Would Assad’s Fall Limit the Nuclear Menace in the Middle East?

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REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Syrian soldiers attend the funeral of their comrades at a military hospital in Homs January 23.

As Bashar Assad looks more internationally isolated by the day — and far more vulnerable to Western economic sanctions than uber-bad boy Iran — it behooves us to think through what general advantages accrue with his eventual fall. To date, most of the thinking has focused on Iran’s loss of its right-hand proxy in transmitting terror to Israel via Hamas and Hezbollah.

Obviously, that’s a big positive, especially if it dials down Israel’s general nervousness regarding Iran. Yes, Israelis in general prefer the neighboring devils they know. But seeing that avenue of Iran’s possible counterattack removed from the equation has to make Israel feel that much more confident that, when and if that day finally comes, it can conduct its attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities with significantly lesser risk to the homeland. Counter-intuitively, that could make Israel that much more patient on President Obama’s ambitious oil embargo project.

But sticking with my premise that Iran remains committed, for purely regime-survival reasons, to ultimate weaponization, what if the loss of Syria, largely to the influence of emerging regional rival Turkey, actually toned down – on a regional basis – any great internal motivations for copycat proliferation?

This is sometimes referred to as the Nth power problem – an all-purpose designation for the next nuclear domino to fall. With North Korea’s successful-if-crude weaponization failing to trigger the issue in East Asia, Iran is pretty much the last great dynamic out there, with fellow rogue Pakistan long considered to be the enabler-of-choice to any Iran rival looking to even up the score.

In my calculation, that’s always been the Saudis and – more recently – rising Turkey, which already quasi-owns nuclear weapons thanks to NATO’s stationing of them there. But of course, even if it was just the Saudis who joined in, we’d then all suffer a Persian Gulf three-way standoff among Tehran, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, something that – on the face of it – instinctively feels less stable than just a bipolar Israel-Iran package (and I’m not just talking the oil).

Recently, I had the chance to review a research paper penned for NYU’s Center for Global Affairs by one of my Wikistrat colleagues, Regina Joseph, whose previous journalistic stints covering high technology you may recall from such venues as the New York Times and Forbes. In the piece, Joseph taps academic Jacques Hymans’ “National Identity Conception (NIC)” to explain why the Arab Spring may actually work to dampen this dynamic – no matter Tehran’s unquenchable ambition to go nuclear.

Joseph’s rendition of Hyman’s categories are as follows:

Hymans plots this unique orientation across a matrix of four distinct NICs, where nationalists (whose self-defined status to others is either equal or superior) and subalterns (whose self-defined status to others is lower) are categorized via a solidarity dimension of either sportsmanlike (“us and them”) or oppositional (“us against them”) dispositions. In Hymans view, the NIC held by oppositional nationalists—a typology driven by fear and pride—harbors the greatest potential to proliferate.

You can probably already see where Joseph goes with this: Iran is classic oppositional nationalist, so forget about talking Tehran out of its quest.  Turkey, with its swaggering soft-power profile, clocks in as a sportsmanlike nationalist, suggesting it won’t need to take Iran’s bait, because its ultimate confidence in the future lies elsewhere.

As for the Saudis, you might be surprised that Joseph categorizes them (based on another academic’s careful reading of royal speeches) as sportsmanlike subaltern, which I would translate as deep acceptance that, without globalization, Saudi Arabia is nothing (so an “us and them” mindset that recognizes that demand is the real power in global energy markets – not supply). On Hyman’s NIC scale, then, Saudi Arabia is least internally incentivized to go nuclear.

Now, the kicker for me that could easily overrule this seemingly solid logic is that, once Iran gets the bomb and concerned extra-regional powers force some SALT-like talks out of a sense of global responsibility, it might be too hard for the Saudis not to be at the table, where the price of admission will be a nuclear weapon. Turkey, I could imagine, might satisfy itself will hosting such talks, but wouldn’t the Saudis simply need to be seen as Iran’s power equal?

But here, Joseph’s analysis got me thinking further, due to Syrian scenario: If Assad falls, reasons Joseph, Iran will be even more incentivized, out of the feeling of being surrounded by hostile powers, to go nuclear.  But the Saudis, sensing Iran’s feelings of being cornered, might be suitably becalmed, especially as Riyadh builds a solid supply relationship with Iran’s demand-side ace in the hole (so perceived) – China.

Meanwhile, Turkey feels that much more confident with a Syria that falls into its general economic sphere of influence. In the end, neither feels the need to match Iran’s nuclear achievement. That would only serve to cement that sad regime’s growing North Korea-like isolation in the region, with only the exploitative Chinese as a trade lifeline (“This part,” explains the Chinese oil executive, “goes around your neck.”).

Bit rosy perhaps, but far more plausible than Iran somehow “winning” the Arab Spring after Assad’s gone.

All of this is to say that President Obmaa’s long game on Iran looks one helluva lot more compelling once Assad is kaput, emphasizing just how important this development could be in the region’s future, and why the U.S. should be as aggressive as possible in making it happen.