Nuclear Iran could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups
While Iran may be deterred from directly attacking the U.S. or Israel, they may be more receptive to transferring the technology to other groups or rogue states.
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Nuclear technology transfer has been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, and Iran fits the characteristics of countries most likely to export nuclear technology.13 Iran’s lack of global power- projection capabilities and its poor relations with the United States provide permissive conditions. As a regional power, there is good reason for Iran to be threatened by the spread of nuclear capabilities in its own backyard, but since it lacks the ability to project conventional military power outside of the Middle East, it would be less threatened by the presence of sensitive nuclear capabilities in other regions. Moreover, its poor relations with the United States mean that it would be less likely than other nuclear capable states to respect Washington’s consistent attempts to safeguard global nonproliferation norms.14
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Iran may provide nuclear weapons or fissile material to others. Iran may, either for strategic motives or economic profit, decide to transfer nuclear technology to other states, or to terrorists. On the low end of the threat spectrum, this includes the transfer of equipment or technical assistance to other states to help them develop an indigenous nuclear program. This could be a civilian program with the potential of being adapted for weapons production, or it could include the transfer of warhead designs and other technologies solely related to the construction of a bomb. The likeliest candidate for Iran would be Syria; however, if the motive is simply profit, Iran could find any number of global buyers.3 On the high end of the threat spectrum, Iran could provide nuclear weapons to terrorists who could then use them against Israel, the United States, or other targets in an act of nuclear terrorism.
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A major concern is the prospect of Iran intentionally using nuclear weapons, either directly or by transferring them to terrorists. Some commentators argue that the Iranian regime is so reckless and irrational that it might be willing to use nuclear weapons against the United States or Israel, even if such actions risked national suicide. According to this view, Iran’s religious glorifi- cation of national martyrdom makes it nearly impossible to deter.61 As Bernard Lewis observes, for the “religious fanatics” in Tehran, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent – it’s an inducement.”62 Moreover, even some commentators who believe that the current Iranian government is rational argue that leaders subscribing to a particularly apocalyptic variant of Shiism (sometimes referred to as the “cult of the Mahdi”), including extremist elements within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), might eventually seize control.63 Given the long history of Iranian-backed terrorism committed by the IRGC-Qods Force (the Guard’s covert action wing), Hezbollah, Palestinian groups, Iraqi militants and other violent Iranian proxies against U.S. and Israeli targets, the possibility that a highly risk-acceptant or irrational Tehran might sponsor a nuclear terror attack is a particular concern.64
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A grave concern is that Iran could transfer nuclear weapons to non-state actors, because for the past 20 years Tehran has consistently used non-state actors as instruments of statecraft to advance Iranian political interests and objectives. Indeed, the prospects for the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-state actors is greater in the case of Iran than it was for Saddam's regime, because Tehran has been much more active than Baghdad had been in the sponsorship of terrorist operations, particularly those orchestrated by Hezbollah, against the United States. Jeffrey Goldberg reports in The New Yorker, "Hezbollah has an annual budget of more than a hundred million dollars, which is supplied by the Iranian government directly and by a complex system of finance cells scattered around the world."
Furthermore, the greatest practical danger may lie not in an intentional Iranian use of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, but in a variety of lesser scenarios. A renewed confrontation with Hezbollah seems only a matter of time, and one with Syria is quite possible. Either scenario may provide the setting for an unintended escalation that gets out of hand. Iran might threaten to use nuclear weapons to dictate the outcome of a future conflict of this sort or even as a means of affecting the Arab-Israeli peace process. Its nuclear umbrella might merely embolden Tehran to take harsher conventional measures or allow a regional ally to do so, for example, heightened terrorist or conventional missile attacks against Israel.The danger of an Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to Hezbollah or covert deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons in Lebanon also cannot be dismissed. Indeed, Iranian involvement in nuclear terrorism against Israel, directly or indirectly, with or without the knowledge of the Iranian leadership, may pose the greatest danger of all. The danger also exists of an Iranian nuclear capability falling into the hands of an even more extremist regime, if the current one is replaced, or of a loss of control over it in a scenario of internal chaos.
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Finally, there is the threat of nonconventional terrorism. The fact that Iran or its agents have not yet used chemical and/or biological agents in terrorist attacks may indicate the existence of a normative threshold, or it may indicate that, having achieved significant successes by conventional terrorism, Tehran and its surrogates perceive no need to incur the risk that use of nonconventional weapons would entail. Nonetheless, because of the importance that Tehran has traditionally attached to preserving deniability, Iran is likely to seek, when acting against more powerful adversaries, the ability to deliver nonconventional arms by non-traditional means (for instance, terrorists, boats, or remotely piloted aircraft). Because such methods offer the possibility of covert delivery, they are likely to become important adjuncts to more traditional delivery means such as missiles, and in situations in which deniability is a critical consideration, they are likely to be the delivery means of choice. The possibility of deniable, covert delivery of nuclear weapons by Iran could pose a major challenge for deterrence – particularly if the regime believed that its survival was at stake.
During the Cold War, our adversary was a nuclear-armed state. But Tehran is also the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons capability, the United States will have to contend with the very real possibility that it might transfer nuclear materials or technologies to its terrorist proxies. Classic containment strategy, however, is not adequate to deter non-state actors. Without easily targetable political, social or economic interests, such entities are not susceptible to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Even if executed properly, containment was never meant to persuade unreliable allies to forgo proliferation or to deter terrorists.
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Nuclear/ballistic missile proliferation. A nuclear- ready Iran might be willing to take greater risks in transferring increasingly lethal and sophisticated weapons systems to Venezuela. Iran, for example, could seek to transfer ballistic missiles to Venezuela to help strengthen its conventional missile deterrent capabilities.99 Iran might also be prepared to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Venezuela, as well as provide technical assistance and advanced centrifuges to help Chavez establish an ostensibly civilian nuclear program. It is also conceivable—though perhaps unlikely, at least in the near term—that an emboldened Iran could contemplate the transfer of nuclear warheads or component parts to Venezuela.100 Such a move would be risky and provocative—potentially lead- ing to a showdown with the United States along the lines of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But if Venezuelan and Iranian leaders were convinced that such a transfer would significantly advance their strategic aspirations and could be completed secretly, without advance U.S. detection, they might be willing to take such a risk. The two countries might reasonably con- clude that if the United States was unwilling to risk military retaliation to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, then Washington would be even less likely to risk military action against a nuclear-capable Iran—or against a Venezuela that was potentially shielded by a nuclear-capable Iran—for such suspected transfers.
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Finally, a number of authors warn that a nuclear Iran will greatly increase the risk and probability of nuclear terrorism. The argument is built on two separate but related rationales. The first argues that given Iran’s historical support for terrorist groups, the logical next step for a nuclear-capable Iran is to distribute nuclear weapons to its nonstate proxies. “No one can guarantee,” a Jerusalem Post editorial warns, “that fundamentalist Tehran would not slip a crude bomb or material to Hamas, Hizbollah, or an al-Qaida-inspired terror network.”54 The risk (and for some, the expectation) is that Iran—or a rogue element within Iran’s ruling elite, the military, or the IRGC—might transfer nuclear weapons to a proxy. For instance, not only does the IRGC provide security for Iran’s nuclear facilities, but it is also the primary outfit with which Iran finances and arms terrorists. Sagan warns: “to have your nuclear guardians and your terrorist supporter organizations be one and the same is a recipe for disaster.”55 Even if a majority of nuclear Iran’s elites are reliable nuclear custodians, there may nonetheless remain a faction keen to facilitate nuclear terrorism.