My thinking on Iran is more or less mainstream thinking in Israel, what many Israelis within the defense and foreign policy establishments feel, even if they say it in a more diplomatic way.
Today’s Iran is multi-layered. It is an imperial power, just as Persia was once an imperial power toward the Middle East and other parts of the world. It is also a regional power, one of the largest states in the Middle East demographically (66 million people), along with Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. Iran has long had aspirations to lead the region, not just under the current regime.
The current regime represents another, Islamic layer in Iran’s identity as a state. This layer has been very clear since the Islamic Revolution in 1979; Iran propagates a particular, very radical version of Islam, and has a jihadist agenda to spread this version of Islam everywhere—not only to Palestine but also to Andalusia (Spain of today), once the domain of the Islamic empire. To put today’s Iran in strategic terms, I would use Yehezkel Dror’s category of crazy states, which means that it a state that has far-reaching goals, much beyond its border, it is revisionist, it has a great commitment to achieve those goals, it is even willing to pay a heavy price domestically in order to achieve its goals, and it has a quite unconventional style, which one sees, for example, in how Ahmadinejad speaks about Israel. This is quite unusual in today’s international discourse.
Why does Iran want nuclear weapons? First, as an insurance policy for the regime, which fully understands that it is more difficult to destabilize a country armed with nuclear weapons. Outsiders do not know what kind of people will get their hands on the weapons in case of an external intervention designed to destabilize the regime—witness what is happening nowadays in Pakistan. The U.S. administration accepted Musharraf the dictator; we did not want anyone to mess with nuclear weapons. Moreover, a nuclear weapon is in Iran’s view a weapon able to deter an American invasion. As a member of the “Axis of Evil,” they observe that the U.S. preferred to attack Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons at that time, rather than go after North Korea, which had a much more advanced program.
Tehran also views the nuclear weapon as a way to achieve regional hegemony in a way similar to how the French looked upon it. It signifies a certain status in the region. They believe that their past entitles them to have a nuclear bomb and to put them in the same rank as the large, important powers of the world.
Finally, Iran’s nuclear program is also designed to try to block Western influence in the region. Iranians have a very ambivalent attitude toward the West. On the one hand, they see it as a dying, decadent civilization, but at the same time they are very much afraid of the corrupting influence of Western culture and morals.
The Iranians’ nuclear strategy is simple: it’s to talk and build. They are ready to talk. The bazaars of Tehran offer good guidance in how to bargain with the West, and the gullible West has been ready to talk to Iranians already for 15 years, and we all know the result of the talk and diplomacy. It’s basically a North Korean model; North Korea adopted the same strategy and was successful. Tehran is ready to talk to the Europeans, the International Agency on Atomic Energy, but its goal is to gain time. It wants to bring about a fait accompli and present the world with an Iranian bomb.
An Iranian nuclear bomb would be very dangerous. A nuclear Iran will be a clear threat to anyone in the radius of its range—they now have a missile with a range exceeding 2000-2500 km, within which is the whole Middle East, Eastern Europe, India, Pakistan, even part of China. It is a real threat to a very large