The governments of Egypt and Tunisia have toppled like dominoes, accompanied by immense protests in Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen. Cries for freedom, revolution, and reform have been transformed into global slogans. Amidst the chaos and excitement, it is important to not lose sight of one of America’s most prevalent threats: a nuclear Iran.
After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, Iran was declared an Islamic republic by Ayatollah Khomeini. As supreme leader, Khomeini worked to implement strict Shia law, which included measures like prohibiting women from being judges and forcing them to wear a hijab, in an effort to reverse modernizing reforms and fight westernization. Since then, Iranian leadership has become increasingly radicalized and has set the political stage for modern-day Iran.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran, entered politics during the Revolution. As a religious hardliner, he rose to power on the platform of continued repeal of modern laws. Asserting claims like “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals” and categorizing Christianity as a “deviation from the right path,” Ahmadinejad has emerged as the embodiment of Iranian efforts against western values.
At present, Iran is openly pursuing nuclear capabilities and has been funding terrorist organizations. The Pentagon estimates that Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for numerous attacks — including a 1983 attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 240 American troops — receives up to $200 million annually from Iran. Moreover, in 2010 it was estimated that Iran had the potential to produce a nuclear bomb within the next 2–5 years, yet Iran continues to prohibit the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency from conducting a thorough investigation into their nuclear capabilities. Additionally, Iran boldly fired a test round of long-range missiles in 2009, some capable of hitting U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf.
Iran as a Shi’ite nation has only been strengthened by the current unrest in the Middle East, as Shi’ites across the region have become emboldened to demand greater representation amongst Islam’s Sunni majority. Furthermore, many of Iran’s enemies have been significantly weakened by domestic turmoil, and the number of countries left to counterbalance Iran has dwindled. Iraq, for example, used to act as an Iranian check, but is in no position to do so today. Iraq’s unavailability places the major burden on Saudi Arabia, which is also experiencing unrest within its borders.
The current situation has left many countries vulnerable and within the sphere of Iranian influence. Oman and Qatar are moving quickly towards Iran, whereas the futures of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are still in the air.
Only last week, Iran asserted its dominance by sending two Navy ships through the Suez Canal to Syria for the first time since the Iranian Revolution. Whether as a provocation or to shift focus away from internal Iranian protests, the act signified Iranian aggression and a changing balance of power.
While the disarray in the Middle East validly warrants concern, it is also an opportunity for America to support new leaders who consider Iran an existential threat. It is important that once the dust settles and the time for reconstruction arrives, the U.S. carefully evaluates and takes a firm stance on which leaders it supports. Hopefully, America will remain steadfast in supporting moderate and democratic leaders and will help to guarantee that the next generation of Middle East governments can work alongside the United States to stifle Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Although it is too early to predict exactly how the balance of power will take shape in the Middle East, it is clear is that Iran is emerging as a key player. With radical leadership and nuclear capabilities on the horizon, America should avoid distractions and continue on the path of placing sanctions on Iran. It is crucial that the extensive protests, rallies, and revolts not divert U.S. attention from what will have the most serious and dire consequences for America and her allies — a nuclear Iran.