Why Iran wants the Bomb and what it means for US policy
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In the abstract, nuclear arms should provide a set of advantages; however, practically, pursuit of nuclear weapons engenders a large set of negative consequences. First, ‘‘proliferation begets proliferation.’’14 If Iran obtains nuclear arms, it is likely that other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps Egypt, would pursue nuclear arms as well. This would create a dramatically increased threat to Iran, as neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia could successfully mount a significant offensive against Iran using only conventional arms. Moreover, the more nuclear weapons that exist in the region, the greater the chances that accidental detonation, theft, or other unauthorized use could affect Iran. Second, by pursuing nuclear weapons, Iran risks a preemptive strike by other states hoping to deny Iranian aims. Likewise, if Iran is successful in obtaining nuclear arms, in the event of conflict Iran’s adversary could decide to launch a preemptive strike to destroy Iranian nuclear arms before they could be used. Without a publicly known, guaranteed second-strike capability, the very presence of a nuclear program is destabilizing. Third, states that might otherwise have a neutral policy toward Iran could fear the increased Iranian military capability represented by nuclear weapons and join a coalition aimed at balancing Iranian power, thereby creating new threats to Iran. Fourth, Iran would face challenges in securing its nuclear arms. With messianic Islamist extremists present in parts of the regime, including within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), protection against the theft or other unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials by insiders would be particularly important. Yet new nuclear powers typically do not have sophisticated security devices such as permissive action links (coded locks) on their weapons or precise material control and accounting procedures. Fifth, the international community, acting through the United Nations, has made nonproliferation a major goal. Various sanctions are emplaced against proliferators, aimed at pressuring them to abandon their nuclear programs. Tough sanctions, appropriately monitored and enforced, could produce devastating economic effects on Iran, threatening the survival of the targeted regime. Thus, in determining whether nuclear arms are beneficial, the Iranian regime, if rational, must take each of these negative factors into account.
[ Page 35 ]
Iran has a primarily non-Arab, Shia population in a region dominated by Arab Sunni Muslims. It sits adjacent to the energy-rich, strategically vital Persian Gulf, dominating the Strait of Hormuz, which controls maritime access to the gulf. The Caspian Sea along Iran’s northern border also holds energy resources, inciting conflict among the littoral states as to ownership and control. Beyond its immediate neighbors, Iran has historically faced the threat of Russian territorial encroachment and Western economic domination. The Islamists fear that pro-democracy advocates in the West will attempt to induce a ‘‘velvet revolution’’ similar to the movements that overthrew authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and, more recently, the Middle East. However, the foremost modern global threat from the Islamist regime’s point of view is the United States. This threat perception increased markedly when the United States brought significant military forces to Iran’s periphery beginning in 2001.
[ Page 44 ]
This analysis holds that the Iranian regime is motivated by a desire for coercive power externally and a need to maintain its radical Islamist image internally. Hence, attempting to dissuade the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons by addressing defensive security concerns will not succeed. Provision of a security guarantee, extension of a nuclear deterrent umbrella, or creation of a regional security compact that includes Iran, fail to meet the Islamist regime’s needs. Domestically, the regime seeks to buttress eroding support by emphasizing its Islamist character and by equating nuclear technology with nationalist pride. In addition, the IRGC provides institutional support to the nuclear program. To combat this, the United States can offer support for domestic Iranian opponents of nuclear arms; however, the success of the regime’s nationalist argument has drastically limited the set of organized opponents. Moreover, with negligible American influence in Iranian policymaking circles, US efforts are effectively limited to public diplomacy. Thus, prospects for countering the domestic drivers of nuclear weapons are dim.
[ Page 44 ]
However, if prestige were the primary motivation for the Iranian Islamists, then the rational policy would be to develop a nuclear capability without actually building a nuclear weapon. By demonstrating mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, Iran would place the world on notice that it had the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Physically completing the weapon would be a step backwards, given the negative factors associated with acquiring nuclear arms. Accordingly, some analysts have suggested that Iran is pursuing such a virtual arsenal.54 Yet Iranian actions, including the evidence of work on weaponization, the development of long-range ballistic missiles, and the placement of the program within the IRGC, indicate that Iran is not satisfied with a virtual arsenal. The Iranian Islamists want the coercive power of possessing nuclear weapons. They want to parade their nuclear arms in front of friends and adversaries. A virtual arsenal not only denies them this opportunity, but is also inherently unstable, as doubt about whether the Islamists have actual weapons increases the chances of a preemptive attack.
