Mitigating the Security Risks Posed by a Near-Nuclear Iran
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To prevent Iran from using its financial windfall to fund terrorist organizations, the United States should take a number of steps. First, the United States should make it clear, in private and public messaging, that Iran will not be fully welcomed back into the community of nations as long as it supports terrorist activity. This is true even if the nuclear issue is resolved to Washington’s satisfaction. Next, to keep the economic pressure on, the United States needs to maintain in place all terrorism-related sanctions, even if other sanctions are lifted as part of the nuclear negotiations. Assuring US allies and partners in the region is another important component of combating Iran’s malign influence and many of the necessary measures to achieve this goal are outlined in the above section on preventing a regional proliferation cascade. In addition, however, the United States needs to work with its partners in the region, including Israel and Gulf states, to put in place a strategy for countering Iran’s terror networks. Iran sponsors terrorist groups even as it cooperates on the issue of nuclear diplomacy, and there is no reason why the United States cannot similarly negotiate on nuclear matters while also combating Iran’s malign influence in other areas.
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To be sure, a nuclear deal, or a de facto international recognition of Iran’s nuclear latency, might strengthen Rouhani and other relative moderates within Iran’s theocratic system in relation to hardliners. Given the current instability in the Middle East and the unfulfilled promise of the Arab uprising in many countries, there are many in Washington who would be satisfied with a moderating Iran and who would fear the potential chaos unleashed by a regime change in Iran. Still, an unstated long-term goal of many senior US officials and security analysts is not just the moderation of the current theocratic government but the ushering in of a different, more democratic system altogether. For the reasons discussed above, a latent nuclear Iran could potentially push that day off further into the future. The nuclear issue is probably not among the most important determinants of this regime’s hold on power, but, to the degree that it matters, nuclear latency could serve to extend the clerics’ reign.
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Regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, it is highly likely that Iran will retain a latent nuclear capability for the foreseeable future. A latent nuclear capability is the possession of the technical capacity, including the ability to indigenously produce weapons- grade fissile material, to build nuclear weapons on short order.3 There are a number of states in the world, including Japan, a close ally of the United States, with such a capability.
According to this definition, Iran is already a latent nuclear power. Secretary of State John Kerry has is often referred to as Iran’s “breakout” timeline because once Iran produces enough fissile material for one bomb, the United States can no longer physically prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. For the purpose of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, therefore, the timeline to producing one bomb’s- worth of fissile material is by far the most important.
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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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In addition to technology transfers, a latent nuclear Iran might spur a proliferation of similar capabilities in the Middle East. As Obama has stated clearly, if Iran develops nuclear weapons, “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world.”17 The risk of a regional nuclear arms race would certainly be less severe than if Iran had a complete nuclear arsenal, but Iran would still be only months away from the bomb, and leaders in these states might hedge their bets and begin pursuing a latent nuclear weapons capability that would allow them to join the
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Acquiescing to a latent nuclear Iran would be a major exception to this longstanding policy and would risk undermining decades of nonproliferation efforts. This danger would be most severe if the international community formally recognized and enshrined Iran’s enrichment capability in a comprehensive nuclear deal, but its effects would still be present in any scenario in which Iran maintains an indigenous enrichment capability. Other countries will demand similar rights and capabilities and cite Iran as a precedent. South Korea might intensify its calls for indigenous reprocessing, and the United Arab Emirates might renege on its commitments in its “gold standard” agreement. It will be difficult if not impossible for Washington to claim that it trusts Tehran’s leaders with sensitive nuclear technology but not its own friends and allies.
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Perhaps the greatest proliferation threat posed by a latent nuclear Iran, however, is damage to the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime. The United States has enforced a policy of preventing the spread of sensitive nuclear technology to new states since the 1970s. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 brought home the ease with which supposedly civilian nuclear technologies could be converted to military purposes. In response, the United States spearheaded an international effort to control the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle facilities like uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, which resulted in the creation of new international institutions such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In addition, the United States has brought direct, unilateral pressure to bear on countries intent on developing sensitive technologies, including its own allies. In the 1970s, for example, the United States pressured Seoul and Taipei to abandon incipient reprocessing programs. More recently, the United States has considered making the formal renouncement of future enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) capabilities a prerequisite for any civil nuclear cooperation with Washington, and, in 2009, the United Arab Emirates signed up to this new, so-called “gold standard” for peaceful nuclear cooperation. At present, Seoul is expressing an interest in developing plutonium reprocessing capabilities for legitimate applications, but Washington is putting up resistance, citing the proliferation risk.
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Iran might become more aggressive with a latent capability. As David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk have written, a comprehensive nuclear deal would lift economic sanctions on Iran, providing a financial boost to the world’s largest state sponsor of terror and providing it with more resources to project malign if—as many sanctions experts believe is inevitable— international support for sanctions eventually gives way to economic incentives to do business with Iran. The lifting or loosening of sanctions on Iran would result in an economic windfall that Tehran could use to step up support for terrorist and proxy attacks in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, the Arabian peninsula, and around the world. Although it is possible that a latent nuclear Iran might feel more secure and self-confident, Iran is a revisionist power with ambitious geopolitical goals. This means it is more likely that a latent nuclear capability might embolden Iran to more aggressively pursue its objective of becoming the most dominant state in the region. One might assume that this risk could be less severe as long as Rouhani is in power, but even under Rouhani, Iran has continued to aggressively support violent proxies throughout the region.