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Iran has a long and proud history. It is believed to be one of the oldest civilizations, dating back more than 6,000 years. For 200 years, what was once called Persia, controlled territory from Egypt in the west to Turkey in the north, and through Mesopotamia to the Indus River in the east. By the 5th century B.C.E., it was the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Persia was invaded and overrun through the centuries by the rival powers that moved through the Middle East - Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mongols - and was ruled for nearly 1,000 years by the Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids. Persia was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century and eventually became dominated by the Shiite branch of Islam whose leaders rule Iran today.
The rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran today believe that Iran was a great nation once and can be a world power again. In the modern world, a nation does not become powerful through conquest; rather, today's powers are defined by the strength of their economies, the might of their armies and the possession of nuclear weapons. The quickest way to gain the respect of other world powers and to create fear among your enemies is to have a nuclear arsenal. This is one reason that Iran is determined to build a bomb despite the pain of sanctions imposed by the international community and the country's growing isolation.
It is a mistake, however, to believe that it is only the radical Islamic leadership that seeks a nuclear capability. Other Iranians insist it is Iran's sovereign right to use its technological know-how to acquire the same weapons as other nations. What entitles the United States, Israel, India or Pakistan to have nuclear weapons but denies the same right to Iran? Thus, regime change would not necessarily eliminate the nuclear threat from Iran.
Iran is not interested in a bomb just for the sake of having the same capability as others. Iran's leaders undoubtedly believe possession of nuclear weapons will insulate the country from any attacks, and allow Tehran to intimidate its neighbors and spread its radical brand of Shiite Islam throughout the region and, ultimately, the world. As former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, Iran is definitely "a regime with hegemonic ambitions" (US Department of State, June 12, 2012).
Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal said in an interview "there is no doubt that Iran's relations with its Arab neighbors are bad, and that it has evil intentions. It intervenes blatantly in the affairs of Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as well as in Mauritania and Morocco" (Rotana Khalijiyya TV, April 2, 2013).
One of Iran's first targets is Iraq, its historic rival. After the Gulf War deposed Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. military decimated Iraq's military capability and Sunni leadership, Iran saw an opportunity to exert influence and possibly gain additional territory in Shiite-dominated areas of the country. The election of a Shiite to lead postwar Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, also presented Iran with the possibility of seeing a traditional enemy become an ally. This has not occurred in part because of the continued influence of the United States over the country's postwar development.
Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said July 28, 2009, after the latest of six trips to the Gulf in the last 18 months, that "what I hear is, there is greater fear of Iran than there is animus toward Israel." He added, "So that is almost a predominant sentiment that I've noticed throughout most, if not all, of the Gulf states" (Washington Times, July 29, 2009).
The Gulf states have good reason to fear Iran obtaining a nuclear weapons. For example, Iran hopes its nuclear capability will allow it to end once and for all a 41-year-old dispute with the Sunni-led United Arab Emirates over three islands the UAE claims are part of its territory. Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa are located close to oil shipping routes at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz and have been occupied by Iran since seizing them in 1971 when the British gave up control of territories in the Persian Gulf that later became independent Arab states.
As a member of OPEC, Iran has had influence over the world's supply of oil and hence its price. This helped Iran advance toward one of the elements of global power, namely, economic strength. International sanctions, however, have been crippling Iran's economy. Iran's leaders have not given in to the pressure because they may think they can endure the hardships while they continue work on the bomb and then, once they have a nuclear capability, the world will recognize it is pointless to continue to punish the country and its economy will subsequently recover. A key to this recovery will be to use the nuclear threat to force OPEC to set oil quotas according to Iranian dictates. Up until now, Saudi Arabia, as the largest oil producer, has been the most influential member of OPEC.
Countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, will have to go along with Iran's desires out of fear that Iran will either destabilize their countries or attack them. Saudi Arabia is especially vulnerable because it shares a border with Iran and has an already restive Shiite population in a part of the country where much of its oil is pumped. Even without a bomb, Iran has succeeded in stirring up this population with the hope of destabilizing, and perhaps eventually replacing the monarchy, with a Shiite-controlled Islamic republic. Since the revolution, Iran has challenged the legitimacy of the royal House of Saud and, in October 2012, the U.S. Justice Department accused two Iranians of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Saudi fears of Iranians fomenting unrest in the Gulf prompted the king to send Saudi troops to neighboring Bahrain to help quell an uprising by Shiites there who were threatening the Sunni royal family. The Saudis are afraid that the "Arab spring" could spread to the Gulf and that Iran will encourage Shiites to revolt to bring down the Sunni regimes. The Saudis decided to use its military to try to forestall a domino effect starting in its neighbor. The Saudis also feel an increasing need to act on their own to protect their interests after losing confidence in the Obama Administration over a series of missteps in the region culminating in what the Saudis view as Obama abandoning its longtime ally, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and raising suspicions in Riyadh as to whether the United States could be relied upon to defend the monarchy against any movement for freedom and democracy in the kingdom.
The king need not have worried, as the Obama Administration has adopted the policies of its predecessors and granted the Gulf states a democracy exclusion; that is, while calling for freedom and democracy in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, the president has been totally silent with regard to the rights of Saudis, Bahrainis or Kuwaitis to similar freedoms. The reason, of course, is oil. The United States heavily relies on these countries to supply oil and to act as moderating influences with OPEC, and America depends on their good will to station troops and maintain bases in their countries. The Arabists in the State Department have long maintained that as bad as regimes like the House of Saud is in terms of abusers of human rights and sponsors of terrorism, their successors would likely be worse, and likely to resemble the Iranian regime.
Saudi frustration with the United States, however, extends beyond the treatment of Mubarak. They are also angered by the failure of Presidents Bush and Obama to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. The Saudis recognize the United States is the one country that can do the job and, not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is the one country to openly call for a military attack on Iran (The Guardian, November 28, 2010) and to declare its intention of acquiring its own nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds in building a bomb (The Guardian, June 29, 2011). In fact, the Saudis' fear of the Iranian bomb is so great, press reports have suggested a willingness on their part to facilitate an Israeli attack on Iran (see for example: Jerusalem Post, December 6, 2010).) When these stories became public, the Saudis quickly denied them.
Iran's only ally in the region, Syria, has helped Tehran supply weapons to its proxy in Lebanon – Hezbollah. Not surprisingly, both Hezbollah and Iran are doing everything they can to help Bashar Assad put down the revolt against his regime and remain in power in Damascus. If Syria remains allied with Iran, it is possible Iran could use its nuclear umbrella to shield the Syrians from any attacks by Israel should Syria decide in the future to try to seize the Golan Heights.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a creation of Iran. It is funded and armed by Iran and has gradually asserted control over the country. Lebanon was once a largely Christian country that had an elected government that reflected the ethnic divisions within the nation. That Lebanon ceased to exist after the civil war in the 1970s and, over the years, most of the Christians have fled. With Iran's help, Hizballah has now become the dominant faction in Lebanon. Iran uses the terrorists to attack Israel and could potentially shield the group from any counterattack once Iran has the bomb.
Even countries as far away as Egypt and Morocco fear a nuclear Iran. Egypt views itself as the leader of the Arab and Muslim world and sees Iran as a dangerous rival. Even with the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its outreach to Iran, the fact that the Brothers are Sunni Muslims makes it unlikely the rivalry will end. In the case of Morocco, even before Iran developed a bomb, the Moroccans cut off diplomatic ties because the Iranians were trying to destabilize that monarchy.
Throughout the Arab world, regimes fear Iranian subterfuge and proselytization of their brand of radical Islam. A sales pitch that will grow stronger if they can claim that they defied the infidels, the Western powers, and developed a nuclear bomb that puts Iran and the Muslim world on more of an even footing with the West and demonstrates that Muslims are just as capable of technological achievements as the Jews or the Christians (of course, Iran's achievements are partly a result of help received from Pakistan, the first Muslim country to build the bomb).
Israel is also worried about Iran for several reasons. First, Israel is the only country that Iran's leaders have openly threatened with destruction. Second, Iran arms Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists who also seek Israel's destruction. Third, a nuclear Iran could deter Israel from defending itself against the terrorists and radical Islamic regimes that may emerge after the dust of the Arab uprisings settle. Fourth, if Iran radicalizes the region, Israel will face more enemies that are not interested in political compromise, but are instead motivated by religious extremism with which there can be no conciliation.