A growing number of nations and international interests are expressing alarm at Iran's seeming intent to develop nuclear weapons. But why the world thinks Iran is developing such capacity, and what is to be feared from it, remain matters in wide dispute.
Israel, of course, is most immediately threatened and is least ambiguous in its analysis. A nuclear Iran, either out of calculation that it could win a nuclear exchange with Israel, or out of a fanatical derangement, clearly poses an existential threat to Israel. No Israeli leader could risk exposing his country to such a threat, if he could avoid it.
The United States, to a substantial extent, shares the Israeli concern. But beyond that, the U.S. as the dominant world power would have primary responsibility for managing a more aggressive, harder-to-deter Iran that might feel safer in using terrorism to strike the U.S. and the West, armed with a nuclear deterrent. Also, a nuclear Iranian regime would feel safer from a combined U.S. and domestic regime change effort.
On its face, Europe would seem to be less concerned with Israel's fate and more concerned about a general disturbance to the world equilibrium (such as it is), as well as the possibly "reckless" response of Israel or the U.S. to the danger.
However, French President Jacque Chirac last week added a fascinating and unexpected element to the crisis by his barely veiled, unambiguous threat -- while visiting France's Ile Longue nuclear naval base in Normandy -- that France might use her nuclear weapons against a country that either launched a terrorist attack against France, or cut off her "strategic supplies" (i.e. oil). The French press, from left to right, immediately stated that Chirac's target was Iran.
Some of his left-wing domestic political opponents suggested he was fantacizing about France's quickly fading imperial glory, merely trying to regain his footing after his poor performance during the Muslim fire-bombing riots in Paris last fall, or trying to justify the large budget of France's "useless" nuclear force de frappe.
Other observers judge (I believe quite plausibly) that Chirac is now alive to the threat of radical Islam in France, and he is prepared to threaten to go nuclear to try to stop its encouragement from outside. Mr. Allan Topol, the noted international lawyer and author, will make that case in an exclusive article in Washington Times' op/ed page Jan. 26.
But there are other serious, if more recondite, theories arising to explain Iran's possible motives. Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Stratfor), the highly regarded Texas-based strategic analysis group, has recently presented a completely different theory.
In their view, Iran's move is all about Iran's place in the Islamic firmament -- and particularly her seeking pride of place over Al Qaeda as the leader of radical Islam.
According to Stratfor, in the quarter century since the Iranian revolution launched radical Islam on the world, Iran has sullied its reputation for principled Islamic radicalism by its conventional geopolitical compromises with the West, including with the United State -- and even with Israel during the 1980s. Moreover, in the last 15 years, the Shia Iranians have seen the Sunni Wahhabi movement of Al Qaeda outflank Teheran for revolutionary primacy.
Thus, by this theory, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad very methodically went out to deny the Holocaust in order to reassert Iran's anti-Zionist credentials. The nuclear gambit, so it is reasoned, would have three goals: to be seen to end Iran's sometimes unprincipled accommodation with the West, to become Israel's greatest threat (and gain unambiguous power over regional Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and to be seen to take unmatched risks for radical Islam.
Under this theory, if they get the bomb unobstructed, good. If the United States or Israel uses military force against them, they regain their valued credentials as true martyr and fighter for Islam.
There is yet another theory emerging to try to explain Iran's motives for presumably starting to develop a nuclear capacity: traditional Persian imperialism driven by a quest for more oil and regional hegemony.
Turkey, a historic adversary of Persia/Iran, is expressing increasing concern over Iranian pretensions. If Iran moves much further down the nuclear path, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt might all feel the need to join the nuclear club, with all the potential for catastrophic miscalculations inherent in such a condition.
Moreover, should the Iranian regime fail for any reason, then Turkey fears the emergence of an independent Kurdistan formed out of Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish Kurds.
At the same time, Iran still asserts its rights to much of Caspian Sea oil, based on pre-World War II treaties with Russia.
As the sometimes flamboyant but much read analyst in the Asian Times (who goes by the nom de plume of Spengler) wrote recently, despite Iran's current oil glut, in 20 years Iran will be almost out of oil, just as her now young population will be ageing. From Eastern Saudi Arabia (with its Shiite population) to the United Arab Emirates, to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, these oil-rich Caspian and Gulf regions may become powerfully attractive to a nuclear Iran.
The world is only in the earliest stage of seriously trying to understand the significance of Iran's recklessly bold nuclear moves of the last few weeks. Each country and region's analysis may begin to gel in the coming months.
It may well turn out that for vastly different -- even contradictory reasons -- Iran may be causing to come into being a large and varied international alliance with a powerful set of motives for militarily denying Iran the nuclear capacity for which she seems to be so quickly grasping.