Iran's nuclear arsenal would be vulnerable to theft or unauthorized launch
One empirical reason to be concerned about new nuclear nations is the instability and risk of unauthorized access to the nuclear arsenals that usually occurs while the nation develops its security and deterrence protocols. Iran already has a history of command and control lapses which should be a warning sign for how they would handle nuclear weapons.
Deterrence is not automatic. It requires communication, credibility, and persistence. Historically, new nuclear regimes have been the most volatile and reckless nuclear actors, as the United States was from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, when it seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against the Chinese, Soviets, and in Korea. Steps must be taken to ensure that Iran's entry to the nuclear club is constrained. In particular, it may be in the U.S. interest that technologies to solidify command and control of Iran's nuclear arsenal be quietly passed to Tehran and, for that matter, to Islamabad, Pyongyang, and New Delhi. These new nuclear states are the likeliest sources of danger in the nuclear club.
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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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Other government spokesmen have reinforced Rafsanjani's threats, as Israeli officials began warning publicly that a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites could become necessary. Seyed Masood Jazayeri, spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, accused Washington of using its "wild dog"—Israel—to go after Iran's nuclear programs. If Israel tried to disrupt the Iranian program, it "would be wiped off the face of the Earth and U.S. interests would be easily damaged," he warned in July 2004. President Khatami added that Iran would consider the United States co-responsible for an Israeli attack. "In the international arena, America's capital is Tel Aviv, not Washington. It's the Zionists who dominate the United States," he told reporters as he emerged from a Cabinet meeting. He also announced that Iran had resumed uranium enrichment activities.The clarity of Iran's threats should not be dismissed as mere exaggeration or wishful thinking. A nuclear-ready Iran is likely to goad Israel into launching a preemptive attack, after it has dispersed its nuclear material to ensure that it survives the strike. If the regime feels threatened—from domestic dissent, or foreign attack—the risk of nuclear miscalculation is enormous.
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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.
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Within the convoluted power structure of the Islamic Republic, however, the presidency is more about style than substance. Ahmadinejad may embody a heterodox ideology, but would he control nuclear weapons? Herein lies the difficulty with assessing a nuclear Iran's behavior: very little is known about the Islamic Republic's nuclear command and control. Ahmadinejad may not have direct power, but his accession to the high-profile presidency shows the acceptability of his views within the Islamic Republic's power circles. Ahmadinejad derives his power from the IRGC and may reflect significant ideological strains within the force. It is not likely that the Islamic Republic will establish safeguard mechanisms until it has acquired nuclear weapons technology. This can create a very dangerous situation. In 1999, Western officials scrambled to avert a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan over the Kargil district in Kashmir. As generals pushed their armies and governments to the brink of all-out hostility, neither Delhi nor Islamabad had established the mechanism of control to prevent accidental or rogue use of their atomic arsenal.What is known about Tehran's command and control does not inspire confidence. The IRGC has, over the past decade, expanded its dominance over all aspects of Iranian politics, economy, and security. The same hard-line clerics--Mesbah-Yazdi and Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, for example--to whom Ahmadinejad and his IRGC compatriots turn for religious guidance promote the most radical exegesis. Mainstream Iranians may not subscribe and, indeed, may even ridicule Ahmadinejad's messianism, but those who control the weapons may feel differently and embrace the idea that nuclear weapons can and should be used in a holy struggle against Israel or other enemies.
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For Western advocates of a deterrence strategy, chain of command and control over weaponry should not simply be a theoretical concern. Indeed, there has already been a close call caused by a rogue commander within the Revolutionary Guards. In 1991, as the Pentagon amassed forces in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, a mutinous IRGC unit allegedly sought to launch a conventional missile attack against the assembled U.S. troops. Had such an attack occurred, it would have likely initiated a far wider conflict. IRGC loyalists, however, averted the missile launch when they seized control of the rogue base. It is certainly ironic that the same Western commentators and officials who ascribe adversarial Iranian behavior to rogue IRGC elements rather than the central government also appear to place the greatest faith in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence against the Islamic Republic.
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Most existing nuclear powers have taken steps to protect their nuclear weapons from unauthorized use: from closely screening key personnel to developing technical safety measures, such as permissive action links, which require special codes before the weapons can be armed. Yet there is no guarantee that emerging nuclear powers would be willing or able to implement these measures, creating a significant risk that their governments might lose control over the weapons or nuclear material and that nonstate actors could gain access to these items. Some states might seek to mitigate threats to their nuclear arsenals; for instance, they might hide their weapons. In that case, however, a single intelligence compromise could leave their weapons vulnerable to attack or theft.
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The second circumstance envisions that a nuclear Iran at risk of political upheaval might lose control over its weapons and technology. Under periods of volatility, Iranian nuclear weapons might fall into terrorist hands, who either purchase them from disgruntled military men or profiteers (a` la A. Q. Khan), or manage to steal them outright. At issue is that it will take time for nuclear Iran to build the protective measures needed to ensure that its weapons cannot be stolen or used without authority. Mature nuclear states have security systems that protect against theft and unlawful use. As Edelman and colleagues explain, established nuclear powers have taken a variety of protective measures, “from closely screening key personnel to developing technical safety measures, such as permissive action links, which require special codes before the weapons can be armed.”56 A nuclear Iran unable or unwilling to build these protective measures will be a target for individuals and groups seeking nuclear weapons, materials, and technology.
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The first problem is the risk that, due to their relative poverty and inexperience, new nuclear states, such as Iran, will be unable or unwilling to develop the secure retaliatory forces necessary for a stable deterrent relationship. Iran's nuclear force could be small, vulnerable to attack, and lacking secure command and control. Such a force could attract preemption by a neighbor. Or, fearing preemption by a neighbor, Iran could adopt 'hair-trigger' alert postures, or due to poor command and control, a fearful Iran might in a crisis inadvertently launch a nuclear weapon. These are all valid concerns, but many of these problems would be in Iran's hands to solve.
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A final potential problem in Iran is the apparent decentralization of power in the country. Iran essentially has two military organizations: the 'professional' military, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The latter is ideologically motivated, secretive, and involved in assisting armed groups abroad in Iraq and Lebanon. Many fear that the latter would end up in control of the weapons, or at least with considerable access to them. Given the nature of this organization, some of its members might be willing to do things that the higher political authorities in the state would not choose to do. They might give the weapons away, or use them without authorization. It is impossible to know whether this would occur in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are generally considered to be very loyal to the Supreme Leader, the ultimate political authority. This should work against renegade behavior. Iran is dedicating considerable national resources to nuclear energy, and if it pursued its current path through to a complete weapons program, it will have devoted many more resources. It is likely, though not guaranteed, that Iran's leaders will take care to put the weapons under the control of people they trust to obey their orders. All states having relations with Iran have an interest in this matter. Nuclear powers must make clear to Iran that its nuclear weapons would be a state responsibility. It will not matter to others whether an Iranian nuclear weapon was employed or exported by 'rogue' elements within the state. Even nonnuclear powers can convey this message to Iran, letting Iran know that such an excuse would not win Iran any diplomatic cover. Iran must also be carefully watched for signs of sloppy control practices, and if they appear, other states must make these practices a primary issue in their relations with Iran.