Iran may not use nuclear weapons offensively but it will use them to make limited conventional and terrorist attacks more possible
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It is highly unlikely that the Islamist regime plans to actually detonate a nuclear weapon in an offensive attack. Both of the obvious targets, the United States and Israel, have a second-strike nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the Islamist regime’s survival. Setting aside the possibility of unauthorized use by apocalyptic Islamists, nuclear arms are seen as tools for coercion. The regime believes nuclear weapons would deter foreign military strikes targeting the Iranian homeland, making the Iranian use of conventional military force abroad less risky. At a minimum, possession of nuclear arms would allow Iran greater policy flexibility in the Middle East. Regional states that failed to acquire their own counter-arsenal would be forced to think through the logic of extended nuclear deterrence and determine whether they wished to bank upon a US guarantee. In this scenario, given the failure to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons after US leaders explicitly stated it would not be tolerated, it is difficult to imagine that regional leaders would not adjust their policies to reflect new respect for Iranian power. For example, Iranian demands in the Persian Gulf regarding disputed islands or natural gas fields could be affected; Iranian desires regarding production quotas in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would carry additional weight, and Iranian interest in Shia minorities in other states might be pursued more aggressively. More problematically, the Islamist regime would likely feel emboldened to increase its support for terrorist organizations, believing itself secured against direct retaliation. Pakistan’s behavior after its public entry into the nuclear club in 1998 is instructive: it immediately increased support for Islamist militants, creating 1999’s Kargil crisis and the standoff with India in 2000 and 2001. In a classic example of the stability-instability paradox, Pakistani confidence that nuclear arms would prevent escalation made limited conventional and terrorist attacks against India possible.39 As S. Paul Kapur explains, nuclear arms ‘‘encouraged aggressive Pakistani behavior.’’40 In the same way, Iranian clerics could boost conventional military assistance to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reigniting civil war in Lebanon and thrusting the Palestinian peace process into chaos.
While Iran has overtly been supporting terrorist groups for decades, they have been careful to moderate their support to avoid inviting massive retaliation by either the U.S. or Israel. However, once they have acquired nuclear weapons, these "red lines" will most likely shift as they are able to deter a greater level of attack.