Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran
[ Page 9 ]
First, will the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the current regime make Iran more or less aggressive within the region or beyond it? There is much debate but no consensus on this issue among specialists.Some contend that Iran will become more aggressive in pursuit of its interests in the Gulf and more intimidating in its demands for regional cooperation. An assertive Iran could demand that U.S. bases in the region be closed, or it could threaten to resume its efforts to export the revolution as it did in the early 1980s when it tried to sabotage U.S.–friendly facilities and regimes in the Gulf. It could become more assertive in oil policy, more anti-Israel, or more meddlesome in Iraqi or Israeli-Palestinian affairs. On the other hand, some Iranian scholars argue that a nuclear-secure Iran will be more moderate in its foreign and security relationships and that a more powerful Iran is actually a less dangerous Iran.Others stress that Iran has an inferiority complex, wants nuclear weapons for psychological comfort and to ensure regime survival, and therefore would base its nuclear strategy on defensive deterrence. Iranians, they say, recognize that use of nuclear weapons against Israeli or U.S. targets would be suicidal. They also point out that such use would be historically uncharacteristic; after all, Iran has not invaded or attacked another country for over 150 years. These latter observers predict that a nuclear armed Iran would not be any more aggressive than it currently is, would have better relations with the United States, and would be less likely to support terrorist organizations.
[ Page 18 ]
If Iran were to cross the nuclear threshold by testing or with a declaratory policy, other difficult questions arise. Can Israel maintain its nuclear ambiguity if Iran is a declared nuclear power? Can a country have a credible second-strike capability without testing a nuclear warhead? The more liberal Israeli historian assumed that once Iran tests, Israel would have to test as well, and the meaning of deterrence as a strategy would change. If Hizballah comes under the umbrella of an Iranian nuclear capability, how does Israel deter it from becoming more dangerous?How to create a stable deterrent balance would be the major worry. If one subscribes to the theory, as do most Israelis, that the acquisition of nuclear weapons leads a country to become more aggressive, then clearly Israelis have cause for concern. Many, however, do not believe that the main worry is "a bomb out of the blue." Rather, they fear a crisis that is not inherently nuclear in nature acquiring a nuclear dimension. What might cause Iranian decisionmakers to miscalculate during a nuclear crisis? The Israeli scholars worry that Israel cannot develop a secure deterrent relationship if it cannot communicate with Iran. For Israel, the longterm alternative of having nuclear weapons in the region possessed by a country that does not recognize its legitimacy and urges its destruction is not an option. In the end, the Israeli scholars agreed that Israel's decision to act would depend on American commitments to Israel's security and determination not to allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state. From an Israeli perspective, much depends upon the timing and circumstances surrounding possible action and the stance taken by the United States.
[ Page 7 ]
Nuclear weapons play a role in securing Iran's independence and national security. Khamenei, Defense Minister Shamkhani, IRGC Commandant Safavi, and former IRGC head Mohsen Rezaie argue that Israel and the United States are determined to destroy the Islamic revolution and that Iran has no choice but to continue its nuclear program and aggressively defend itself. Expediency Council Head Rafsanjani usually sides with them and has commented that possession of nuclear weapons would substantially enhance the status and bargaining power of Muslim countries, yet he has also hinted in preelection interviews that he is the only candidate who could negotiate with the EU and the United States and stand up to Khamenei on this issue. These hard-liners accuse the negotiators of being incompetent and making significant technical and legal concessions to the Europeans. Rezaie and other hard-liners also claimed that Iranian officials had turned over significant quantities of secret intelligence information to the EU , thereby undermining Iran's "deterrent capability".
[ Page 10-11 ]
Third, would regime change in Iran alter its nuclear ambitions? Regime change could occur through the death or replacement of the Supreme Leader by a successor with less control over the IRGC or with a more pronounced taste for nuclear weapons, or election of reformminded leadership. In either case, however, most regional specialists anticipate no significant change in further development of nuclear weapons technology or compliance with the NPT and other international nonproliferation agreements.Support for the acquisition of advanced nuclear technology crosses ideological and factional lines. Iran scholars question whether Khamenei or his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini approved Iran's possession and use of other weapons of mass destruction (chemical). They are uncertain, too, whether Khamenei has issued a fatwa sanctioning nuclear weapons or simply said they were un-Islamic.10 Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran Few believe that a more reformist-minded government would deny its right to take any measure it deemed necessary for national security. More broadly, press commentaries suggest Iranians increasingly resent foreign efforts to shape their policies on nuclear energy or deny them what is seen as a natural and national right. Considerations of regional prestige would also weigh upon the choices of any future government. If Iran were to step publicly over the nuclear threshold, it would trumpet its interest in sharing its new knowledge and technical advances with other Muslim countries. Even now, Iranian leaders speak publicly about sharing their technology and bringing the benefits of nuclearization to those less fortunate. Except for Israel, few foreign observers believe this means sharing nuclear weapons or other WMD assets with terrorist groups.
