It is unclear how this will play out. Covert and overt action (like the Stuxnet virus or an Israeli strike) will delay, but not halt progress. At the same time, Iran may find it useful to maintain a state of nuclear ambiguity for some time. This policy will allow Iran to gain many of the benefits of nuclear power, while avoiding the worst of international opprobrium for violating the NPT.
It is useful to look at neighboring Pakistan for a picture of nuclear Iran’s future.
Pakistan faces and is obsessed with India, a far more powerful state that, with its own acquisition of nuclear capability cemented its superiority. Then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (father of the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto) declared:
If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other choice.It is a prophecy that has come true. Pakistan’s nuclear capability has allowed it to continue a fruitless rivalry with India that has sapped the nation’s resource while abetting corruption and radicalism.
Part of Pakistan’s political culture is that the state was crippled in its very founding by India and its allies. Pakistan has sought the means to right this fundamental injustice. Weaker then India, Pakistan sought asymmetric means to balance India. Pakistan’s alliance with the US in the Afghan jihad was particularly instructive. The generals of Rawalpindi observed how a weaker power (that’s how the US was perceived) waged a low-level war, but kept the fighting within limits so as to prevent the situation from escalating. They perceived that nukes protected the US from more aggressive Soviet responses.
This is the strategy Pakistan has followed against India, low-grade war that, in Pakistani fantasies, will ultimately lead to the dissolution of India. Nukes allow Pakistan to continue a conflict (without nukes India’s ability to carryout devastating conventional retaliation would be a deterrent to Pakistan-backed terror). This gives Pakistan’s brass something to do and justifies their expanding hold on the country’s economy while helping Pakistan’s elites maintain the status quo (to the advantage of the traditional elites of course.) Meanwhile, Pakistan’s education system, infrastructure, and social services are sapped of resources.
On the international front, besides the general carnage caused by Pakistan backed terrorism, they have incubated jihadi groups to advance their aims in Afghanistan and India – but those groups have developed an impact beyond the sub-continent. At the same time, the ongoing tension between nuclear-armed rivals leads to the constant danger that the two sides will accidentally wander into a nuclear war.
This is all food for thought as Iran continues on its course. It is already a world champion supporter of terrorism. Will it feel even freer to do so if protected by a nuclear umbrella? Will nukes be the crutch that allows the corrupt and vicious Iranian regime to cling to power? Finally, will a nuclear Iran inspire other player in the region to follow suit – meaning more nukes and thus a greater chance for accidents?