Nuclear Iran will not transfer nuclear weapons or materials to terrorists
Given the near certainty that they would be exposed, Iran would not risk the international condemnation and certain attack by transferring nuclear weapons or materials to its terrorist proxies.
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As for the risk of a handoff to terrorists, no country could transfer nuclear weapons without running a high risk of being found out. U.S. surveillance capabilities would pose a serious obstacle, as would the United States’ impressive and growing ability to identify the source of fissile material. Moreover, countries can never entirely control or even predict the behavior of the terrorist groups they sponsor. Once a country such as Iran acquires a nuclear capability, it will have every reason to maintain full control over its arsenal. After all, building a bomb is costly and dangerous. It would make little sense to transfer the product of that investment to parties that cannot be trusted or managed.
Iraq's experience notwithstanding, many proliferation analysts insist that although technologically backward states might not have been capable of nuclear weapons development in the past, they can now simply purchase all they need in the freewheeling globalized marketplace. Admittedly, illicit nuclear entrepreneurs -- such as A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea -- do pose a threat. But international nuclear technology transfers often fail because the dysfunctional states that are trying to get the bomb are hardly any better at exploiting foreign nuclear know-how than they are at developing their own. Libya's misbegotten nuclear weapons project reflects this general pattern. Despite buying all the items in Khan's catalog, Libya was unable to "put them together and make them work," according to a 2005 U.S. government report. Indeed, when IAEA inspectors gained access to Libyan nuclear facilities after Libya's president, Muammar al-Qaddafi, abandoned the project in 2003, they found much of the imported merchandise still in its original packing crates.
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We conclude that neither a terror group nor a state sponsor would remain anonymous after a nuclear terror attack. We draw this conclusion on the basis of four main andings. First, data on a decade of terrorist incidents reveal a strong positive relationship between the number of fatalities caused in a terror attack and the likelihood of attribution. Roughly three-quarters of the attacks that kill 100 people or more are traced back to the perpetrators. Second, attri- bution rates are far higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally—97 percent (thirty-six of thirty-seven) for incidents that killed ten or more people. Third, tracing culpability from a guilty terrorist group back to its state sponsor is not likely to be difacult: few countries sponsor ter- rorism; few terrorist groups have state sponsors; each sponsored terror group has few sponsors (typically one); and only one country that sponsors terror- ism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough assile material to manufacture a weapon. In sum, attribution of nuclear terror incidents would be easier than is typically suggested, and passing weapons to terrorists would not offer coun- tries an escape from the constraints of deterrence.12
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Perhaps the most important reason to doubt the nuclear-attack-by-proxy scenario is the likelihood that the ultimate source of the weapon might be discovered.15 One means of identifying the state source of a nuclear terrorist attack is through “nuclear forensics”—the use of a bomb’s isotopic angerprints to trace the assile material device back to the reactors, enrichment facilities, or uranium mines from which it was derived. In theory, the material that remains after an explosion can yield crucial information about its source: the ratio of uranium isotopes varies according to where the raw uranium was mined and how it was processed, and the composition of weapons-grade plutonium re- veals clues about the particular reactor used to produce it and how long the material spent in the reactor.16 The possibility that the covert plot could be discovered before being carried out also acts as a deterrent. For these and other reasons, some analysts argue that nuclear terrorism is unlikely.
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Given the enormous risks involved, it is difacult to imagine a state’s leaders placing so much faith in a terrorist organization unless they already had a long-running, close, and trusting relationship with that group, and unless that group had repeatedly demonstrated its reliability, competence, and ability to maintain secrecy. Furthermore, leaders considering giving nuclear weapons to terror groups would need to and a group with the demonstrated capabil- ity to conduct complex operations across international borders.27 Many violent nonstate groups can plant roadside bombs or conduct small-scale ambushes against unsuspecting targets, but those relatively simple attacks do not imply an ability to conduct complex international operations involving training, travel, visas, anances, and secure communications.28 In short, both the com- plexities of the mission and the need for unwavering trust mean that a state seeking to orchestrate a nuclear attack by proxy would be limited to collabora- tions with well-established terrorist organizations with which it has existing relationships, simplifying the task of connecting terrorist perpetrators to their state sponsors.
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There are at least five reasons, however, to expect that attributing a nuclear terrorist attack would be easier than attributing a conventional terrorist attack. First, no terrorism investigation in history has had the resources that would be deployed to investigating the source of a nuclear terror attack—particularly one against the United States or a U.S. ally. Rapidly attributing the attack would be critical, not merely as a arst step toward satisfying the rage of the victims but, more importantly, to determine whether additional nuclear attacks were imminent. The victim would use every resource at its disposal— money, threats, and force—to rapidly identify the source of the attack.47 If necessary, any investigation would go on for a long time; it would never “blow over” from the victim’s standpoint.
