Nuclear Iran could more openly support terrorism
While Iran has overtly been supporting terrorist groups for decades, they have been careful to moderate their support to avoid inviting massive retaliation by either the U.S. or Israel. However, once they have acquired nuclear weapons, these "red lines" will most likely shift as they are able to deter a greater level of attack.
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From a U.S. point of view, Iran would be harder to coerce on two key issues: Iraq and support for terrorism. As noted above, Iran understands how potent the U.S. military can be and has avoided a direct confrontation for two decades. Though Iran remains one of the world's top supporters of terrorism, it has placed limits on its proxies as well as bolstered them. In addition, Iran has supported an array of groups in Iraq linked to violence, but it has so far refrained from unleashing its full power for subversion. Although Iran has provided training and weapons to an array of militia groups, many of which have at times attacked the United States, Iranian leaders have encouraged various Iraqi Shi'a groups to participate in U.S.-backed elections and reconstruction efforts. As Persian Gulf security expert Kenneth Pollack contends, "Although we may not necessarily like all of the same people in Iraq, on balance, Iran has so far been more helpful in advancing the causes of stability and democracy in Iraq than it has been harmful."1A nuclear Iran may continue with this mid-level support for terrorists or other anti-U.S. forces, but it might also decide to step up its backing of terrorists and anti-U.S. groups in Iraq, confident that the United States would be afraid to retaliate because of Iran's nuclear program.
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A nuclear-ready Iran is also likely to step up its terrorist activities against Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Tehran already is reported to have several thousand intelligence agents operating in Shia regions of Iraq and is actively contributing to community associations there. Meanwhile, there are nearly a dozen terrorist organizations employing Hezbollah in their groups’ names operating within Iraq now. As was the case with the Iranian penetration of Lebanon, these efforts will enable Iran to scout, recruit, and control terrorist operatives. The aim here will be to pressure the U.S. and its allies to remove their military forces from Iraq and allow a government more sympathetic to Iran to emerge there.
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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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Recent incidents indicate the difficulties of confronting an unpredictable nuclear adversary. In 2008, after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India refrained from seriously considering conventional military strikes against Pakistan because of the latter’s nuclear capability.107 Similarly, South Korea chose not to respond to North Korean attacks against Yeonpyeong island or the sinking of the Cheonin for fear of sparking retaliation. To be sure, nuclear-armed states are not immune from attack,108 and attacks against core U.S. interests that could be traced directly back to Iran would likely provoke some form of retaliation against Iranian interests. But nuclear weapons, in the possession of rogue regimes (e.g., the Soviet Union, China, North Korea), have historically served as an effective military deterrent.
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Outside Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has refrained over the past fifteen years from conducting terrorist attacks against Americans. Iranian leaders may have concluded that the potential benefits of carrying out such attacks have not been worth the risks—which include provoking direct U.S. military retaliation, additional economic sanctions, and/or further diplomatic isolation. But the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability might alter Iran’s risk calculus in this regard. Iranian leaders might reasonably conclude that a nuclear capability would shield the Islamic Republic from direct military retaliation, thus allowing it to expand its use of terrorism. Following a terrorist attack, U.S. military action to force a regime change, for example, would almost certainly be off the table (except perhaps in response to an Iranian attack using weapons of mass destruction). Other potential forms of retaliation, including a direct military attack on Iran, could be risky, and in the absence of timely evidence demonstrating clear Iranian involvement, U.S. retaliation against a nuclear-capable Iran would be especially unlikely.
