Iran Marches Forward
Maybe it's a toss up – whether the series of popular uprisings sweeping many Arab capitals or the Iranian nuclear project will turn out to be the more significant factor in the development of the Middle East's history.
Currently, against the backdrop of civil war and NATO bombing in Libya, the violent suppression of rioting in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, and the judicial proceedings against Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak and his families and proteges, little attention is being given to the relentless, steady progress being made in Iran's massive effort to produce nuclear weaponry. Risible international economic sanctions, spearheaded by the United States (and neutralized by the the behavior of the Russians, Chinese, Indians and various Muslim countries, including Turkey), and covert Israeli operations (ranging from the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and the infection with a computer virus of nuclear plants) have so far failed to halt the onward march of the Iranian bomb. For the moment, it looks unlikely that either Israel or the US will attempt to militarily attack and destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure: Simply put, the US has the capability but lacks the will, and Israel has the will but probably lacks the capability for a definitive campaign (unless it uses nuclear weapons, which will render it a pariah state in the international community).
Long ago, there were fools or ingenues who said that Iran was not aiming for nuclear weaponry, only nuclear "self-dependence." Today, I don't believe there is anyone, anywhere who seriously believes this, not even those credulous American intelligence assessors who just a few years ago declared that the Iranians were no longer pursuing nuclear weaponry. Not even Iranian apologists and defenders like Roger Cohen. All today agree about where Khamenei's and Ahmedinejad's Iran is headed.
There are, of course (a second line of defense?), those who believe that Iran will make do with achieving a nuclear weapons production capability but will stop short of actually producing them. I personally doubt it. It runs against the logic of Iranian policy and thinking. Iran's leaders wish to fend off Western power and influence, to dominate the Middle East and to destroy Israel (the latter objective they more or less, and frequently, openly declare)—and for all these, brandishing real, fearful nuclear weapons (after a credible test or series of tests in the desert) will be much more effective than merely announcing a "capability" (which some might dismiss as bluff or of doubtful veracity).
And once they have the Bomb, Americans and Europeans will think twice and three times about any step they take in the region. Indeed, most everyone will begin walking on tippy toes, whether in response to Hamas or Hezbollah or Shi'ite actions (including rioting. Would Saudi Arabia send in armor to help Bahraini Sunni leaders suppress Shi'ite protestors under the shadow of future (Shi'ite) Iranian power and threat?). Arab leaders, indeed, will both cower in fear and, at the same time, begin pursuing nuclear weapons programs of their own. Indeed, some regional leaders, including Turkey's, are already behaving in ways that prefigure Iran's future, nuclear-backed dominance.
And, of course, there is Israel. Its leaders and populace will, thereafter, live in perpetual fear of Iranian nuclear assault, whether out of the blue or as the endgame in some future crisis (there is never an absence of such crises— an Israeli retaliation against Hamas or Hezbollah, etc.—to which an Iranian nuclear threat or assault could be appended). The Iranian leadership—immoral (by our lights) and religiously fanatical—may well prove undeterred by thoughts of mutually assured destruction: Maybe they believe that destroying Israel or the Jews, as desired by Allah, is worth the candle; maybe, that Allah will protect them, no need to fear.
And short of Iran actually launching its nuclear-tipped missiles, their very existence will surely constrict Israel's room for political and military manouvre. And even without the actual use of nuclear weapons, Iran's mere possession will badly harm the Jewish state: Many might seek to emigrate, potential immigrants will think twice or look elsewhere, and investors will pull out or scratch Israel off their prospectus.
In so many ways Iran's acquisition of nuclear weaponry will change the region forever, and terribly.
And the Arab "revolutions"? Well, so far two old, tired leaders have been deposed in Tunisia and Egypt. But the army remains in charge in Cairo and the prospects are that nondemocratic forces, perhaps even Muslim fundamentalists (potential Iranian allies), will take over. Anyone who bets on democracies arising in Damascus or Tripoli or Bahrain or Palestine is gambling on very long odds.
This bout of street riots and uprisings may change the Arab Middle East in various ways, primarily making leaders more attentive to the will of the street (increasing subsidies of basic foodstuffs? Giving fake jobs to "reduce" unemployment—as was the norm in the Soviet Bloc?—thus further weakening their economies?). But a basic change in the culture, lifestyle and governmental mores of this Islam-gripped region? I doubt it.
But the Iranian nuclear project is another matter altogether.