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.
[ Page 195 ]
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.
[ Page 51-52 ]
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).
[ Page 169 ]
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.
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In the specific case of nuclear Iran, delegitimization might be tailored against both Tehran and its proxies. It is telling, for starters, that though it retains chemical and biological weapons, Iran has never shared these unconventional capabilities with its proxies. It may have refrained from doing so out of fear of incurring U.S. or Israeli wrath or because it stood to gain little strategic advantage, but it is also possible that Iran’s restraint was based on ideological, normative, or religious rationales. There are accounts, for instance, that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a secret religious fatwa citing “Koranic principles that constrain the use” of nuclear weapons.95 Byman adds that Iran is unlikely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists because “these weapons are widely seen as heinous, potentially de-legitimating both the group and its state sponsor.”96 Their use in terrorism will not only invite retaliation against Iran, but also widespread scorn against Iran’s mullahs, the wider Shia community, and Islam more broadly. Defenders might also manipulate self- restraints by communicating how certain actions contradict religious tenets and social expectations. Lewis Dunn contends that nuclear terrorism “does have the potential of provoking revulsion”—instead of praise—“among the very communities that Osama bin Laden is seeking to rally.” If so, finding ways to “heighten concerns” among terrorist leaders that WMD attacks will “provoke a backlash” among Muslims, might influence their decision to acquire and use such weapons.97 That a nuclear terrorist attack on Israel or the U.S. is likely to kill scores of innocent Muslims might give some perpetrators reason to pause. The global outrage following a nuclear terrorist strike is likely to be palpable among all religious communities. And as Colin Gray explains, “terrorists lose when their outrages delegitimze their political causes.”98 Nuclear self-restraints and taboos exist in interstate relations. In thinking about deterring nuclear Iran and nuclear terrorism, it is worth exploring whether or not a similar set of self-restraints might also be established among state sponsors of terrorism and their nonstate proxies.
[ Page XIV ]
Finally, while some security experts, predominantly Israeli, fear that Iran’s leaders would provide terrorists with nuclear weapons, we judge, and nearly all experts consulted agree, that Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up its control of such weapons to terrorist organizations and risk direct U.S. or Israeli retribution. Many specialists on Iran share a widespread feeling that Iran’s desire to be seen as a pragmatic nuclear power would tend to rein in whatever ideological impulses it might otherwise have to disseminate nuclear weapons or technologies to terrorists. There is less agreement, however, on whether the regime in Tehran could reliably control all elements within the Iranian system that might have the means, motive, and opportunity to do so.
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The prospect that Iran might transfer a crude nuclear device to its terrorist protégés is another danger, but it, too, is unlikely. Such a move would place Tehran squarely in the cross hairs of the United States and Israel. Despite its messianic pretensions, Iran has observed clear limits when supporting militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Iran’s rulers understand that such provocative actions could imperil their rule by inviting retaliation. On the other hand, by coupling strident rhetoric with only limited support in practice, the clerical establishment is able to at once garner popular acclaim for defying the West and oppose the United States and Israel without exposing itself to severe retribution. A nuclear Iran would likely act no diaerently, at least given the possibility of robust U.S. retaliation. Nor is it likely that Iran would become the new Pakistan, selling nuclear fuel and materials to other states. The prospects of additional sanctions and a military confrontation with the United States are likely to deter Iran from acting impetuously.
[ Page 57 ]
Some see another risk in Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, namely, that Iran will transfer these weapons to terrorist organizations, principally Hizbollah. In this case, these organizations are liable to attempt to blackmail the US, Israel, or other countries into accepting their demands. Possession of nuclear weapons will make them more daring in carrying out terrorist attacks; in a particularly extreme case, they may even use nuclear weapons. Despite the gravity of this possibility, however, it is unlikely. In addition to the problems and limitations for terrorist organizations in possessing and using nuclear weapons, it is hard to see what important interest Iran would have in transferring nuclear weapons to these organizations. Such a transfer will not strengthen Iran’s deterrence or its effort to achieve regional hegemony. It will reinforce Iran’s image as an irresponsible country with no restraint on its involvement in terrorism, because the source of the weapons will be clear to everyone. It will also give Hizbollah the ability to blackmail Iran. If Iran’s goal is to deter Israel from attacking Hizbollah, it is more likely to prefer doing this itself, instead of transferring nuclear weapons to the organization for purposes of deterrence. Above all, giving nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations is liable to put sensitive dangerous weapons beyond Iran’s control, while putting them into the hands of organizations with a limited sense of responsibility and great destructive capability. It can be assumed that Syria will strongly oppose giving nuclear weapons to an organization in its field of influence, which could seriously embroil Syria with Israel.From Syria’s perspective, Israel is liable to respond to a nuclear threat in Hizbollah’s hands with a harsh attack against Syria or Lebanon.
