Nuclear Iran could embolden terrorists
A nuclear capacity will reinforce Iran's status as the backbone of radical elements worldwide, particularly in the Muslim world. Obtaining nuclear weapons is liable to strengthen the radical tendency within Iran, at least in the short term, and increase the regime's prestige
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However, even before Iran launches a nuclear attack, and indeed even if it never does, an Iranian nuclear arsenal will make Iran far more dangerous than it is today. The current Iranian government is already the world's leading state supporter of terrorism. An Iranian nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a "nuclear umbrella," making countries victimized by Iranian-sponsored terrorism even more reluctant to retaliate against Iran. This would likely make Iran an even more self-confident supporter of terrorism. Iran could also harm Western security interests by simply threatening to use its nuclear weapons. A very unhealthy precedent for such nuclear blackmail has already been set by North Korea, which made the following threat less than two days after its initial nuclear weapons test: "We hope the situation will be resolved before an unfortunate incident of us firing a nuclear missile comes. That depends on how the U.S. will act."
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The risk that pro-Iranian terrorist groups would be heartened by their patron's new capabilities also presents a new challenge for deterrence. Iran is not likely to provide nuclear weapons assistance to Sunni religious extremists or terrorist groups; it fears them more than it favors them. A more plausible concern is that a group long affiliated with Iran— for example, Hizballah in Lebanon—would feel emboldened to take more aggressive action against Israel, assuming that it is protected by a nuclear armed Iran.
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If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it may incite Hizbollah to resort to what remains of its rocket arsenal in an attack against Israel. Similarly, Hizbollah itself may exhibit greater aggressiveness against Israel without any Iranian encouragement, calculating that its own military freedom of action has grown once its patron has greater deterrence against Israel. At the same time, it is likely that Hizbollah may act more aggressively in special circumstances and isolated cases, and not necessarily in a reversal of policy towards Israel, because the organization is also driven by other exigencies, beyond the extent of its Iranian backing. One such constraint is the possibility of an Israeli attack against Syria, already in a weak position, should Hizbollah cross red lines in its behavior towards Israel. Another is Hizbollah's place in the Lebanese power structure. It can be assumed that the Israeli attack against Hizbollah targets in the summer of 2006, and the effect of the campaign on the latter's capabilities and standing, will constitute a restraining factor in Hizbollah's considerations.
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Third, a nuclear capacity will reinforce Iran's status as the backbone of radical elements worldwide, particularly in the Muslim world. Obtaining nuclear weapons is liable to strengthen the radical tendency within Iran, at least in the short term, and increase the regime's prestige. It may impel moderate regimes in the region to adapt their policy to Iran, as they will be more exposed to Iranian pressure, even if some of them, mostly those in the Gulf, try to increase their reliance on the US as a counterweight to the Iranian threat. Iran's stature is liable to increase; indeed, since the weakening and fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, there is no regional player that can balance and contain Iran in the Gulf region. And, the Iranian regime may wave the banner of its nuclear weapons to bolster its struggle against the US over influenceand control in the Gulf. The strengthening of radical elements is liable to harm the peaceful relationships that Israel is trying to build with the Arab and Muslim world.
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Third, nuclear Iran might use its arsenal to protect its nonstate and state allies. The concept of an Iranian nuclear umbrella is closely related to that of Iran’s nuclear shield, but instead of protecting its own vital interests, Iran flexes its muscles to protect the integrity of others. In practice, nuclear Iran will not only be emboldened to increase its support for terrorism, the argument suggests, but will also be better able to protect its investment. This scenario is premised on the logic and theory of extended deterrence. As opposed to deterring attacks on one’s own territory and/or interests (“central deterrence”), extended deterrence involves protecting an ally, third party, or prote ́ge ́ by way of one’s own conventional and nuclear capabilities.49 As in the case of deterrence more generally, Paul Huth suggests a further two distinctions, between “extended-immediate deterrence” (in which an overt threat is made against a defender’s allies and an immediate counterthreat is established) and “extended- general deterrence” (in which threats against an ally exist more broadly but a challenger is not actively preparing to use force).50 In the case of nuclear Iran and its terrorist proxies, both concepts are in play. Ottolenghi tells us that “[u]nder an Iranian nuclear umbrella, terrorists will be able to act with impunity” and “Hezbollah . . . would be able to cement its dominance in Lebanese politics.”51 Barry Rubin agrees, writing that Iran will use its “nuclear umbrella” to protect its regional “clients” in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. He even suggests that “Islamist movements everywhere, including in Europe”—notwithstanding their current relationship with Tehran—“would likely become more violent and reckless” as a result of Iran’s nuclear capability.52 In a related argument, Chuck Freilich suggests that rather than extend its deterrent, Iran might supply Hamas and/or Hezbollah with control over their own nuclear weapons, giving them each their own absolute deterrent against Israel. He explains: “Even a minimal nuclear capability would enable Hizballah and Hamas to conduct ongoing low-level attacks . . . in the confidence that Israel would be deterred from massive retaliation.”53 In all cases, the suggestion is that Iran’s nuclear capability will extend itself to the services of third parties, protecting their interests and survival by deterring retaliation and curtailing counterterrorism operations. As a result, terrorist groups will be free to act as they please, knowing that their victims will be kept in check by Iran’s nuclear capability.