The fundamental question raised by the seizure of British seamen is whether we ought to allow a country like Iran to get the bomb. Iran is practiced at bold defiance of the West. The Iranians understand that we fear a war with them, and Iran relies on that fear for protection when they arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, back our foes in Iraq, defy the world on their nuclear program, and seize British hostages.
Given its current behavior, it is a certainty that Iran will use the protective umbrella provided by nuclear weapons to seek de facto control of the Persian Gulf and the world’s oil supply. Iran will arm and support rebellions against pro-U.S. governments by sympathetic terrorist factions throughout the Gulf. Eventually, this will likely force us into a choice between war with a nuclear Iran or ceding Iran control of key portions of the Gulf. Will we mass troops for an Kuwait-style operation in the Gulf, knowing that they could be taken out by a nuclear weapon? Of course, Iran would pay a terrible price for such a strike, but would fear of their crazy-boldness prevent us from attacking to begin with? We dread a war with Iran now, yet I suspect that we’re heading for a war with Iran anyway–after they get the bomb.
At that point, “realists” in the West will call for a deal: cede de facto control of the world’s oil supply (and all the political-economic extortion to follow) to a Russian, Chinese, Iranian consortium, in return for peace and decent economic terms (that won’t hold). Is this a plausible scenario? I’d wager the Iranians think it is. Quite possibly they are right.
The fly in the ointment for Iran might have less to do with an increasingly timid West than with a Sunni-Shiite split. Once the Iranians have a bomb, America’s willingness to protect Sunni states under its nuclear or conventional umbrella will come into doubt. That will prompt Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and maybe even some of the other Gulf States to get bombs of their own. Theoretically, that could lead to a Mexican stand-off and stability. But in the early years of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the probability of a regional war will be high. And with nuclear bombs bouncing around several Muslim states (many with similar signatures because of a common origin in, say, Pakistani technology) the dangers of some rogue faction handing off a bomb to terrorists for use against the U.S. and/or Israel will greatly increase. And with the U.S. and the West in general retreat in the face of a nuclearized Middle East, all the states in the region will be more vulnerable to Islamist takeovers.
This is the big picture in Iran. This is what stands behind incidents like the seizure of the British sailors.