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For the mullahs, norms against proliferation are of little practical consequence. Already branded a ‘‘rogue state’’ by the West for its support of terrorist groups, its dismal human rights record, its authoritarian government, and its violent repression of election protestors, the Islamist regime has no reason to abide by Western nonproliferation norms. In terms of Jacques Hymans’s psychological model, Iran’s primary decision maker, Ayatollah Khamenei, would seem to fit the oppositional-nationalist category most susceptible to proliferation. Khamenei’s identity conception of Iran appears to use the United States as a ‘‘key comparison other,’’ with a high degree of nationalist pride and a matching degree of hostility.53 Thus, the Islamist regime likely views international norms as thinly veiled American efforts to deny Iran its rightful status.
[ Page 40 ]
It is highly unlikely that the Islamist regime plans to actually detonate a nuclear weapon in an offensive attack. Both of the obvious targets, the United States and Israel, have a second-strike nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the Islamist regime’s survival. Setting aside the possibility of unauthorized use by apocalyptic Islamists, nuclear arms are seen as tools for coercion. The regime believes nuclear weapons would deter foreign military strikes targeting the Iranian homeland, making the Iranian use of conventional military force abroad less risky. At a minimum, possession of nuclear arms would allow Iran greater policy flexibility in the Middle East. Regional states that failed to acquire their own counter-arsenal would be forced to think through the logic of extended nuclear deterrence and determine whether they wished to bank upon a US guarantee. In this scenario, given the failure to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons after US leaders explicitly stated it would not be tolerated, it is difficult to imagine that regional leaders would not adjust their policies to reflect new respect for Iranian power. For example, Iranian demands in the Persian Gulf regarding disputed islands or natural gas fields could be affected; Iranian desires regarding production quotas in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would carry additional weight, and Iranian interest in Shia minorities in other states might be pursued more aggressively. More problematically, the Islamist regime would likely feel emboldened to increase its support for terrorist organizations, believing itself secured against direct retaliation. Pakistan’s behavior after its public entry into the nuclear club in 1998 is instructive: it immediately increased support for Islamist militants, creating 1999’s Kargil crisis and the standoff with India in 2000 and 2001. In a classic example of the stability-instability paradox, Pakistani confidence that nuclear arms would prevent escalation made limited conventional and terrorist attacks against India possible.39 As S. Paul Kapur explains, nuclear arms ‘‘encouraged aggressive Pakistani behavior.’’40 In the same way, Iranian clerics could boost conventional military assistance to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reigniting civil war in Lebanon and thrusting the Palestinian peace process into chaos.
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Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is useful in building domestic support for the Islamist regime. Although not accountable to the people, the clerics nevertheless seek popular support in order to reduce the costs of ruling. Burdened by growing political, economic, and social problems, the clerical elites look for opportunities to refocus the attention of the Iranian people. The Islamist regime has successfully framed the nuclear issue in terms of nationalism, making it appear that concerns over Iranian nuclear weapons are merely the latest attempt of the West to deny Iran its due respect.43 International efforts to enforce the requirements of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) have likewise been presented as Western discrimination. Thus, observers have noted strong support among the Iranian public for the regime’s nuclear program.44 Although reformists in the 2009 presidential election criticized the Ahmadinejad government on a variety of matters, most stayed away from attacking the nuclear program, questioning only the tone of the government’s negotiation, rather than the program itself.45 This is consistent with Etel Solingen’s theory that inward-looking regimes are more apt to pursue nuclear arms than externally oriented regimes, particularly when located in a neighborhood of other inward-looking states. Iran’s unique sectarian position, hypernationalism, and economic statism, make Iran an ideal candidate for proliferation.46 As Kenneth Pollack notes, ‘‘Tehran’s hardliners. . .are certain that everyone else will realize that the world needs Iran more than Iran needs the rest of the world.’’47