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Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic of Iran has used terrorism as a tactic to advance its diplomatic and foreign policy objectives.103 The primary target of Iran-backed terrorist activity has been Israel, but past attacks have targeted Americans as well. Such actions include the Hizballah-orchestrated attacks against the U.S. embassy, consulate, and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and against U.S. armed forces at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. More recently, Iran has concentrated its support for violent insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that have targeted local leaders and civilians, as well as U.S. civilian and military personnel. Iran remains the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism,”104 and its terrorist capabilities—both regionally and globally—are formidable. Accord- ing to a Department of Defense report, “Iran has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored ter- rorist surrogates capable of conducting effective, plausibly deniable attacks against...the United States.”105 In addition, former U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair has stated that Hizballah might consider attacks against the homeland “if it perceives that the U.S. is threatening its core interests.”106
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It is highly unlikely that the Islamist regime plans to actually detonate a nuclear weapon in an offensive attack. Both of the obvious targets, the United States and Israel, have a second-strike nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the Islamist regime’s survival. Setting aside the possibility of unauthorized use by apocalyptic Islamists, nuclear arms are seen as tools for coercion. The regime believes nuclear weapons would deter foreign military strikes targeting the Iranian homeland, making the Iranian use of conventional military force abroad less risky. At a minimum, possession of nuclear arms would allow Iran greater policy flexibility in the Middle East. Regional states that failed to acquire their own counter-arsenal would be forced to think through the logic of extended nuclear deterrence and determine whether they wished to bank upon a US guarantee. In this scenario, given the failure to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons after US leaders explicitly stated it would not be tolerated, it is difficult to imagine that regional leaders would not adjust their policies to reflect new respect for Iranian power. For example, Iranian demands in the Persian Gulf regarding disputed islands or natural gas fields could be affected; Iranian desires regarding production quotas in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would carry additional weight, and Iranian interest in Shia minorities in other states might be pursued more aggressively. More problematically, the Islamist regime would likely feel emboldened to increase its support for terrorist organizations, believing itself secured against direct retaliation. Pakistan’s behavior after its public entry into the nuclear club in 1998 is instructive: it immediately increased support for Islamist militants, creating 1999’s Kargil crisis and the standoff with India in 2000 and 2001. In a classic example of the stability-instability paradox, Pakistani confidence that nuclear arms would prevent escalation made limited conventional and terrorist attacks against India possible.39 As S. Paul Kapur explains, nuclear arms ‘‘encouraged aggressive Pakistani behavior.’’40 In the same way, Iranian clerics could boost conventional military assistance to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reigniting civil war in Lebanon and thrusting the Palestinian peace process into chaos.
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[ABRAMS] It is not necessary to believe that Iran would launch a nuclear attack at Israel the day after acquiring that capability to understand that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of this regime. In addition to the threat of state action, Iran could also provide such a capability to Hamas, Hezbollah, or some other terrorist group with which it has connections as a way of masking its own role in the attack. Iran could also use a newly acquired nuclear capacity to defend stepped-up terrorist activities, both against Israel proper and against Israeli and Jewish individuals and sites around the world. The recent attacks on Israeli Embassy officers in India and Georgia and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires in the 1990s were all conducted when Iran did not have the added protection of a nuclear weapon. Similarly, Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks and terrorist bombings and kidnappings have all occurred when their benefactors in Tehran did not yet have the bomb. How much more aggressive would the mullahs be if the threat of retaliation against such attacks were neutralized by nuclear warheads? Israel has paid a great price in blood and treasure to survive in the decades when it had a nuclear monopoly in the region. To confront the same hostility, terror, and aggression when that monopoly is gone could undermine its ability to survive.
"Attacking Iran's Nuclear Project
." World Affairs
. Vol. 175, No. 1 (May-June 2012): 25-38. [ More (7 quotes) ]
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And the United States? As would have been the case with Finlandization, we would experience a milder form of Islamization here at home. But not in the area of foreign policy. Like the Europeans, confronted by Islamofascists armed by Iran with nuclear weapons, we would become more and more hesitant to risk resisting the emergence of a world shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes. For even if Ahmadinejad did not yet have missiles with a long enough range to hit the United States, he would certainly be able to unleash a wave of nuclear terror against us. If he did, he would in all likelihood act through proxies, for whom he would with characteristic brazenness disclaim any responsibility even if the weapons used by the terrorists were to bear telltale markings identifying them as of Iranian origin. At the same time, the opponents of retaliation and other antiwar forces would rush to point out that there was good reason to accept this disclaimer and, markings or no markings (could they not have been forged?), no really solid evidence to refute it.
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This then brings us to the second likely result of Iran's becoming ever more nuclear-ready: a more confident Iran, more willing to sponsor terrorist organizations, especially those opposed to Israel and the current government in Iraq. With Hamas in decline, Iran has already been seen to be increasing its support to groups like Hezbollah in Israel and Lebanon who want to liberate Palestine from "Israeli occupation." Further increasing this aid would help Iran take the lead in the Islamic crusade to rid the region of Zionist/American forces, making it worthy of tribute and consideration by other Islamic states. Moreover, bolstering such terrorist activity would help Tehran deter Israel and the U.S. from striking it militarily. Beyond this, Iran is likely to increase its assistance to groups willing to risk striking the United States. News reports in August 2004 claimed that Iranian diplomats assigned to U.N. headquarters in New York were to survey 29 American targets to help terrorist organizations interested in hitting the U.S. The aim here appears to be, again, to deter the U.S. from hitting Iran and to divide U.S. opinion about the merits of backing Israel and any other anti-Iranian measure or group.