Iran would behave more aggressively with a nuclear weapon
Iranian nuclear weapons would give Tehran greater political and military prestige that could translate into leverage over the Arab Gulf states. As Kenneth Pollack warns, "Tehran appears to want nuclear weapons principally to deter an American attack. Once it gets them, however, its strategic calculus might change and it might be emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy."
During the Cold War, the price of the balance of terror was the recognition of spheres of influence. If Iran goes nuclear, the Western world will have to negotiate a Middle Eastern Yalta with Tehran -- one that may entail a retreat of U.S. forces from the region and an unpleasant bargain for the Gulf states and Israel. And given the geographic extent of Iran's ambitions, lines will be harder to draw than at Yalta.
Who would stop a nuclear Iran from swallowing its energy-rich neighbors or from fomenting Shia unrest in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere across the region?
Conflicts that we find difficult to resolve today will become impossible to fix, much like conflicts in Africa and Central America had to wait for the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to come to an end. While Iran may refrain from striking Israel directly, its proxies -- Hamas and Hezbollah -- will redouble their attacks and make peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible. And a Hezbollah backed by a nuclear Iran would be able to cement its dominance in Lebanese politics, much to the detriment of the country's shrinking Christian population.
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Likewise, the acquisition of nuclear weapons could embolden Iran’s leadership to engage in aggressive, even reckless behavior. Thus, a nuclear Iran may be more inclined to take risks vis-à-vis Israel, in the belief that its nuclear capability would deter major acts of retaliation. This may have been the assumption underpinning the assertion in a December 2001 Friday prayer sermon by ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Expediency Council chairman, that:
"If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality."
While Rafsanjani’s sermon lends itself to alternative readings – as either a matter-of-fact description of strategic reality in a Middle East in which more than one country has nuclear weapons or, more ominously, as a statement of intent – it raises the disquieting possibility that some Iranians may see nuclear weapons as a means of pursuing an eliminationist solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would not be surprising in light of the prevalence of anti-Israel vitriol in the public political discourse of both “liberal” reformers and conservative hardliners.
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That said, nuclear restraint did not prevent armed nations from much breast-beating. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States postured with repeated explosive testing. They and others engaged in "atomic diplomacy" -- subtle hints, threatening rhetoric, the movement of nuclear-capable units to intimidate and deter -- in crises over Taiwan (1950s), Suez (1956), Berlin (1961), Cuba (1962); wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East (1973) (Betts, 1987); as well as many crises and wars involving India and Pakistan. And, in defense think tanks, strategists crafted plans to use nuclear weapons both to preempt and to respond to deterrence failure (Kaplan, 1983). Fortunately, these events never required execution.
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Even if Iran and Israel managed to avoid a direct conflict, Iran's nuclear weapons would remain a persistent source of instability in the Middle East. Tehran would almost certainly attempt to expand the size of its arsenal to enhance the survivability of its nuclear weapons. To that end, it would have a strong incentive to adopt the North Korean model of proliferation: negotiating with the international community while continuing to expand its stockpile. Tehran could also deflect international pressure to disarm by offering to relinquish its arsenal if Israel did so as well, exploiting the desire of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders to make progress toward a world without nuclear weapons. As Iran's arsenal became larger and its fear of retaliation declined, however, it might be increasingly willing to engage in more subtle but still dangerous forms of aggression, including heightened support for terrorist groups or coercive diplomacy.
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Another analogy that policymakers pursuing isolation might hope to draw is to North Korea. If we have managed to live with a nuclear North Korea, perhaps we will be able to tolerate a nuclear Iran. This line of thinking neglects the major dissimilarities between the geostrategic positions of North Korea and Iran. North Korea borders China, a much larger and stronger neighbor that has the capability to keep the smaller country’s more aggressive tendencies in check, and a large contingent of U.S. and South Korean troops are stationed just across the well-fortified Demilitarized Zone. In the case of Iran, there is neither a larger regional power that can exert influence over Tehran, nor the prospect of a significant U.S. military presence at the border. More telling, however, are precisely the ways in which North Korea continues to threaten international peace. Not only has it acted aggressively against South Korea – including sinking ships without provocation, bombarding civilian populations, kidnapping civilians and launching cyber attacks against government and civilian networks – but it is also an egregious proliferator of missile and nuclear technology to rogue regimes around the globe. Indeed, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, far from being contained, is one of the reasons that Iran is so close to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. Once it attains that capability, Iran will likely follow in North Korea’s footsteps: taking a belligerent stance towards its neighbors and sharing dangerous secrets with the enemies of international order.
