A Nuclear Iran: What Does it Mean and What can be Done?
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Even if the parties do succeed in reaching an international agreement, its longevity is questionable, although the very perseverance over time is critical for the success of such actions. Sanctions take time until their effect is felt, especially if the Iranian political echelons endorse continuing the nuclear program. However, the time demanded by sanctions also defers the possibility of a military option and buys Iran time to proceed with its nuclear plans. Moreover, imposing sanctions against the oil sector could be expensive in two ways. First, achieving international cooperation to this end might obligate the United States to compensate other countries for losses they would sustain due to the economic embargo, in order to persuade them to participate – an expensive course for the United States. Second, harming Iranian oil exports is likely to cause another significant rise in oil prices, as Iraqi oil exports have already dropped since the 2003 war. The prohibition of the export of Iranian products is likely to present fewer problems. Still, many governments may avoid this undertaking as well and even try to make a profit from the partial embargo, while Iran is likely to respond with a temporary reduction in oil production.
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The first reason concerns Iran's motives. As far as can be judged, Iran's basic motives for striving to obtain nuclear weapons are defense and deterrence. Iran initially decided to develop nuclear weapons capability in the second half of the 1980s, apparently as a counterweight to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, especially because of the severe blow that Iran suffered in its war with Iraq. The Iranians were primarily concerned about the fact that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and missiles with a range covering Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iraq had already used chemical weapons and missiles against Iranian targets, and was on its way to obtaining nuclear weapons. Later, after Iraq was weakened in the Gulf War, the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions were motivated by its increasing drive to deter the US from using its strategic capabilities against it. The Iranian regime also has an interest in deterring Israel from attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities. Apparently, however, the belief that Israel has nuclear weapons did not play an important role in Iran's decision to develop such weapons itself.Meanwhile, there is no reason to assume that any change has taken place in the dominant role played by defense and deterrence in Iran's considerations. In contrast to Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iranian Islamic regime has so far shown no inclination for risky adventures. Yet if and when Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that these considerations could change. Its inclination to weigh its policy carefully might wane, and aggressive impulses against Israel might become more influential. It can be posited, however, that like other countries that have obtained nuclear weapons, these weapons will be considered a last resort, to be used only in case of an extreme and immediate strategic danger. Iran apparently does not consider Israel a country that constitutes this degree of danger. Iran's wish to destroy Israel is not a supreme interest justifying use of nuclear weapons at any price in order to realize it.
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Iran's ability to retaliate in the event of an attack today consists of three primary components. The first involves firing Shehab-3 missiles at Israel. This type of missile is still not precise, but it is likely to be effective against large targets. Iran has already explicitly stated that it will respond to an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities by firing Shehab-3 missiles. Iran also has a small number of AS-15 missiles that it purchased from the Ukraine, and BM-25 missiles that it acquired from North Korea - both long range missiles whose range extends to Europe. For now, it appears that Iran is not capable of firing a large number of missiles at Israel, and Israel's Arrow missile defense system is capable of intercepting volleys of a small number of missiles. Thus, the damage that Iran's missiles would inflict, as long as they are not fitted with nuclear warheads, is limited. However, the capabilities of Iranian missiles could improve both qualitatively and quantitatively in the coming years. Iran also possesses a limited capability to strike at Israel from the air, though it is highly unlikely that it will use it. Iran has 24-36 long range Sukhoi-24 ground attack aircraft capable of reaching Israel, as well as limited ability to refuel in mid-flight.Nonetheless,Iran will find it difficult to carry out such a long range strike against Israel's air force and air defense system.The second retaliatory element is encouragement of Hizbollah to deploy its extensive rocket array, built in part by Iran itself, against Israel. This array, particularly the long range rockets, sustained some damage during the campaign in Lebanon of July-August 2006, and so far it is unclear to what extent it will be restored. It is reasonable to assume that Hizbollah still has the capability, even if reduced, to strike at Israel. At the same time, Iran is expected to encourage Palestinian groups to intensify their terrorist attacks against Israel.The third retaliatory measure is spectacular attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets outside Israel (similar to those Iran carried out in Argentina in the mid-1990s). In this context, it is also possible that Iran would strike at its own Jewish community.
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In 1981, Israel chose to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor by means of an air strike. In early 2006, former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon indicated that in addition to an air strike, Israel possessed a number of other options for military action in Iran. Indeed, while the most frequently discussed option is an aerial attack, an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would inevitably be problematic and occur under difficult conditions. Although American and Israeli operational capabilities to attack the Iranian facilities from the air have improved significantly over the past twenty-five years, Iranian nuclear facilities are 1,200-1,500 kilometers from Israel, much further away than the Iraqi reactor. The distance could be even longer if the planes need to bypass Jordanian airspace to avoid a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations, or refrain from flying over Iraq if the operation is not coordinated with the United States and as such take an alternative route via the Indian Ocean. In order to travel such distances, the Israeli planes would need to refuel in mid-flight twice, once on the way to their targets and once on the way back. This in turn would make the operation even more complicated, due to the vulnerability of the fuel planes. Moreover, the Iranian facilities are carefully sheltered, with some located deep underground, and are well protected by air defenses and interceptor planes. All this will require that the attack be carried out by a relatively large force, including attack planes, interceptors planes, fuel planes, and additional supporting aircraft, all of which would be vulnerable to interference and mishaps.
