Highlights: Despite bombast, regime has been risk averse. Iran acts through proxies such as Hezbollah. Arab Spring setback for Iran. Regime change likely to happen from within eventually.


OTTAWA, February 6, 2013 – Should Iran ever get nuclear weapons it is unlikely the regime will fire them itself or supply terrorist groups directly, according to two leading international security experts in the latest Straight Talk interview with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI).

Despite the bombast of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian regime is risk-averse and relies on proxy groups like Hezbollah.

But it is unlikely to supply terrorist groups with nuclear weapons because they could be traced back to it, the experts say.

Alex Holstein, Managing Director of the Canadian intelligence publication, Geopoliticalmonitor.com, and Peter Jones, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, say it is not clear whether Iran's goal is to actually build a nuclear weapon of its own or simply acquire the capability to build one. Even if the answer is the latter, there remains a grey area. Does it simply want the option of having one in the future or does it want to be able to produce working bomb quickly?

"The threat needs to be taken seriously, but not as an imminent existential threat. It could become one in the long term, particularly when you consider the inflammatory remarks of many leaders within the Iranian regime," says Mr. Holstein.

What should be of concern, the two say, is the possibility of proliferation in the Middle East. Countries such as Saudi Arabia will want a counter balance if they conclude Iran is near becoming a nuclear threat. In fact, Saudi Arabia may even have a clandestine nuclear program already.

Since most countries don't have the means for a nuclear program, they will seek alliance with a nuclear power like the U.S. In other words, a nuclear drive by Iran could have the unintended result of tilting most of the region toward the U.S., the experts say.

"The rhetorical bark in Iran is always bigger than the bite, particularly with this type of issue. The biggest threat from Iran is its support of terror groups like Hezbollah, particularly within the region," says Mr. Holstein.

"I don't see Iran doing anything seriously suicidal like acquiring a bomb, attaching it to a missile, shooting it at Tel Aviv or any other Israeli city. Iran does consider self-preservation."

Mr. Jones says he doesn't expect the U.S. and Israel to use nuclear weapons on Iran unless they believe the regime has a working bomb. But he would not rule out a conventional attack on Iran by the two powers, "perhaps a substantial one."

He also sees the possibility of escalation of a clandestine war that has already been waged against Iran. That would mean targeted assassinations, computer viruses or blowing up Iran's nuclear facilities.

"If Washington and Tel Aviv feel Iran is getting close to having a weapon, they may be more willing to take risks and perhaps combine clandestine operations with an overt attack," he says.

What's the answer? The two experts believe it makes more sense to act before Iran has the bomb rather than after. And that action should be diplomacy supported by secondary clandestine activity.

Iran has nothing to gain but plenty to lose by publicly retreating from its nuclear program. But the prospect of lightened sanctions could be held out to allow it to gracefully retreat from nuclear capability.

Ultimately they believe the Iranian regime will fall just as the Soviet Union did in time. Iran has lost status as a result of the Arab Spring, due partly to its difficult relationships with incoming governments in the region, and partly to the imminent fall of the Syrian regime, its only ally.

This interview with Alex Holstein and Peter Jones  on the Iranian nuclear weapons program is the latest instalment of MLI's Straight Talk series.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

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Tripti Saha
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Macdonald-Laurier Institute
(613) 482-8327 ext. 105


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