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."
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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.
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These propositions are oft-repeated. Tertrais writes that “nuclear Iran would feel emboldened to project its power and influence in the region.” Specifically, he argues that Iran’s “new status” would “incite” it to increase support for Hamas, “making the peace process even more complex.”42 Michael Eisenstadt cautions that nuclear weapons will “embolden Tehran to behave more aggressively, to more frequently resort to coercive diplomacy, to ramp up its support for terrorism, or to undertake military adventures.”43 Sagan envisions a scenario in which members of the IRGC “feel that it is safer for them… to attack Americans in Iraq, to attack military bases in the region, to support terrorist attacks elsewhere.”44 Kenneth Pollack writes that Iran may calculate that its “nuclear shield” allows it to support “subversion, nonnuclear terrorism, [and] insurgencies” because its adversaries would be hard pressed to retaliate given “the risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.”45 And Eric Edelman and colleagues write that at the very least, nuclear Iran will become “increasingly aggressive.”46 These and other authors often turn to Pakistan, circa 1999, and Iraq, circa 1990, for illustration. In the first case, a year after testing a nuclear weapon and flush with its newfound power, Pakistan sent paramilitary forces into India-controlled Kashmir. The conflict, pitting two nuclear rivals, escalated rather spectacularly. The result was the Kargil War, in which over 1000 soldiers died. Sagan explains that the episode “occurred not despite Pakistan developing nuclear weapons but rather because Pakistan got the bomb.”47 It mistakenly believed that it could use its nuclear shield to send proxies into India without triggering a war. In the second case, Iraq’s adventurism in 1990 was perhaps a result of its unconventional weapons program, used successfully in spring 1988 to force the Iranians to the bargaining table. Eisenstadt suggests that Iraq may have been emboldened by its “maturing chemical and biological weapons programs” to reassert itself. It invaded Kuwait believing that its WMD shield would deter others from intervening.48 It is possible that nuclear Iran might likewise misinterpret the value of its nuclear shield and stumble into a costly conflict as a result.
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Arab states also will have to worry that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will embolden Tehran to revert to a more aggressive foreign policy. The clerical regime might calculate, for example, that it could give more material assistance and lessen restrictions on Hezbollah to engage in operations against Israeli and American interests. The Iranians have supported Hezbollah operations against American forces as an appendage of Iranian foreign policy to push the Americans out of the Gulf, most notably in assisting Saudi Hezbollah attacks against the Khobar Towers. Tehran might calculate that it could support an even more ambitious unconventional terrorist campaign against American forces in the Gulf and the smaller Arab Gulf states that host American forces if it has a nuclear weapons arsenal. Tehran might assess that, even if its hand is exposed, the risks of American military retaliation would be minimal, given Iranian nuclear weapons. If push came to shove, Tehran could use nuclear weapons against American military assets or hosting countries in the region with Iranian ballistic missiles, or clandestinely insert them into the United States to directly target American cities and citizens.
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President Obama’s fears are well-founded. Iran harbors ambitious geopolitical goals. After national survival, Iran’s primary objective is to become the most dominant state in the Middle East. In terms of international relations theory, Iran is a revisionist power. Its master national-historical narrative holds that Iran is a glorious nation with a storied past, and that it has been cheated out of its rightful place as a leading nation: Like pre-World War I Germany and China today, it is determined to reclaim its place in the sun. Currently, Iran restrains its hegemonic ambitions because it is wary of U.S. or Israeli military responses—particularly the former.
But if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, its adversaries would be forced to treat it with deference if not kid gloves, even in the face of provocative acts. Iran would achieve a degree of “inverted deterrence” against stronger states by inherently raising the stakes of any military conflict against it to the nuclear level.11 As such, nuclear weapons would provide Iran with a cover under which to implement its regional ambitions with diminished fear of a U.S. military reprisal. A nuclear-armed Iran would likely step up its support for terrorist and proxy groups attacking Israeli, Saudi and U.S. interests in the greater Middle East and around the world; increase the harassment of and attacks against naval and commercial vessels in and near the Persian Gulf; and be more aggressive in its coercive diplomacy, possibly brandishing nuclear weapons in an attempt to intimidate adversaries and harmless, weaker neighbors alike.
Even if over time Iran does not try to use nuclear weapons against Israel or other countries, an Iranian nuclear capacity has other alarming significance.First of all,an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons is liable to behave more aggressively towards various countries, including Israel, as a result of the confidence that a nuclear umbrella bestows. While obtaining nuclear weapons may relieve some of Iran's anxiety and force it to behave more cautiously in order to avoid escalation that might lead to a nuclear confrontation, still, Iran's ambitions in the region and the Muslim world and its hostile attitude towards Israel are liable to encourage excessive aggression. This aggression might be manifested in increased Iranian involvement in terrorism and subversion against other countries, including boosting Hizbollah activity against Israel, and reflected in Iran's policy towards its neighbors-in possible conflicts with Persian Gulf countries or Iraq and Afghanistan,and also in non-military issues, such as oil sources and prices. In this context, Iran is liable to increase its pressure on Persian Gulf countries and demand their cooperation in achieving certain ends, including a reduced presence of American forces in the Gulf.
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Deterring Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon is just the beginning of the challenge. Some US strategists believe that the greater threat is that Iran will believe that a nuclear weapon neutralizes threats of conventional attack by the US and other powers and Iran will, therefore, be emboldened to engage in ever more risky and provocative behaviour until Western and regional powers are forced to intervene even against a nuclear-armed Iran.24 Iran may want to develop nuclear weapons, not to use against European capitals to paralyse North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers, but to use nuclear weapons on its own territory to stop a conventional invading army, a nuclear use that would present the West with a very difficult conundrum regarding ‘retaliation’. Whether the US and other nations are actually paralysed by an Iranian nuclear weapon is not really important. The danger arises if Iran only believes that nuclear weapons provide a security guarantee and is lured into ever riskier behaviour. Moreover, the US has an interest in devaluing nuclear acquisition to deter the next potential proliferator from going nuclear. The US may feel compelled to be particularly rigid with Iran or any new nuclear states precisely to prove that nuclear weapons do not buy the kind of military and political leverage hoped for or, if they do, only at great cost. A nuclear weapon could, therefore, increase the likelihood of conventional confrontation between the West and Iran (Sagan 2006; Takeyh 2007).