Nuclear Weapons and Iran’s Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios
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Recent incidents indicate the difficulties of confronting an unpredictable nuclear adversary. In 2008, after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India refrained from seriously considering conventional military strikes against Pakistan because of the latter’s nuclear capability.107 Similarly, South Korea chose not to respond to North Korean attacks against Yeonpyeong island or the sinking of the Cheonin for fear of sparking retaliation. To be sure, nuclear-armed states are not immune from attack,108 and attacks against core U.S. interests that could be traced directly back to Iran would likely provoke some form of retaliation against Iranian interests. But nuclear weapons, in the possession of rogue regimes (e.g., the Soviet Union, China, North Korea), have historically served as an effective military deterrent.
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Outside Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has refrained over the past fifteen years from conducting terrorist attacks against Americans. Iranian leaders may have concluded that the potential benefits of carrying out such attacks have not been worth the risks—which include provoking direct U.S. military retaliation, additional economic sanctions, and/or further diplomatic isolation. But the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability might alter Iran’s risk calculus in this regard. Iranian leaders might reasonably conclude that a nuclear capability would shield the Islamic Republic from direct military retaliation, thus allowing it to expand its use of terrorism. Following a terrorist attack, U.S. military action to force a regime change, for example, would almost certainly be off the table (except perhaps in response to an Iranian attack using weapons of mass destruction). Other potential forms of retaliation, including a direct military attack on Iran, could be risky, and in the absence of timely evidence demonstrating clear Iranian involvement, U.S. retaliation against a nuclear-capable Iran would be especially unlikely.
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Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic of Iran has used terrorism as a tactic to advance its diplomatic and foreign policy objectives.103 The primary target of Iran-backed terrorist activity has been Israel, but past attacks have targeted Americans as well. Such actions include the Hizballah-orchestrated attacks against the U.S. embassy, consulate, and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and against U.S. armed forces at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. More recently, Iran has concentrated its support for violent insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that have targeted local leaders and civilians, as well as U.S. civilian and military personnel. Iran remains the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism,”104 and its terrorist capabilities—both regionally and globally—are formidable. Accord- ing to a Department of Defense report, “Iran has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored ter- rorist surrogates capable of conducting effective, plausibly deniable attacks against...the United States.”105 In addition, former U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair has stated that Hizballah might consider attacks against the homeland “if it perceives that the U.S. is threatening its core interests.”106
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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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Limiting Israeli freedom of action. Israeli strategic culture places a high value on the ability to conduct retaliatory strikes for attacks against Israeli citi- zens, as well as to take preemptive action to prevent certain arms transfers that cross Israeli red lines. Already, the threat of escalating conflict has forced Israel to accept the transfer of certain precision- guided missiles, antiaircraft systems, and, report- edly, Scud ballistic missiles.81 But in the face of a nuclear-capable Iran, Israel might be forced to act with even greater caution in initiating preemptive or retaliatory strikes—given the potential of these strikes to escalate into a direct conflict with Iran.82 As a result, Hizballah and Hamas may feel more free to engage in low-level military actions against Israeli civilians, potentially including more frequent rocket attacks, targeted assassinations, or suicide bombings. Furthermore, an Iranian nuclear capabil- ity could induce Tehran or Syria to transfer increas- ing numbers of sophisticated weapons to Hizbal- lah or Hamas. A particularly dangerous escalation could involve the potential transfer to Hizballah of radiological dispersion devices (or “dirty bombs”) or even chemical weapons. While attempting such transfers would be provocative, Tehran might cal- culate that the psychological impact on the Israeli population and the deterrent effect on the Israeli military would be significant enough to warrant such risks.
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Iran’s calls for the destruction of Israel, however, are not aimed at the physical annihilation of the Jewish people, nor does Iran appear to be seeking a direct mil- itary confrontation with Tel Aviv. Rather, Ahmadine- zhad and Khamenei have both called for a longer-term process of continual cycles of asymmetric warfare— described by analysts as the al-Muqawama doctrine— using proxies to demoralize and wear down the Israeli people, and ultimately force their “Zionist leaders to return to their homes, and to restore Palestine to its original owners.”47 Iran has repeatedly called for a ref- erendum to decide the future of all those living within the pre-1948 Palestinian borders:
There is only one solution to the issue of Palestine... This solution is to hold a referendum with the partici- pation of all native Palestinians, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Palestinians who live both inside and outside the occupied territories...Without this, the Palestinian issue would not be settled.48
Iran’s support for Hizballah, Hamas, and other armed militia groups is aimed in part at weakening Israeli morale and forcing the imposition of such a referen- dum. At the same time, Iran seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state and inspire its overthrow “by the storm of wrath of the Palestinian people and free nations.”49