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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A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious strategic threat to the United States and its allies because:
- A nuclear-armed Iran would likely embolden the leadership in Tehran to advance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports – ambitions that gravely threaten stability and the security of U.S. friends and allies.
- An Iranian leadership which believes a nuclear arsenal protects it from retaliation may be more likely to use force against U.S. forces and allies in the region, the greater Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Nuclear weapons could thus lower the threshold for Iran’s use of conventional force.
- A nuclear-armed Iran would likely exacerbate regional tensions. Israel would find it hard to live with a nuclear armed Iran and could take military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. A deliberate or miscalculated attack by one state on the other could result in retaliation, regional unrest, and an increase in terrorist attacks.
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Iran currently sponsors terrorist groups, supports militancy, encourages subversion and engages in political coercion throughout the Middle East. Tehran does so partly to demonstrate its ability to inflict pain on its adversaries should they threaten Iran, but it also engages in these destabilizing activities to intimidate others and advance its revisionist and hegemonic agenda. Equipped with a nuclear deterrent to shield Iran from large-scale retaliation, Iranian leaders might pursue these activities more aggressively, contributing to more violence and instability in an already tumultuous region.
Emboldened adventurism could take many forms. Tehran might increase the frequency and scale of Iranian-sponsored conventional terrorism or cyber terrorism against the United States, Israel and Iran’s regional rivals in the Gulf. A nuclear-armed Iran might also provide Hezbollah and Palestinian militants with more sophisticated, longer-range and more accurate conventional weaponry for use against Israel, and Iran might give its proxies greater leeway to use the advanced weapons sys- tems they already possess instead of keeping them in reserve.65 Iran might become more assertive in backing subversion in Iraq or among Shiite populations in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran might also extend its nuclear umbrella – or at least a nuclear shadow, if it chooses not to make explicit guarantees – over “resistance” groups across the region, emboldening militant allies to be more assertive while limiting the freedom of threatened states to respond.66 And Tehran might feel freer to deploy Iranian forces more assertively in conflicts in the Levant, engage in coercive diplomacy to cow weaker neighbors in the Persian Gulf or blackmail the world by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 20 percent of the world’s tradable oil passes).67
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Motivations and perceptions such as those discussed in Chapter Three point to some insights about possible future behavior. For example, if the desire for greater influence and prestige were a factor motivating the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons, then it follows that, once the weapons are operational, the regime is likely to act in ways that reflect the belief that it is entitled to greater influence and respect, at least at first. History supports this: New nuclear powers seem to undergo a process of learning and adjustment as they attempt to gauge the utility of their new weapons. As part of this process, a new nuclear power may take actions intended to test the responses and limits of other powers. In the past, these tests most often occurred in the diplomatic sphere, although there are some cases of limited acts of aggression, often through proxies.One early historical example of this type of behavior was General Secretary Josef Stalin's approval in 1950 of Kim Il Sung's plan to invade South Korea. Prior to January 1950, Stalin had repeatedly turned down Kim's request for military support, fearing that a war in Korea would spark a wider confrontation with the United States, for which the Soviet Union was unprepared. However, after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in September 1949, Stalin seems to have been convinced that a "second front" was feasible in East Asia and that the United States, in the face of the Soviet Union's atomic potential, was unlikely to respond.3 Another example from the Cold War period was China's attack on Soviet border forces in 1969. This mostly forgotten incident, which is one of few direct confrontations between two nuclear powers, provides further indication that new nuclear powers may believe that they can engage in limited military confrontation with more powerful adversaries despite the risks of retaliation.
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Emboldened Iranian adventurism would be consistent with the historical tendency for new nuclear states to become more aggressive at lower levels of violence, at least for some period of time. Nuclear Iran could become more aggressive and adventuresome in several ways ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼and North Korea’s track record of provocations69 Pakistan’s emboldened support of anti-India ter￼￼￼rorism and militancy70 are only the most recent examples.71 Such behavior would also be consis- tent with the Cold War dynamic known as the “stability-instability paradox,” in which nuclear deterrence at the strategic level coincided with numerous disputes, crises, interventions and proxy wars at lower levels of violence.72
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A nuclear-armed Iran might exhibit similar behaviors. For example, it might begin to press the other members of OPEC (none of which has nuclear weapons) to give more weight to its preferences regarding oil-production quotas. Or it might try to coerce the governments of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) states into making concessions over rights to offshore oil and gas fields. We might also see stepped up Iranian support to terrorist organizations and additional efforts to prevent a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For its part, North Korea might adopt an even harder line in negotiations over military dispositions on the peninsula. It might also seek additional financial support and economic assistance with the threat of further proliferation of nuclear technology in the background.In short, both history and logic suggest that the leaders of adversary states may feel entitled to a greater degree of deference from their neighbors and from the United States once they have demonstrated their possession of nuclear weapons. In the "shadow games" that policymakers constantly play as part of their assessment of their options, the realization that military options against a regional adversary state now armed with nuclear weapons have become riskier and less attractive will affect those decisionmakers' willingness to pursue confrontational policies vis-à-vis that adversary. And while the presence of a nucleararmed adversary in the neighborhood may strengthen the attraction between other regional states and their security partner, the United States, it could also result in a net reduction in U.S. influence over the region's affairs.
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An Iranian nuclear first strike might be the nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers, but it is not the most likely one. Should Tehran acquire nuclear arms, the Iranian leadership may feel itself so immune from consequence that it has no obstacles to conventional aggression, whether direct or by proxy. While Western officials may think that the United States can deter Iran, Iranian officials may believe that their nuclear capability will enable them to deter the West. Indeed, in September 2005, the hard-line monthly Ma'refat opined, "Deterrence does not belong just to a few superpowers," and cited the Quranic verse declaring, "Against them [your enemies] make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of enemies of God and your enemies."
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Many analysts say that a nuclear Iran need not be dangerous. Author and essayist Glenn Greenwald, for example, argued--falsely--that Iran "has never invaded another country." Putting aside the nineteenth-century Iranian invasion of Afghanistan, Iran's 1971 occupation of Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands (claimed by the United Arab Emirates), and its 1982 drive into Iraq (after beating back the 1980 Iraqi invasion), the Iranian military has often acted irregularly or by proxy, sparking insurrections in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and perhaps the Palestinian Authority as well. On May 3, 2008, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami acknowledged as much. Speaking at the University of Gilan, he argued that the current Iranian strategy of exporting revolution by means of "gunpowder and groups sabotaging other countries" was inconsistent with what he argued was Khomeini's preference for soft power.
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Even if Tehran does not build or test a nuclear weapon, its establishment of an indigenous enrichment capability has already placed the region under a cloud of ambiguity. An Iranian nuclear break-out would be fundamentally diff erent from that of other countries because there has never been a true state sponsor of terrorism with nuclear weapons. Uncertainty over Iranian capabilities and intentions will make Iran more immune to conventional deterrence and give the Islamic Republic a de facto nuclear deterrent, which could embolden it to reinvigorate its export of revolution and escalate support for terrorist groups. Iran remains an ideological state. While many Iranian civilians and members of the government focus only upon seeking the best life for themselves and their family, more ideological elements remain committed to export of the Islamic revolution. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, application of this principle took the form of assistance to terrorist groups, attempts to undermine regional governments, and assassinations of dissidents. Should the Iranian leadership feel itself secure behind a nuclear shield, they may increase both their overt and covert aggression. The repercussions of such Iranian assertion would be felt not only throughout the Middle East, but also—because of Iran's position on the Strait of Hormuz—on the world energy markets. Iran would then become not just a regional threat, but an international one.
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.