The Khomeinist Dome: Iran's Larger Nuclear Strategy
The Iranian global construct can be perceived as a “Khomeinist Dome.” Iran’s strategy has been twofold—and sustained over decades, not simply implemented over the past few years and months. The regime has two simultaneous goals. One is to create a defensive sphere over the forthcoming strategic weapon before it is unveiled, and two is to suppress any internal opposition to the regime’s policies. The “dome” is a complex integration of Iranian foreign policy: Terrorism backing, using financial luring, exploiting Western weaknesses while at the same time expanding influence in the region so that by the time the greater shield is established, most U.S. and allied measures will be useless.
The regime knew all too well, years ago, that if they produced one atomic weapon (or even two) without being able to protect it, they would run into the almost certainty of military action by the West and/or by Israel to disable it. They were unable to circumvent this strategic theorem for decades, at least since the end of the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1987. The issue for them was not about obtaining the nuclear weapon, but how to deter their enemies from destroying it. Iran did not have the geopolitical or economic capacities, nor the international stature of either India or Pakistan, to produce large scale numbers of bombs and later announce them the way south Asia’s nuclear powers detonated their devices in 1999. Hence Iran’s grand strategy to equip itself with the ultimate weapon was different—and thus far successful.
After the Soviet collapse, Tehran knew Israel, or possibly a U.S. administration, would bomb the nuclear installations, not to mention the location of a potential weapon. The Israeli raid on Osirak in 1981 was clear evidence of Western determination to strike at a nuclear weapon in the hands of a dangerous regime. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the coalition’s massive response in 1990-1991 also told the Khomeinists that a post-Cold War West is more assertive than under the previously bipolar world. Finally, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003 brought two powerful and hostile armies to Iran’s two borders. Tehran’s reading of the landscape change was so nervous that it declared itself as abandoning its nuclear ambitions, almost simultaneously with Moammar Gaddafi. The fear of being toppled by outside military forces pushed Iran to hide its nuclear ambitions while awaiting the outcome of the regional evolution.
By 2005, as the U.S. offensive in the Middle East came to a halt, the Iranian regime displayed its hardliner face with the coming of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad to power. >From then on, the grand strategy of the atomic conquest went full steam ahead. On one track, Iran activated the production of nuclear material, making Bushehr and its sister sites the center of international focus. Washington responded with targeted sanctions, well-crafted but aiming at pressuring Tehran to halt the project. The failure of the sanctions-only policies to exert a full strategic halt was caused by the inability of the West to support a strong and organized Iranian opposition inside the country with a significant presence in neighboring Iraq. Sanctions to pressure, without a real resistance movement to push the regime into a corner, were doomed to fail and they did.
But the Iranian regime’s wider strategy was to create a shield for the nuclear weapons as they were produced. In fact, the Ayatollahs calculated that they would only unveil the weapon if and when it is protected. Hence, while the U.S. focused primarily on the fissile material, the fast track production of missiles was never stopped. The greater dome strategy includes missiles, anti-aircraft systems, geopolitical space and terrorism.
A large missile force, which would target a wide spectrum of cities and sites, has been under construction for years. In addition, the regime has been attempting to obtain advanced anti-aircraft missile systems to protect the potential offensive missiles. And when the two structures are fully ready it will be a greater challenge to eliminate the entire network as it would be armed with nukes and other WMDs while also surrounded with a vast AA system; all the while, the uranium production is moving forward. In parallel, Tehran has been expanding its reach in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of East Africa with its influence and through terror networks. Once the combination of all the above systems is in place, the bomb will come, but not before.
The Khomeinist dome is about preparing for the nukes before they are displayed and claimed. It is about signaling to the West that once the greater Iranian power is asserted, there will not be a first indefensible bomb. Rather, Iran will jump to the level of unstoppable power with a vast network of retaliation as deterrence will have been achieved. Unfortunately, Western posture towards Tehran has only helped in the building of the dome: sanctions worked but were limited, all Iran’s other military systems were unchecked, and its interventions in the region unstopped. Worse, a nuclear deal with the U.S. injected time and energy into the regime’s veins.
At this point, the regime is out to complete the buildup of its strategic shield while offering to slow down its fissile material production. Once the dome is complete, the nuclear material production will speed up, and by the time the West realizes the maneuver, the Middle East will have changed forever.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Lost Spring: US Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid. He advises members of Congress on Terrorism and the Middle East.
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