Iran in Iraq's Shadow: Dealing with Tehran's Nuclear Weapons Bid
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The United States would be operating with a less-than-perfect intelligence picture of Iran's nuclear weapons infrastructure, however. The Iranians cannot have escaped learning the importance of diversifying and building redundancies into their nuclear weapons program components in light of Israel's preemptive strike on Iraq's nuclear power facility. They managed to hide Iranian uranium reprocessing developments from the outside world for some time and have undoubtedly tightened security to stem further exposures of their nuclear weapons program. In the aftermath of any American air strikes against their nuclear infrastructure, Iran undoubtedly also would redouble its efforts to conceal and build redundancies into its nuclear weapons infrastructure to make follow-on American attacks more difficult.
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Some observers are inclined to give the Iranian regime the benefit of the doubt regarding allegations of complicity in the Khobar Towers bombing by arguing that "rogue elements" or conservative hardliners in the regime, not President Khatami and like-minded supporters in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and parliament, supported the operations. Conclusive evidence to bolster this argument is elusive, but even if it were found to be the case, such a fact would be of little solace to American policymakers and the public coming to terms with the potential dangers posed by Iranian possession of nuclear weapons. Policymakers would have to be concerned that hardliners in the future could control or direct transfers of nuclear weapons even if it were not the consensus policy of the regime. If an American city were to suffer from the detonation of a Hezbollah-planted Iranian nuclear weapon, it would be largely irrelevant whether or not it came about via rogue or mainstream elements of the Tehran government.
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Iran's geographic girth lends itself to a country with large standing armed forces, but Iran's military today is weaker than it was in the wake of the revolutionary euphoria of 1979. The Iranians militarily lived off the Shah's US-provided arms and equipment to survive the Iran-Iraq War, but the war nearly exhausted their inventories and put enormous wear and tear on equipment holdings. They have managed to make due, in part, by cannibalizing American equipment to keep fewer armaments running, but these stopgap efforts are increasingly more difficult to muster to prolong the longevity of the military inventory. The Iranians also are using illicit means to bypass US restrictions on the export of military equipment to Iran. Iran has been hard-pressed to find direct external weapon suppliers to replace the United States. Michael Eisenstadt observes that in recent years Russia has been Iran's main source of conventional arms, but Moscow has agreed not to conclude any new arms deals and to halt all conventional weapons transfers since September 1999. The Iranians have made efforts to fill the void with indigenously produced weapons, but Tehran lacks the ability to produce high-performance conventional weapons platforms.Tehran must have shuddered when witnessing the American military slashing through Saddam's forces in the 2003 war. Iran already had a sense of its conventional military inferiority compared to American forces. Years ago Tehran received a direct taste of that from the American re-flagging operations in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, when the US Navy readily destroyed much of Iran's conventional naval capabilities, leaving Iran to harass shipping with irregular hit-and-run gunboat attacks. In the spring 2003 war, American and British forces accomplished in about a month what Iranian forces had failed to do in eight years of war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Tehran cannot fail to appreciate that Iranian conventional forces would have little chance of resisting a US military assault.
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Iran sees WMD and ballistic missiles as means to fill the void in military and deterrent capabilities. Tehran suffered under barrages of Iraqi ballistic missiles during the Iran-Iraq War and wants to have the option of using ballistic missiles that are faster and more reliable than Iran's air force for penetrating enemy airspaces to deliver both conventional and WMD warheads. In July 2003 Iran successfully tested the Shahab-3 missile, which achieved a range of about 1,000 km. Iran is suspected of having an unspecified number of operational Shahab missiles, which are based on North Korea's No Dong-1 missile that is reportedly capable of carrying an 800 kg warhead. Iran also is working on a 2,000-km Shahab-4 based on Russian technology, as well as a 5,000-km Shahab-5 missile. These missiles probably are too inaccurate to be of much military utility if armed with conventional warheads, but they would be sufficiently accurate to deliver WMD, particularly nuclear warheads. According to a foreign intelligence official and a former Iranian intelligence officer, the North Koreans are working on the Shahab-4 and providing assistance on designs for a nuclear warhead.
