries to lead the negotiations in both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council.
The aggressive Iranian posture in the Middle East is in part a reaction to its fears of being overwhelmed by Sunni countries around it. Iran is the Shiite island surrounded by Sunni countries, both Arab and non-Arab. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, but the years of Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein and the ambiguity of Americans in finalizing the government in Iraq around its Shiite majority is looked at with great suspicion by Iran.
The decade-long Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime, was supported by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among other neighboring Arab countries. The West politely ignored Iraq’s aggression and even the United Nations imposed a moral equivalency between the perpetrator and victim of aggression. Iran has not forgotten all that.
Pakistan, the world’s only Muslim nuclear power, is an immediate neighbor of Iran. So is Afghanistan. Tehran is opposed to Taliban domination of Afghanistan, at the expense of the sizable population of Hazaras, who are Shiite.
The growing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, with Chinese help, poses two kinds of danger to Iran: The first is the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Taliban or al-Qaida, both of whom are anathema to the Iranians, as much as they are to India and the West. Iran harbors suspicions that Pakistan could be the provider of last resort of nuclear material and weapons to Sunni countries hostile to Shiite Iran. After all, Libya tried to buy nuclear weapons from the infamous Abdul Qadeer Khan syndicate, backstopped by Pakistan’s armed forces, and the same group was accused of helping the Iraqi search for WMD.
If the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is seen as a search for security in a hostile Sunni region, and not just as the desire to destroy Israel, it opens up possibilities of solutions other than the one based solely on the current approach.
Countries in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf fear the nuclearization of Iran as they form the first line of attack of a Iranian nuclear weapon. But they are not quite ready to publicly oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions as long as Israel has nuclear weapons.
Innate caution and the ambivalence of the gulf countries loaded with emotional hostility toward Israel make it expedient for them to leave the issue to be handled by Washington. They should be brought into an active involvement in the dialogue process with Iran, which is currently restricted to the U.S. and EU countries, just as Japan and South Korea are integral partners in the six-nation dialogue process with North Korea.
If Iran is to be dissuaded from the nuclear weapons path, a realistic assessment of its threat perception is essential. It needs reassurance against Sunni hostility as much as against Israeli and Western threats of invasion and regime change.
Few Western powers covered themselves in glory in the 20th century either in their understanding of or in their influence over Middle Eastern countries. A continued failure to grasp the security calculus behind Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons will fail to check proliferation.
Prakash Shah is a former Indian ambassador to the U.N. and a U.N. special envoy to Iraq. Ramesh Thakur is a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and a former U.N. assistant secretary general.