What's in it for Iran . . .
We know what Israel would hope to gain from bombing the Iranian nuke project -- three to five years in which to perfect an anti-missile defense.
But what does Iran gain from building a nuke?
In the end, nothing. If anything, it makes the country weaker long-term.
Having a nuke supposedly brings a certain amount of feel-good national pride to a country. I think that's a way over-rated reason to build one, but since I've never been a citizen of a country that doesn't have nukes, I can't really say. But while possessing nuclear weapons can be seen by a paranoid government as the ultimate protection again an invasion - yes, North Korea, we're talking about you - in the case of a country like Iran, the weapon will undermine the country's natural diplomatic and military position.
Which, everything else being equal, should be dominant or close to it in the Middle East.
There's the obvious effects of sanctions, etc., which though useless against the bomb program do put something of a drain on the economy. More importantly, the weapon gives outside countries - such as the U.S. - a reason to counter-balance Iran. At the same time, other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, have an added incentive to form alliances with those external powers to "keep Iran in check."
At the same time, the weapon can't be used in any sort of war. Use it, and there will be massive retaliation from the target - Israel, let's say, or the U.S. if used against an allied country. Don't use it and . . . you've wasted a lot of development money, hurt your economy, and weakened your geopolitical position for . . . ???
I understand the paranoid government position - the only way to prevent the U.S. from attacking is to be able to retaliate with nukes. But think of it this way: If Sadaam had possessed nuclear weapons, would that have stopped the U.S. from attacking? Or would it just have changed the targeting priorities in the first five minutes of the war? If the bomb had been used as a suicide weapon in Baghdad, say, would it have changed the outcome of the war? Or just guaranteed a much longer U.S. occupation?
The truth is, Cold War equations about nuclear weapons probably never applied to much of the world - and certainly don't apply now.