What would happen if Iran had the bomb? (+video)
Even as Tehran signals an interest in nuclear talks, many experts have already envisioned what the world would look like if the country got nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be as dire as many fear, but it would unleash new uncertainties - and perhaps a regional arms race.
Are you afraid of Iran yet? Shrill warnings of war or imminent apocalypse over Iran's nuclear program have never been so strident, or so ominous.Skip to next paragraph
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A window is closing fast, the narrative goes, to prevent a fanatical and suicidal religious regime from acquiring the ultimate tools of Armageddon: nuclear weapons. Within months, some politicians claim, either Israel, the United States, or both may have no choice but to attack Iran to remove this "existential threat" to the Jewish state.
The world is facing another Hitler, declares Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this moment of decision is akin to the eve of World War II. Iran is a threat to Israel and "a real danger to humanity as a whole," warns Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The tone on the US presidential campaign trail is no less dire. GOP hopeful Rick Santorum recently told a crowd that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, "let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri." One of his opponents, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, claims an Iranian strike on the US is "a real danger" that would make the 9/11 attacks look small. "Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros, and it's 300,000 dead," he said in early February. "This is not science fiction."
Yet it is also far from likely – even if Iran were to build a nuclear arsenal. In fact, say analysts and nonproliferation experts who have studied the effect of the bomb on countries, coexisting with a nuclear-armed Iran – or at least a nuclear-capable Iran – may well be possible, even inevitable, whether a military strike delays that outcome or not.
Analysts say Iran is not an irrational, suicidal actor that can't be deterred. Nor do they believe it is determined to destroy Israel at all costs. A recent Israeli think tank simulation of "the day after" an Iranian nuclear test came to the same conclusion: that nuclear annihilation will not automatically result.
Yet a nuclearized Iran would precipitate some profound changes across a chronically unstable region. Military balances would shift. Political relations among antagonists – and allies – would become more complicated. Israel would lose its nuclear hegemony in the Middle East.
Underlying it all loom major questions. Would Iran, implacable foe of the US and Israel, suddenly become beyond attack, like North Korea? Would Iran and Israel settle into a decades-long regional cold war, like that between India and Pakistan? Would Iran's jittery Persian Gulf neighbors rush to become nuclear powers themselves, setting off a dangerous and irreversible new arms race?