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If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it may incite Hizbollah to resort to what remains of its rocket arsenal in an attack against Israel. Similarly, Hizbollah itself may exhibit greater aggressiveness against Israel without any Iranian encouragement, calculating that its own military freedom of action has grown once its patron has greater deterrence against Israel. At the same time, it is likely that Hizbollah may act more aggressively in special circumstances and isolated cases, and not necessarily in a reversal of policy towards Israel, because the organization is also driven by other exigencies, beyond the extent of its Iranian backing. One such constraint is the possibility of an Israeli attack against Syria, already in a weak position, should Hizbollah cross red lines in its behavior towards Israel. Another is Hizbollah's place in the Lebanese power structure. It can be assumed that the Israeli attack against Hizbollah targets in the summer of 2006, and the effect of the campaign on the latter's capabilities and standing, will constitute a restraining factor in Hizbollah's considerations.
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In effect, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the main countries likely to have an important reason for joining the nuclear arms race. Saudi Arabia may be particularly sensitive to Iranian aggression, owing to concern about the stability of its regime and the future of its oil reserves. At present, Saudi Arabia lacks a suitable technological infrastructure for nuclear weapons and it is likely to prefer relying on American backing. However, Saudi Arabia may exploit its financial capabilities to try to obtain nuclear capability at a later stage. Iran does not directly threaten Egypt, but as a leading country in the region, Egypt will find it difficult to stand aloof while Iran and Israel are on the nuclear track. Syria too might embrace a nuclear route as the preferred method of deterrence against Israel; it might improve its military capabilities and regional posture, and thereby aim for Iranian nuclear assistance. In short, Iranian nuclear capability will not necessarily constitute a direct motive for most affected countries in the region to enter the nuclear race, and they will face heavy international pressure to refrain from doing so. If, however, an Arab country such as Egypt decides to do so, it is liable to prompt other countries to follow the same route. The fact that several Arab governments announced in the fall of 2006 that they intend to develop a nuclear capability - albeit for peaceful needs - might be a first indication of such a scenario.
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European governments are anxious about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear capacity. They are not concerned that the arms may be used against them, although Iran's efforts to increase the range of the Shehab missiles to cover parts of Europe, or develop or purchase missiles with a range of 3,000-4,000 kilometers that cover all of Europe does arouse their concern that Iran will try to use nuclear extortion against them as a bargaining chip. They do not have an alternative explanation for the increase in the missile range. Yet for the European governments, the fact that nuclear arms in Iranian hands will upset the stability of the Middle East is of no less importance. The specificthreatto Israel, which might potentially lead to regional deterioration, joins the possibility of a more aggressive Iran and a more radical Middle East. A nuclear Iran may also spur an acceleration in the regional arms race, with Turkey being one of the prime potential participants. Most of Turkey is already within the range of Shehab-3 missiles. This would further heighten tensions in NATO, and the arms control regime would suffer considerably.
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Third, a nuclear capacity will reinforce Iran's status as the backbone of radical elements worldwide, particularly in the Muslim world. Obtaining nuclear weapons is liable to strengthen the radical tendency within Iran, at least in the short term, and increase the regime's prestige. It may impel moderate regimes in the region to adapt their policy to Iran, as they will be more exposed to Iranian pressure, even if some of them, mostly those in the Gulf, try to increase their reliance on the US as a counterweight to the Iranian threat. Iran's stature is liable to increase; indeed, since the weakening and fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, there is no regional player that can balance and contain Iran in the Gulf region. And, the Iranian regime may wave the banner of its nuclear weapons to bolster its struggle against the US over influenceand control in the Gulf. The strengthening of radical elements is liable to harm the peaceful relationships that Israel is trying to build with the Arab and Muslim world.
Even if over time Iran does not try to use nuclear weapons against Israel or other countries, an Iranian nuclear capacity has other alarming significance.First of all,an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons is liable to behave more aggressively towards various countries, including Israel, as a result of the confidence that a nuclear umbrella bestows. While obtaining nuclear weapons may relieve some of Iran's anxiety and force it to behave more cautiously in order to avoid escalation that might lead to a nuclear confrontation, still, Iran's ambitions in the region and the Muslim world and its hostile attitude towards Israel are liable to encourage excessive aggression. This aggression might be manifested in increased Iranian involvement in terrorism and subversion against other countries, including boosting Hizbollah activity against Israel, and reflected in Iran's policy towards its neighbors-in possible conflicts with Persian Gulf countries or Iraq and Afghanistan,and also in non-military issues, such as oil sources and prices. In this context, Iran is liable to increase its pressure on Persian Gulf countries and demand their cooperation in achieving certain ends, including a reduced presence of American forces in the Gulf.
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In theory, another military option exists: not drawing the line at an operation against nuclear sites in Iran, but carrying out a broad land-based assault aimed at overthrowing the Islamic regime in Tehran, as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel certainly does not have this option, even in theory; in practice, however, the US does not have it either. Iran's physical expanse, its terrain, and the size of its population and army make a military campaign to conquer the power centers in Iran far more complex and difficult than in Iraq and Afghanistan. After becoming entangled in Iraq, it is doubtful the US administration would embark on a similar operation in Iran. At the same time, if the administration decides on a military strike against nuclear sites in Iran, it cannot be ruled out that in addition to nuclear targets, it will hit other strategic sites. This option is also restricted to the US; it is difficult to believe that Israel would be willing or able to use it on any measurable scale.