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The Iranians therefore consistently and loudly proclaim that their pursuit of nuclear power is strictly for peaceful civilian purposes. President Muhammad Khatami, for example, said in February 2003, "I assure all peace-loving individuals in the world that Iran's efforts in the field of nuclear technology are focused on civilian application and nothing else." The Iranians argue that they need electric power produced by nuclear plants to meet domestic energy needs and to free up oil for export and foreign currency. The Iranian claims have a hollow ring, however. Iran's oil industry could be modernized and made more cost-efficient and productive with the expenditure of far fewer economic resources than those needed for nuclear power, to better deliver energy to the Iranian population at lower costs while increasing production for the international market.
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Some observers argue that the revolutionary steam has run out of Iran's regime and that Iranian sponsorship of terrorist operations against US interests has diminished. Iran's complicity and support for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, the American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American servicemen, belies arguments that Iran's government has tempered its opposition to the United States, however. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has publicly and directly linked Iran to the Khobar Towers attack: "Over the course of our investigation the evidence became clear that while the attack was staged by Saudi Hezbollah members, the entire operation was planned, funded and coordinated by Iran's security services, the IRGC and MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence and Security], acting on orders from the highest levels of the regime in Tehran." More recently, Iran has shown an interest in maintaining links to al Qaeda by harboring its operatives, some of whom had fled neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan in the midst of the October 2001 American military campaign in Afghanistan.
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In Iran's geopolitical landscape and strategic calculus, the United States looms large and its "demonization" remains a central feature of the cleric regime's worldview. As Anoushiravan Ehteshami observes, "Iran holds an almost paranoid and conspiratorial view of the United States' role and actions in the Middle East and sees almost every US initiative as a direct or indirect assault on Iran's regional interests." Just as George Kennan in his Cold War analysis of the Soviet Union judged that the regime in Moscow needed to politically manufacture an enemy in the United States to justify its ruthless reign at home, so do the clerics in Tehran need a political opponent in the United States on which to heap the blame and deflect public attention from their own inability to deliver political freedom, basic living standards, and an adequate economic livelihood to its people. As part and parcel of its efforts to deflect domestic criticism toward outside targets, the regime portrayed numerous student demonstrations in Iran in June and July 2003—during which Tehran felt compelled to arrest about 4,000 demonstrators—as being the result of American instigation in Iranian affairs.
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The Iranians also are interested in building a heavy-water reactor, which the international community considers as more of a nuclear proliferation risk than light-water reactors such as the one at Bushehr. Tehran has announced plans to build a 40-megawatt heavy-water research reactor, and it already has a heavy-water plant at Arak that could provide heavy water to the planned research reactor. Heavy water allows a heavy-water reactor to operate with natural uranium as its fuel and to produce plutonium. Spent fuel from the planned heavy-water reactor would be ideal for extracting bomb-grade plutonium. North Korea, for example, claims to have made its weapons from the plutonium-rich spent fuel of its 5-megawatt reactor. Gary Milhollin, writing in a New York Times article, puts the planned Iranian reactor in perspective by noting that it is too small for electricity and larger than needed for research, and is the type providing fuel for nuclear weapons programs in India, Israel, and Pakistan.
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Washington could further use international sanctions to cut Iran's trading access to the global market, particularly for oil exports, to increase pressure on Tehran to accept assertive IAEA inspections and a stoppage in Iran's nuclear fuel cycle efforts, but that course could suffer from numerous pitfalls. Sanctions would have to be sustained for a prolonged period of time before they began to hurt Iran's economy, and after that time, much like the sanctions implemented against Saddam's regime, they would hurt the livelihood of the general populace more than regime elites. As a consequence the United States might undercut its objective of looking to the Iranian population to usher in a political change in Tehran—under the stress of such international sanctions, the population could rally around the regime rather than taking up political actions against it.
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Tehran might judge that even if its hand were revealed in supporting terrorist operations via these groups against American interests and partners among the Gulf Arab states, Iranian nuclear weapons would deter military reprisals against Iran. American and Israeli contemplation of retaliatory strikes against Iran would be substantially riskier if Iran had the means to retaliate with nuclear weapons. The Iranian clerics are not well schooled in the ins and outs of the elaborate Western strategic literature formulated during the Cold War. The clerics probably would be more influenced by their Islamic ideological worldviews than by a rational calculation of national interests. As George Perkovich argues, "Political leaders like Khamene'i and Rafsanjani see nuclear weapons as an almost magical source of national power and autonomy. These men are political clerics, not international strategists or technologists. They intuit that the bomb will keep all outside powers, including Israel and the US, from thinking they can dictate to Iran or invade it." In short, a nuclear-armed Tehran might fear the prospect of American and Israeli nuclear retaliation less than Western strategists would hope.