The Blog

Sideshow or Preview?

Iran threatens two neighbors.

11:00 PM, Mar 3, 2009 • By CHRISTIAN WHITON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This year could go down is history as the one in which Iran either got the bomb or got close enough for government work. A report in early February by the International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that during 2009 Iran will probably reach the point at which it has produced enough low-enriched uranium to make a bomb if it took the simple step of further enrichment. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently said there is "no question" Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. This refuted with finality a laughable 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded the opposite in a chapter of Bush administration history that might be titled "Bureaucrats Gone Wild."

It is hard to overstate the negative consequences of a nuclear Iran. Doomsday scenarios like a nuclear assault on Israel or one of the other countries within range of Iran's delivery systems and terrorist networks come to mind. While this should be of immense concern, there are more probable consequences in store for the medium term that ought not to escape attention. Iranian aggression of a much more conventional nature is likely, and Tehran has been giving a telling preview of this in recent months.

Last week, the former speaker of Iran's parliament, who is close to the supreme leader, opined that Bahrain was once the 14th province of Iran. Connoisseurs of Saddam Hussein's threats will recall his assertion that Kuwait was Iraq's 19th province presaged his invasion of that country in 1990. In the Middle East, such historical claims are often threats--veiled thinly, if at all. Even if an invasion is unlikely given the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the threat serves to cow would-be allies of the United States and embolden local Islamists and fellow travelers.

The threat to Bahrain comes on the heels of a similar one levied against the United Arab Emirates, another strong U.S. ally and a driver of economic reform in the region. Iran's ongoing occupation of three Emirati islands in the Gulf's strategic Strait of Hormuz makes Tehran's threats seem real enough. On January 26, a member of the Iranian parliament reasserted Iran's claim to these islands, which is dubious for many reasons, including that historically they were used and overseen primarily by Arabs, not Persians. More alarmingly, the parliamentarian went a step further, saying all of the UAE belonged to Iran. The same week, a different parliamentarian warned that for the UAE even to assert its rights to the islands could lead to war. On February 3, an Iranian paper threatened the UAE's leaders with defeat, likening them to Saddam's surrendering troops.

This aggression fits a pattern of what repressive revolutionary countries tend to do, especially when unrest at home creates an impetus for a foreign distraction. Authoritarians have a penchant for inventing foreign enemies as a method of justifying their own rule and excusing their shortcomings. This incentive has grown for the Iranian ruling class as last year's high oil revenues are but a faint memory amid increasing economic malaise that includes inflation and unemployment running at about 25 percent each.

It is true that there are a number of reasons Iran might never actually strike Bahrain or the UAE due to nearby U.S. military assets and the economic drawbacks of disrupting its own trade. It also has other greener pastures in which to employ violence. But these same factors were in play in 1990 when Saddam nonetheless proceeded with an invasion of Kuwait. In addition, Iran is in a more powerful position than Saddam ever was. With a pending nuclear capability, Tehran believes it is on the verge of an insurance policy against any real military reckoning with the free world.

Absent an intervening event, a nuclear Tehran would have an even freer hand to expand its existing terror enterprises. As was the case in Iraq, Iranian made Explosively Formed Penetrators are one of the highest causes of mortality for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Tehran's clients have achieved great strides in Lebanon and Gaza in recent years, among other locales. Iran is also in the ideology export business--by violence when necessary. June elections in Iran are unlikely to change this, even if the "moderates" win, judging by their track record. Realistically, all of these activities will accelerate in immediate aftermath of an Iranian nuclear capability.

These activities can of course be countered, as they have in past instances, by an aggressive conventional military presence, a determination to undermine the enemy ideologically, and crack intelligence services that can put the subversives on the defense. Unfortunately, of these three necessities, the United States possesses only the first at present.