A Nuclear Iran: Promoting Stability or Courting Disaster?
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[Sagan] Instead of looking at the Cold War with nostalgia and projecting its legacy to assess the meaning of potential nuclear weapons in Iran, let us look instead at the more recent history of a state in Iran's neighborhood: Pakistan. Three of the dangers that can occur in theory when a new nuclear state emerges really did occur, and in spades, in Pakistan.First is the danger of nuclear weapons promoting aggression of the state which holds them-that is, acquiring the protection of a nuclear shield which will enable the state to be more aggressive in a conventional manner.second, there is the problem of terrorist theft.And third, the problem of potential loose controls and sales of nuclear weapons to terrorists.All three of these problems occurred when Pakistan got nuclear weapons.
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First, the stability-instability paradox-that is, the possibility that individual countries would be more aggressive with nuclear capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, will it behave more aggressively in the Middle East? On the one hand, we have a good insight from Professor Waltz: The United States would be more reluctant to attack Iran if it had nuclear weapons, and indeed I do believe that's why Iran is so interested.On the other hand, however, we have the possibility that various Iranians-especially those in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-may feel that it is safer for them to probe-to attack Americans in Iraq, to attack military bases in the region, to support terrorist attacks elsewhere. Therefore it is not at all clear what might be the final outcome. More probing attacks? More provocation? Indeed, this is the worry with regard to the Iran crisis today.I don't believe the Bush administration wants to attack. But I do think there are some factions in Iran who wouldn't mind a potential attack from the United States because it would increase support for the regime. It's possible that these factions in Iran will actually increase rather than decrease attacks by Iranian agents in Iraq against American forces to force our hand.
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[Sagan]: The first is often called the stability-instability paradox: a situation of stability between two countries who both have nuclear weapons that can lead one country to think that it can be more aggressive conventionally because it is protected from a nuclear retaliation by its nuclear shield.In Pakistan decisionmaking is not centrally controlled, as it was in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons there were many inside its military who said, "This our chance to do something about Kashmir," so they misled then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into approving an operation which sent Pakistani soldiers disguised as Mujahedeen guerrillas into Indian controlled Kashmir near the town of Kargil in the winter of 1998.When the Indians threatened to retaliate, the Pakistani military reportedly began to ready its missiles for nuclear strikes. It took a brave (and one of the last) act of Pakistani civilian Prime Minister Sharif to order the disguised Pakistani forces in Indian-held Kashmir to pull back.Nuclear weapons created that particular problem and sparked the Kargil war.
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WALTZ: Why would Iran want to have nuclear weapons? There are two very simple ways to answer that question. One is by looking at a map. To the east, Iran borders Pakistan and Afghanistan-countries that do not look greatly stable, and countries that might make any neighbor feel uneasy about what is going to happen next. To the west, Iran borders Iraq. And for eight bloody years in the 1980s, Iran fought a war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.I wonder if Iran really feels more comfortable now that it's not Saddam Hussein but instead the United States who represents the great military force in Iraq. If I were ruling Iran, I certainly wouldn't think this region of the world is safe.Two, if the president of the United States says three countries form an axis of evil-which George Bush said in 2002-and he then proceeds to invade one of them-Iraq-what are Iran and North Korea to think?We talk about dangerous rogue states that are hard to deter. But what state is in fact the biggest rogue state in the world? For countries that think the United States constitutes a threat, how should they react? In effect, there is no way to deter the United States other than by having nuclear weapons. No country can do that conventionally The United States can overwhelm other countries conventionallyIf you were making decisions for Iran, would you say, "We don't want nuclear weapons," or, "Let's do everything we can to get a small number of nuclear weapons and get them just as quickly as we possibly can"? It would be strange if Iran did not strive to get nuclear weapons, and I don't think we have to worry if they do. Because deterrence has worked 100 percent of the time. We can deter small nuclear powersafter all, we have deterred big nuclear powers like the Soviet Union and China. So sleep well.
