The Iran crisis is moving fast in an alarming direction. There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that Iran’s ambition is to obtain nuclear weapons capability. However, at the heart of the issue lies the Iranian regime’s aspiration to become a hegemonic Islamic and regional power and thereby position itself at eye level with the world’s most powerful nations. It is precisely this ambition that sets Iran apart from North Korea: whereas North Korea seeks nuclear weapons capability in order to entrench its own isolation, Iran is aiming for regional dominance and more.
Iran is betting on revolutionary changes within the power structure of the Middle East to help it achieve its strategic goal. To this end, it makes use of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also of Lebanon, Syria, its influence in the Gulf region, and, above all, Iraq. This combination of hegemonic aspirations, questioning of the regional status quo, and a nuclear program is extremely dangerous.
Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb – or even its ability to produce one – would be interpreted by Israel as fundamental threat to its existence, thereby compelling the West, and Europe in particular, to take sides. Europe has not only historical moral obligations to Israel, but also security interests that link it to the strategically vital Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, a nuclear Iran would also be perceived as a threat by its other neighbors, which would likely provoke a regional arms race and further fuel regional volatility. In short, nuclear Iran would call Europe’s fundamental security into question. To believe that Europe could keep out of this conflict is a dangerous illusion.
In this crisis, the stakes are high, which is why Germany, the UK, and France began negotiations with Iran two years ago with the goal of persuading Iran to abandon its efforts to close the nuclear fuel cycle. This initiative failed for two reasons. First, the European offer to open up technology and trade, including the peaceful use of nuclear technology, was disproportionate to Iran’s fundamental fear of regime change on the one hand, and its regional hegemonic aspirations and quest for global prestige on the other. Second, the disastrous US-led war in Iraq has led Iran’s leaders to conclude that the leading Western power has been weakened to the point that it is dependent on Iran’s goodwill, and that high oil prices have made the West all the more wary of a serious confrontation.