The second reason why attributing a nuclear terror attack would be easier than attributing a conventional terrorist attack is the level of international assistance the victim would likely receive from allies, neutrals, and even adversaries. An attack on the United States, for example, would likely trigger unprecedented intelligence cooperation from its allies, if for no other reason than the fear that subsequent attacks might target them. Perhaps more impor- tant, even adversaries of the United States—particularly those with access to assile materials—would have enormous incentives to quickly demonstrate their innocence. To avoid being accused of sponsoring or supporting the attack, and thus to avoid the wrath of the United States, these countries would likely go to great lengths to demonstrate that their weapons were accounted for, that their assile materials had different isotopic properties than the type used in the attack, and that they were sharing any information they had on the attack. The cooperation that the United States received from Iran and Pakistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks illustrates how potential adversaries may be motivated to help in the aftermath of an attack and stay off the target list for retaliation.48 The pressure to cooperate after an anonymous nuclear det- onation on U.S. soil would be many times greater.49
Third, the strong positive relationship between the number of fatalities stemming from an attack and the rate of attribution (as depicted in agures 1 to 3 above) suggests that the probability of attribution after a nuclear attack— with its enormous casualties—should be even higher. The 97 percent attribu- tion rate for attacks that killed ten or more people on U.S. soil or that of its allies is based on a set of attacks that were pinpricks compared to nuclear ter- rorism. The data in those agures suggest that our conclusions understate the actual likelihood of nuclear attribution.
Fourth, the challenge of attribution after a terrorist nuclear attack should be easier than after a conventional terrorist attack, because the investigation would begin with a highly restricted suspect list. In the case of a conventional terror attack against the United States or an ally, one might begin the investiga- tion at the broadest level with the U.S. Department of State’s list of fifty-one foreign terrorist organizations. In the case of a nuclear terror attack, only afteen of these FTOs have state sponsors—and only one sponsor (Pakistan) has either nuclear weapons or assile materials. (If Iran acquires nuclear weap- ons, that number will grow to two, but there is no overlap between the terror groups that Pakistan supports and those that Iran assists.)
Finally, any operation to detonate a nuclear weapon would involve complex planning and coordination—securing the weapon, learning to use it, planning the time and location of detonation, moving the weapon to the target, and conducting the attack. Even if only a small cadre of operatives knew the nuclear nature of the attack, the planning of a spectacular operation would be hard to keep secret.50 For example, six months prior to the September 11 attacks, Western in- telligence detected numerous indications that al-Qaida was planning a major at- tack. The intelligence was not speciac enough—or the agencies were not nimble enough—to prevent the operation, but the indicators were “blinking red” for months, directing U.S. attention to al-Qaida as soon as the attacks began.51
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The United States and its allies should be able to deter nuclear-armed states from passing their weapons to terrorists, because a terrorist nuclear strike would not remain anonymous for long and would soon be traced back to the originating state. This conclusion is based on two empirical andings. First, among the relevant past cases of conventional terrorist attacks—those targeting the homelands of powerful states and causing significant casualties—almost all were successfully attributed to the perpetrating terrorist organization. Second, linking the attributed terrorist organization to a state sponsor would not be difacult. Few foreign terrorist organizations have state sponsors; those that do typically have only one; and only one suspected state sponsor of terrorism (Pakistan) has nuclear weapons or sufacient stockpiles of nuclear materials.
Furthermore, potential sponsors of nuclear terror face a wicked dilemma: to maintain distance by passing the weapon to a terrorist group they do not know well or trust, or to maintain control by giving it to a group they have co- operated with repeatedly. The former strategy is mind-bogglingly dangerous; the latter option makes attribution from terror group to sponsor simple.
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Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, many have been concerned that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. One way this could occur, it is feared, would be for a state with a weapons program to give or sell one to a terrorist group. Such action seems unlikely in the case of Iran, or any state, because it serves no strategic purpose, invites retaliation, and cannot be controlled. It is perhaps the most self-destructive thing that any nation state can do.What strategic purpose, other than pure destruction, could such an action serve? A single nuclear weapon exploded in the United States, or any other state, would be a truly horrible event. But it would not destroy the existence of that state, or destroy its political power. And it would enrage that state, and no doubt cause extraordinary efforts to discover, and punish, the source of the attack.
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Our findings have two important policy implications. First, the fear of nuclear attack by proxy by itself does not justify costly military steps to prevent nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation may pose a variety of other risks, and the appropriate level of U.S. efforts to stop proliferation should depend on the cumulative effect of these risks, but the dangers of a nuclear handoff to ter- rorists have been overstated. For example, Iranian leaders would have to be crazy or suicidal to think that they could give a nuclear weapon to one of their terrorist collaborators and face no repercussions. If leaders were that irrational, the bigger problem would be direct nuclear attack without concern for the retaliatory consequences, not the alleged problem of a nuclear handoff.
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Would Iran Pass Along Nuclear Weapons to Terrorist Groups? This concern has slightly greater plausibility. Tehran does have a cozy relationship with a number of terrorist organizations in the Middle East, most notably Hezbollah. The pervasive assumption among American hawks is that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, sooner or later it will pass one along to a terrorist ally. But how likely is it that Iran would make such a transfer? At the very least, it would be an incredibly high-risk strategy. Even the most fanatical mullahs in Tehran realize that the United States would attack the probable supplier of such a weapon and Iran would be at the top of Washington's list of suspects. It is significant that Iran has possessed chemical weapons for decades, yet there is no indication that it has passed on any of those weapons to Hezbollah or to Palestinian groups that Tehran supports politically. Why should one assume that the mullahs would be more reckless with nuclear weapons when the prospect of devastating retaliation for an attack would be even more likely? The more logical conclusion is that Iran, like other nuclear powers, would jealously guard its arsenal.