Why did French President Jacques Chirac last week threaten to use nonconventional – that is, nuclear – weapons against terrorist states? And why did Iran announce that it would shift foreign-exchange reserves out of European banks (although it has since retracted this warning)? The answer lies in the nature of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran needs nuclear weapons, I believe, not to attack Israel, but to support imperial expansion by conventional military means.

Iran’s oil exports will shrink to zero in 20 years, just at the demographic inflection point when the costs of maintaining an aged population will crush its state finances, as I reported in Demographics and Iran’s imperial design (September 13, 2005). Just outside Iran’s present frontiers lie the oil resources of Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and not far away are the oil concentrations of eastern Saudi Arabia. Its neighbors are quite as alarmed as Washington about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and privately quite happy for Washington to wipe out this capability.

It is remarkable how quickly an international consensus has emerged for the eventual use of force against Iran. Chirac’s indirect reference to the French nuclear capability was a warning to Tehran. Mohamed ElBaradei, whose Nobel Peace Prize last year was awarded to rap the knuckles of the United States, told Newsweek that in the extreme case, force might be required to stop Iran’s acquiring a nuclear capability. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that the military option could not be abandoned, although diplomatic efforts should be tried first. Bild, Germany’s largest-circulation daily, ran Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s picture next to Adolf Hitler’s, with the headline, “Will Iran plunge the world into the abyss?”

The same Europeans who excoriated the United States for invading Iraq with insufficient proof of the presence of weapons of mass destruction already have signed on to a military campaign against Iran, in advance of Iran’s gaining WMD. There are a number of reasons for this sudden lack of squeamishness, and all of them lead back to oil.

First, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the most to lose from a nuclear-equipped Iran. No one can predict when the Saudi kingdom might become unstable, but whenever it does, Iran will stand ready to support its Shi’ite co-religionists, who make up a majority in the kingdom’s oil-producing east.

At some point the United States will reduce or eliminate its presence in Iraq, and the result, I believe, will be civil war. Under conditions of chaos Iran will have a pretext to expand its already substantial presence on the ground in Iraq, perhaps even to intervene militarily on behalf of its Shi’ite co-religionists.

What now is Azerbaijan had been for centuries the northern provinces of the Persian Empire, and a nuclear-armed Iran could revive Persian claims on southern Azerbaijan. Iran continues to lay claim to a share of Caspian Sea energy resources under the Iranian-Soviet treaties of 1921 and 1940. [1] For the time being, Azerbaijani-Iranian relations are the most cordial in years, with Iran providing natural gas to pockets of Azerbaijani territory blockaded by Armenia, and Baku defending Iran’s nuclear program. As Iran’s oil production dwindles over the next two decades, though, its historic claims on the Caspian are likely to re-emerge.

Ahmedinejad’s apocalyptic inclinations have inspired considerable comment from Western analysts, who note that he appears to believe in the early return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam. I do not know whether Ahmedinejad is mad or sane, but even mad people may be sly and calculating. Iran’s prospects are grim. Over a generation it faces demographic decay, economic collapse and cultural deracination. When reason fails to provide a solution to an inherently insoluble problem, irrationality well may take hold. Like Hitler, who also was mad but out-bluffed the West for years before overreaching, Ahmedinejad is pursuing a rational if loathsome imperial policy.

Given Israel’s possession of a large arsenal of fission weapons as well as thermonuclear capability, it is extremely unlikely that Iran would attack the Jewish state unless pressed to the wall. Faced with encirclement and ruin, the Islamic Republic is fully capable of lashing out in a destructive and suicidal fashion, not only against Israel but against other antagonists. Whatever one may say about Chirac, he is not remotely stupid, and feels it prudent to warn Iran that pursuit of its imperial ambitions may lead to a French nuclear response. French intelligence evidently believes that Iran may express its frustrations through terrorist actions in the West.

By far the biggest loser in an Iranian confrontation with the West will be China, the fastest-growing among the world’s large economies, but also the least efficient in energy use. Higher oil prices will harm China’s economy more than any other, and Beijing’s reluctance to back Western efforts to encircle Iran are understandable in this context. It is unclear how China will proceed if the rest of the international community confronts Iran; in the great scheme of things it really does not matter.

Washington will initiate military action against Iran only with extreme reluctance, but it will do so nonetheless, except in the extremely unlikely event that Ahmedinejad were to stand down. Rather than a legacy of prosperity and democracy in the Middle East, the administration of US President George W. Bush will exit with an economy weakened by higher oil prices and chaos on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere. But it really has no other options, except to let a nuclear-armed spoiler loose in the oil corridor. We have begun the third act of the tragedy that started on September 11, 2001, and I see no way to prevent it from proceeding.

1. For a recent summary of the issue, click here


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