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WALTZ: Second, it doesn't matter who has nuclear weapons. Conversely, the spread of conventional weapons makes a great deal of difference. For instance, if a Hitlertype begins to establish conventional superiority, it becomes very difficult to contain and deter him. But, with nuclear weapons, it's been proven without exception that whoever gets nuclear weapons behaves with caution and moderation. Every country-whether they are countries we trust and think of as being highly responsible, like Britain, or countries that we distrust greatly, and for very good reasons, like China during the Cultural Revolution-behaves with such caution.It is now fashionable for political scientists to test hypotheses. Well, I have one: If a country has nuclear weapons, it will not be attacked militarily in ways that threaten its manifestly vital interests. That is 100 percent true, without exception, over a period of more than fifty years. Pretty impressive.
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SAGAN: The second problem is the vulnerability-invulnerability paradox: For nuclear weapons to have a deterrent effect, they must be invulnerable to a first strike from an adversary to allow for the possibility of retaliation. During times of peace, Pakistan creates this invulnerability by putting its nuclear weapons under lock and key in Pakistani military bases, so terrorists are unable to seize them. But in a crisis or a conventional war they have every incentive to take those nuclear weapons to the countryside, where they can be hidden and would be less vulnerable to an attack. And yet the countryside is exactly where they are more vulnerable to terrorist seizure.This problem can be best illustrated by an incident during the 1999 Kargil crisis. According to the Washington Post, officers within Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, proposed the following idea to address the vulnerability of its nuclear weapons to an Indian attack: "Let's hide them in Afghanistan-the Indians will never be able to attack them there."1 Such an operation would reduce the vulnerability of an Indian attack but would certainly increase the likelihood that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or another jihadi group could seize the weapons.
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SAGAN: The second problem-terrorist theft. The Iranians, in trying to reduce the likelihood of an attack against their nuclear development sites, are dispersing those sites in the countryside. But such measures will increase the likelihood that there won't be central control over their nuclear program, and increase the likelihood that, if they do develop nuclear weapons, insiders and terrorist groups could potentially seize them.Finally, the question of ambiguous control. Here we must ask: Who controls the weapons and materials?They don't yet have weapons in Iran, but they are working to get them. And it is not the professional Iranian military but the Revolutionary Guard Corps guarding the development sites whose own financial units have often been those used to purchase different parts of the program. These are the same individuals running the arms supply operations to terrorist organizations that Iran supports. To have your nuclear guardians and your terrorist supporter organizations be one and the same is a recipe for disaster.
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SAGAN: The third problem is the loss of control and the potential that someone inside a nuclear state could give nuclear weapons to another non-nuclear state.Professor Waltz argues that we do not need to wonder whether new nuclear states will take good care of the nuclear weapons-they have every incentive to do so."They," an abstract entity called the state, may have the incentive to do so. But other actors inside these states may not have similar incentives.Look at the history of the A.Q. Kahn nuclear network in Pakistan. With help from others, a senior scientist, acting in his own interest and greed, began to sell bomb design and centrifuge technology. He sold the actual centrifuges and bomb design to Libya, and he offered them to Iraq in 1991, though Saddam Hussein turned down the offer, thinking it was a CIA ploy. A.Q. Khan helped initiate the Iranian nuclear program in 1987, selling them centrifuges and other technologies. He sold similar items to North Korea.Using the Pakistan analogy instead of the Cold War analogy, the effects of a nuclear Iran are correctly seen as very dangerous.
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SAGAN: Official U.S. policy of regime change, potentially by force, is incompatible with our nuclear non-proliferation policy. This policy encourages the Iranians to believe that nuclear weaponry is the one thing they're going to need in the medium term. We need to reduce Iranian fear of the United States by taking regime change by force off the table: The U.S. should also promise, in an international context, not to use nuclear weapons against states that have not developed nuclear weapons.We have an opportunity today to recognize that there are different forces in Iran who have different views on its nuclear program. Some want to move quickly, others want to have options in the future, and still others are willing to take economic benefits and potential military security guarantees in exchange for constraining their uranium enrichment program. And yet the United States doesn't know who's who, because we won't talk to them. We should start these negotiations as quickly as possible.