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First, the stability-instability paradox-that is, the possibility that individual countries would be more aggressive with nuclear capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, will it behave more aggressively in the Middle East? On the one hand, we have a good insight from Professor Waltz: The United States would be more reluctant to attack Iran if it had nuclear weapons, and indeed I do believe that's why Iran is so interested.On the other hand, however, we have the possibility that various Iranians-especially those in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-may feel that it is safer for them to probe-to attack Americans in Iraq, to attack military bases in the region, to support terrorist attacks elsewhere. Therefore it is not at all clear what might be the final outcome. More probing attacks? More provocation? Indeed, this is the worry with regard to the Iran crisis today.I don't believe the Bush administration wants to attack. But I do think there are some factions in Iran who wouldn't mind a potential attack from the United States because it would increase support for the regime. It's possible that these factions in Iran will actually increase rather than decrease attacks by Iranian agents in Iraq against American forces to force our hand.
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From its very inception the Islamic Republic has employed terror to achieve its strategic and religious aims. It has killed American soldiers, directly or by proxy, in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, supported terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas that attack civilians in Israel and elsewhere, aided Syria’s al-Assad regime in suppressing peaceful demonstrators, and repeatedly undermined the stability of our Arab allies. Most recently, American authorities revealed that elements of Iran’s IRGC had planned a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, marking a new level of provocation, while Iranian military leaders threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a critical energy shipping lane. An Iran with nuclear weapons capability, overconfident behind its own perceived nuclear deterrent, can only be expected to act even more aggressively.
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Iranian nuclear weapons would give Tehran greater political and military prestige that could translate into leverage over the Arab Gulf states. As Kenneth Pollack warns, "Tehran appears to want nuclear weapons principally to deter an American attack. Once it gets them, however, its strategic calculus might change and it might be emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy." The Arab Gulf states would be more vulnerable to Iranian political pressure to reduce security cooperation with the United States, particularly in the event of a regional contingency. Finally, an Iranian nuclear bomb also would increase the already high incentives for Arab states to procure nuclear weapons.
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Nuclear weapons may embolden Iran to become more aggressive regionally. This concern reflects the “stability/instability paradox”: while nuclear weapons may create stable nuclear deterrence, paradoxically, this may actually encourage greater conventional adventurousness.2 A nuclear Iran may believe that its arsenal will deter the United States and its regional allies from retaliating should Tehran engage in regional provocations. These provocations could take several forms. Iran may invade a neighbor, use conventional forces to challenge ship- ping in the Persian Gulf, engage in subversive activities in regional states or support insurgencies, increase its material support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, or encourage terrorist attacks.
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The Iranians could elect to rely more heavily on integrating nuclear weapons into their war-fighting strategies. They undoubtedly have ingrained into their political and military thinking the premise to never again be caught in a prolonged war of attrition as was the case in the Iran-Iraq War that Tehran ultimately lost. The Iranians might come to view nuclear weapons as useful, or even essential, battlefield instruments for destroying the armed forces of an adversary, particularly those of Iraq. As Gary Sick points out, Iran's past use of unconventional hit-and-run speedboat attacks in the Persian Gulf during its war with Iran demonstrate Tehran's willingness to "use unconventional, even terrorist, methods to pursue a political and military strategy, even if that meant confronting the United States." Along these lines, Tehran might be tempted to harness the threat of nuclear weapons for leverage in the political-military struggle against the United States for power and influence in the Persian Gulf.