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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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.
[ Page 102 ]
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.
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Even if a terrorist group were to acquire a nuclear device, expert Michael Levi demonstrates that effective planning can prevent catastrophe: for nuclear terrorists, what “can go wrong might go wrong, and when it comes to nuclear terrorism, a broader, integrated defense, just like controls at the source of weapons and materials, can multiply, intensify, and compound the possibili- ties of terrorist failure, possibly driving terrorist groups to reject nuclear terrorism altogether.” Warning of the danger of a terrorist acquiring a nuclear weapon, most analyses are based on the inaccurate image of an “infallible ten-foot-tall enemy.” This type of alarmism, writes Levi, impedes the development of thoughtful strategies that could deter, prevent, or mitigate a terrorist attack: “Worst-case estimates have their place, but the possible failure-averse, conser- vative, resource-limited ave-foot-tall nuclear terrorist, who is subject not only to the laws of physics but also to Murphy’s law of nuclear terrorism, needs to become just as central to our evaluations of strategies.”54
"Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War
." International Security
. Vol. 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/10): 7-37. [ More (6 quotes) ]
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It must be emphasized from the outset that for all the factions involved in this debate, the core issue is how to safeguard Iran's national interests. The Islamic Republic is not an irrational rogue state seeking such weaponry as an instrument of an aggressive, revolutionary foreign policy. This is not an "Islamic bomb" to be handed over to terrorist organizations or exploded in the streets of New York or Washington. The fact is that Iran has long possessed chemical weapons, and has yet to transfer such arms to its terrorist allies. Iran's cautious leaders are most interested in remaining in power, and fully appreciate that transferring nuclear weapons to terrorists could lead to the type of retaliation from the United States or Israel that would eliminate their regime altogether. For Iran this is a weapon of deterrence and power projection.
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Yes, Iran funds and equips anti-Israeli terror groups.46 But if Hamas or Hezbollah were to use nuclear weapons, they would obliterate themselves and their own homeland. Other than raising money abroad, these groups are tied to local concerns in their neighborhoods—neither group is a credible candidate for attacks against New York or Los Angeles. Hezbollah exists largely to serve its own Shiite citizens in Southern Lebanon, a large ethno religious demographic that is not represented by the minority Sunni and Christian order that controls most wealth and government programs in Beirut—itself a result of unjust, legacy colonial institutions left in place by the French after World War II. Of course, Hezbollah is not content with this domestic mission; it also views violent opposition to Israel as a part of its founding identity, and it is currently aiding fellow Shiite brethren in Iraq, both socially and militarily. Meanwhile, Hamas exists to oppose Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza through terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens as well as providing social services and political represen tation to portions of the Palestinian populace. But despite such extreme behaviors toward Israel, neither group truly wants to strike American soil; neither is opposed to globalization per se, as is the case with Sunni fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda; and neither would even know what to do with a working nuclear weapon (again, unlike al-Qaeda).
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Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been one of the world's most active sponsors of terrorism. Tehran has armed, trained, financed, inspired, organized, and otherwise supported dozens of violent groups over the years. Iran has backed not only groups in its Persian Gulf neighborhood, but also terrorists and radicals in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. This support remains strong even today: the U.S. government regularly contends that Iran is tied to an array of radical groups in Iraq. Yet despite Iran's very real support for terrorism for more than the last 25 years and its possession of chemical weapons for over 15 years, Tehran has not transferred unconventional systems to terrorists. Iran is likely to continue this restraint and not transfer chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons for several reasons. First, providing terrorists with such unconventional weapons offers Iran few tactical advantages as these groups are able to operate effectively with existing methods and weapons. Second, Iran has become more cautious in its backing of terrorists in recent years. And third, it is highly aware that any major escalation in its support for terrorism would incur U.S. wrath and international condemnation.