[ Page 41 ]
Probably the most controversial issue for deterrence theory is a nuclear-armed Iran providing its new weapons and technology to terrorists. Is Iran likely to transfer nuclear capability to terrorists/surrogates? If the answer is yes, the next questions are: Would we know it, and could we place Iran at risk in order to avoid it?Most experts agree that the Iranian government is unlikely to share its new nuclear weapons technology with terrorist groups, including the Lebanese Hizballah. Iranian intelligence officers and IRGC personnel will continue to train surrogates and provide safe haven for a select few. Iran's WMD programs are probably under the control of the IRGC , whose leaders would understand the risk to the regime if caught passing on sensitive technology to extremist groups. Consensus is important in Iranian decisionmaking, but the IRGC or so-called rogue elements may be able to circumvent senior government decisionmakers opposed to sharing the new and dangerous technology with surrogates. The stakes would have to be very high—perhaps regime survival—before the IRGC and its political patrons would risk giving nuclear weapons to terrorists. The harder—and probably unanswerable— question is whether Iranian official controls would be durable enough to prevent "leakage" by rogue actors.
[ Page 41 ]
The risk that pro-Iranian terrorist groups would be heartened by their patron's new capabilities also presents a new challenge for deterrence. Iran is not likely to provide nuclear weapons assistance to Sunni religious extremists or terrorist groups; it fears them more than it favors them. A more plausible concern is that a group long affiliated with Iran— for example, Hizballah in Lebanon—would feel emboldened to take more aggressive action against Israel, assuming that it is protected by a nuclear armed Iran.
[ Page XIV ]
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.
[ Page 26 ]
Two possible concerns may temper European acceptance of a nuclear Iran. The first is Iran’s increasingly capable ballistic missile program. The current generation of Shahab-3 missiles has a range just short of Europe’s southern flank. Speculation that Iran may pursue longerrange Shahab-3 variants or develop a newer, longer-range Shahab-4, -5, or -6 version may fuel concerns that Europe could be subjected to nuclear blackmail. In that case, Europe would likely try to shore up NATO ’s southern and Mediterranean orientations. The other concern is Turkey. Already within range of the current Shahab missile, Ankara could decide to pursue its own nuclear agenda to counterbalance a nuclear-armed Iran. This would place original NATO members in a precarious position in regard to their southernmost NATO ally and probably would be more destabilizing than a nuclear-protected Gulf. While unlikely to spur additional nuclear proliferation in the European region, Turkish nuclear weapons acquisition could increase tension within the NATO alliance and raise pressure on the Gulf States to do the same.
[ Page 2 ]
Few governments or agencies are convinced that the purpose of Iran’s large nuclear program is purely peaceful. When Iran declared to the IAEA in 2003 that it began its gas centrifuge program in 1985 during its bloody war with Iraq, it was widely assumed that this decision was part of a planned effort to make HEU for nuclear weapons. Iran claimed that the only purpose of its centrifuge program was to make fuel for the German supplied Bushehr power reactor, but by 1985 Germany had suspended all work at the reactor, at least until the war with Iraq ended. After the war, Germany did not resume construction. Ten years later, Russia signed a contract to finish the reactor. Yet throughout the decade, even when the fate of the reactor at Bushehr was uncertain, Iran accelerated its gas centrifuge program.Although no one has produced a “smoking gun” proving that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the timing, scope, and long secrecy of the program have led many observers to conclude that Iran either had or has one. In any case, once it finished its uranium enrichment or reprocessing facilities, Iran could decide to obtain nuclear weapons and proceed quickly to produce nuclear explosive materials in these facilities. For these reasons, many governments believe Iran should be persuaded to abandon at least its activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing. If Iran’s current facilities were preemptively attacked, most observers believe Tehran would follow Iraq’s example after Israel attacked its sole reactor in 1981: it would pursue nuclear weapons more quickly and with greater care, independence, and discretion.