Islam, Terror, and the Second Nuclear Age
So although a renewed Shiite messianism does create some cause for concern about the potential uses of an Iranian bomb — in particular because it suggests that Ahmadinejad may be more a utopian than a realist — it is almost certainly a mistake to anticipate that Iran would use its nuclear power in a way that would provoke large-scale retaliation and assured self-destruction. Iranian leaders have been more than ready to sacrifice their own citizens in large numbers. During the Iran-Iraq war, major efforts went into recruiting young boys to the Basij militias, which were then sent to the front lines on what were essentially suicide missions. Religion played the central part in motivating the teenage soldiers, and it is reasonable to believe that religion helped salve the consciences of those who ordered these children into battle. Yet even this discounting of the value of human life — in a war started by Saddam Hussein, not by Iran — fell short of voluntarily putting an entire nation at risk. Ahmadinejad surely understands the consequences of using a nuclear bomb, and Shiite Islam, even in its messianic incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide.
But at the same time, Ahmadinejad has emphasized Iran’s pan-Islamic aspirations to act on behalf of Muslims everywhere. An emerging nuclear power needs friends. Right now Iran wants to reduce, not promote, division between Sunnis and Shiites — and promoting broader “Islamic” interests by going after Israel is one way to lessen Sunni fears about Iran’s rise. Ahmadinejad has put his money where his mouth is, providing Hezbollah with medium-range missiles — though apparently not chemical warheads — to use against Israel. The nationalist language he has sometimes used at home may be a cover for sincerely held pan-Islamic ends — a version of the old revolutionary strategy of making nationalist claims in order to attract the support of those fellow Iranians who do not respond well to Islamist ideology. That it is convenient for Iran to emphasize Islamic unity does not mean that at least some of its leaders do not believe in it as a motivating goal.
But geopolitics is not the only reason Sunni Arab leaders are rattled by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They also seem to be worried that the Iranians might actually use nuclear weapons if they get them. A nuclear attack on Israel would engulf the whole region. But that is not the only danger: Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere fear that the Iranians might just use a nuclear bomb against them. Even as Iran’s defiance of the United States and Israel wins support among some Sunnis, extremist Sunnis have been engaging in the act of takfir, condemning all Shiites as infidels. On the ground in Iraq, Sunni takfiris are putting this theory into practice, aiming at Shiite civilians and killing them indiscriminately. Shiite militias have been responding in kind, and massacres of Sunni civilians are no longer isolated events.Adding the nuclear ingredient to this volatile mix will certainly produce an arms race. If Iran is going to get the bomb, its neighbors will have no choice but to keep up. North Korea, now protected by its own bomb, has threatened proliferation — and in the Middle East it would find a number of willing buyers. Small principalities with huge U.S. Air Force bases, like Qatar, might choose to rely on an American protective umbrella. But Saudi Arabia, which has always seen Iran as a threatening competitor, will not be willing to place its nuclear security entirely in American hands. Once the Saudis are in the hunt, Egypt will need nuclear weapons to keep it from becoming irrelevant to the regional power balance — and sure enough, last month Gamal Mubarak, President Mubarak’s son and Egypt’s heir apparent, very publicly announced that Egypt should pursue a nuclear program.