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Deterring Iran from transferring nuclear weapons, materials, and technologies to state and nonstate actors would require another set of measures. For the most part, Iran has reasons not to pursue such perilous activities, but it could be tempted to exploit the di⁄culty of tracking the clandestine trade in nuclear materials. The United States and its allies would need to act decisively to prevent Tehran from seeking to profit in the international nuclear bazaar, for example, through the Proliferation Security Initiative and through un resolutions that imposed additional sanctions on Iran and its potential business partners. To impress on Iran’s ruling mullahs that it is singularly important for them to control whatever nuclear arsenal they may develop or obtain, Washington should hold Tehran responsible for any nuclear transfer, whether authorized or not; Tehran cannot be allowed to escape punishment or retaliation by pleading loss of control. Increased investments in monitoring and spying on Iran would be critical. The United States must improve its ability to track nuclear weapons, materials, and debris and prove and publicize whether they came from Iran (or any other country, for that matter). Such nuclear forensics is crucial to determining who is responsible for nuclear transfers and would be crucial to building support for any U.S. retaliation against Iran, if it were the culprit.
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Although it is possible that Iran could transfer nuclear weapons to one of its many terrorist proxies, this is exceedingly unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, it is incredibly unlikely that any state, regardless of its ideological inclinations, would knowingly allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of actors it did not directly control, simply out of fear that the weapons might then be used against it. It is also worth noting that Iran is known to be affiliated with a mixture of Islamist factions and radical secular groups.32 Although these ties are inexcusable, links with groups of varying ideological and political inclinations indicate that Iranian involve ment is motivated by secular and national interests rather than radical preferences. The 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism also identifies Iran’s use of terrorist proxies as a means of advancing “its key national security and foreign policy interests” and makes no mention of religious or ideological loyalties (emphasis added).33
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Given Iran’s track record of supporting terrorism, concerns about Iran sponsoring a nuclear terror attack are understandable. Nevertheless, it should be possible to deter Tehran from passing a nuclear device to terrorists to use against the United States, Israel or other states falling under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. As noted above, the Iranian regime has historically calibrated its support of terrorist activities to minimize the risks of direct retalia- tion and confrontation. Whatever risks it might have been willing to run in the past by launching attacks against U.S. or Israeli targets would pale in comparison to the gamble that Tehran would be taking by using a terrorist organization to deliver a nuclear attack. Nothing in the regime’s past behavior suggests that it would run such risks of annihilation. Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials note that Iran already has the capability to produce and weaponize some chemical and biological agents.150 Yet despite having these capabilities, there is no documented case of the IRGC or other Iranian entities transferring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to proxies or terrorist organizations.151 Moreover, Iran has varying degrees of influence over Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other Iranian-backed proxies, and controls none of them completely.152 It is hard to believe that Tehran would provide its ultimate weapon to sub-state groups without certainty about how it would be deployed – especially because the fate of Iranian civilization could hang in the balance.153 For some time, this reluctance would be compounded by the small size of the Iranian nuclear arsenal, which would require Iran to maintain possession and tight control to maximize deterrence. The proxy organizations most likely to engage in terrorism on Iran’s behalf – particularly Hezbollah – also have significant political objec- tives and investments of their own and therefore much to lose. Even if individuals within some of these groups are willing to martyr themselves, the organizations have a self-interest in survival and achieving their political goals, and they have a territorial “return address.” As such, they are deterrable.154