United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

U.S. Intelligence: Iran Key to Future Mideast Stability

            Iran’s potential decision to build a nuclear weapon may be the key variable in the future stability of the Middle East, according to a new report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” predicts that Tehran’s decision to build a nuclear weapon or retain the capability to develop one would trigger a dangerous arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia and Turkey would likely start their own nuclear programs. Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Persian tensions could easily spillover.

            But there is also a chance that a future Iranian government would cooperate with the United Nations on its nuclear program. A more liberal and democratic Iran would likely help to stabilize the region. The following are excerpts from the report’s projections on Iran.
            The future of nuclear proliferation hinges on the outcome of North Korean and Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s success, especially, could trigger an arms race in the Middle East, undermining the nonproliferation regime. On the other hand, if the international community prevails in its efforts to stop both of them, multilateral cooperation would be bolstered and the Non-Proliferation Treaty strengthened. Similarly, use of nuclear weapons by state or nonstate actors could either encourage or discourage proliferation depending on how events unfolded…
            Fledgling democracies have a higher risk of backsliding and instability. Endemic rivalries— such as between Iran and its neighbors—would be inflamed if Iran decided to develop nuclear weapons. Many of these conflicts, once begun, would not be easily containable and would have global impacts. The increasing empowerment of nonstate actors, such as Hizballah, in the region has the potential to further escalate any conflicts…
            Many states might continue to use terrorist groups: states choose to exploit terrorist movements out of a strong sense of insecurity. States such as Pakistan and Iran feel threatened by what they perceive as stronger, threatening powers in their regions or globally. Therefore, they seek asymmetric options to assert power and deter attack; using terrorist groups as proxies and pursuing nuclear weapons are two such asymmetric tools. However, international disapproval of state support for terrorist movements has increased significantly, and the costs to a regime of directly supporting terrorists looks set to become even greater as international cooperation increases.
            The future of the Middle East hinges primarily on political developments in the region. If the Islamic Republic maintains power in Iran and is able to acquire nuclear weapons, the Middle East will face a highly unstable future. The collapse of the House of Saud could wreak havoc on the region’s economy, and the emergence of a radical Islamist government in Egypt could exacerbate regional tensions on a variety of fronts. Fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines in Iraq and Syria could lead to an unraveling of current borders. On the other hand, the emergence of moderate, democratic governments in these countries, or a breakthrough agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could have enormously positive consequences…
            Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have dramatic consequences for the region over the next two decades. For Israel, a permanent resolution to the conflict could open the door to regional relationships unthinkable today. The end of Palestinian conflict would provide a strategic setback to Iran and its resistance camp and over time undermine public support for militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas. Without some sort of resolution, Israel would be increasingly absorbed with trying to control a burgeoning Palestinian population with limited political rights and a restive Gaza next door…
How will Iran project regional power?
            Iran’s influence is linked to its nuclear aspirations. A number of our interlocutors believe that Iran will stop short of developing a nuclear weapon— but will retain the ability to develop such a weapon. In this scenario, a breakdown of the nonproliferation system would be inevitable, with Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear weapons or capabilities from Pakistan. Turkey might react to a nuclear Iran by seeking its own nuclear capability or relying instead on the NATO defensive shield. The UAE, Egypt, and possibly Jordan almost certainly would begin nuclear programs in the energy field as hedges that enabled them to go forward if Iran, Saudi Arabia, or others in the region became overt nuclear powers. If this occurred, the region would be in constant crisis. Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian antagonisms would increase, spilling over to create far-reaching instability outside the region.
            A second scenario would involve the Iranian regime coming under growing pressure from its public, which could desire economic gains rather than nuclear weapons, and might not want to pay the price in terms of international isolation. Eventually, the regime could be toppled by elite infighting and mass demonstrations. Under this scenario in which Tehran focused more on economic modernization, a more pro-Western, democratic Iran—and a more stable region—would emerge…
            There appears to be no end in sight to the Sunni-Shia tensions. Saudi Arabia and Iran—both hit by lower energy prices because of the global growth slowdown—have nevertheless increased tensions by launching a proxy war in Syria and Lebanon. Hizballah has also launched its first large-scale cyber attack against Israel and the United States.

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