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 104 ]
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.
[ Page 104 ]
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).
[ 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.
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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.