Iran would behave more aggressively with a nuclear weapon
Iranian nuclear weapons would give Tehran greater political and military prestige that could translate into leverage over the Arab Gulf states. As Kenneth Pollack warns, "Tehran appears to want nuclear weapons principally to deter an American attack. Once it gets them, however, its strategic calculus might change and it might be emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy."
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Arab states also will have to worry that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will embolden Tehran to revert to a more aggressive foreign policy. The clerical regime might calculate, for example, that it could give more material assistance and lessen restrictions on Hezbollah to engage in operations against Israeli and American interests. The Iranians have supported Hezbollah operations against American forces as an appendage of Iranian foreign policy to push the Americans out of the Gulf, most notably in assisting Saudi Hezbollah attacks against the Khobar Towers. Tehran might calculate that it could support an even more ambitious unconventional terrorist campaign against American forces in the Gulf and the smaller Arab Gulf states that host American forces if it has a nuclear weapons arsenal. Tehran might assess that, even if its hand is exposed, the risks of American military retaliation would be minimal, given Iranian nuclear weapons. If push came to shove, Tehran could use nuclear weapons against American military assets or hosting countries in the region with Iranian ballistic missiles, or clandestinely insert them into the United States to directly target American cities and citizens.
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President Obama’s fears are well-founded. Iran harbors ambitious geopolitical goals. After national survival, Iran’s primary objective is to become the most dominant state in the Middle East. In terms of international relations theory, Iran is a revisionist power. Its master national-historical narrative holds that Iran is a glorious nation with a storied past, and that it has been cheated out of its rightful place as a leading nation: Like pre-World War I Germany and China today, it is determined to reclaim its place in the sun. Currently, Iran restrains its hegemonic ambitions because it is wary of U.S. or Israeli military responses—particularly the former.
But if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, its adversaries would be forced to treat it with deference if not kid gloves, even in the face of provocative acts. Iran would achieve a degree of “inverted deterrence” against stronger states by inherently raising the stakes of any military conflict against it to the nuclear level.11 As such, nuclear weapons would provide Iran with a cover under which to implement its regional ambitions with diminished fear of a U.S. military reprisal. A nuclear-armed Iran would likely step up its support for terrorist and proxy groups attacking Israeli, Saudi and U.S. interests in the greater Middle East and around the world; increase the harassment of and attacks against naval and commercial vessels in and near the Persian Gulf; and be more aggressive in its coercive diplomacy, possibly brandishing nuclear weapons in an attempt to intimidate adversaries and harmless, weaker neighbors alike.
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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Deterring Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon is just the beginning of the challenge. Some US strategists believe that the greater threat is that Iran will believe that a nuclear weapon neutralizes threats of conventional attack by the US and other powers and Iran will, therefore, be emboldened to engage in ever more risky and provocative behaviour until Western and regional powers are forced to intervene even against a nuclear-armed Iran.24 Iran may want to develop nuclear weapons, not to use against European capitals to paralyse North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers, but to use nuclear weapons on its own territory to stop a conventional invading army, a nuclear use that would present the West with a very difficult conundrum regarding ‘retaliation’. Whether the US and other nations are actually paralysed by an Iranian nuclear weapon is not really important. The danger arises if Iran only believes that nuclear weapons provide a security guarantee and is lured into ever riskier behaviour. Moreover, the US has an interest in devaluing nuclear acquisition to deter the next potential proliferator from going nuclear. The US may feel compelled to be particularly rigid with Iran or any new nuclear states precisely to prove that nuclear weapons do not buy the kind of military and political leverage hoped for or, if they do, only at great cost. A nuclear weapon could, therefore, increase the likelihood of conventional confrontation between the West and Iran (Sagan 2006; Takeyh 2007).
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A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious strategic threat to the United States and its allies because:
- A nuclear-armed Iran would likely embolden the leadership in Tehran to advance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports – ambitions that gravely threaten stability and the security of U.S. friends and allies.
- An Iranian leadership which believes a nuclear arsenal protects it from retaliation may be more likely to use force against U.S. forces and allies in the region, the greater Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Nuclear weapons could thus lower the threshold for Iran’s use of conventional force.
- A nuclear-armed Iran would likely exacerbate regional tensions. Israel would find it hard to live with a nuclear armed Iran and could take military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. A deliberate or miscalculated attack by one state on the other could result in retaliation, regional unrest, and an increase in terrorist attacks.
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Iran currently sponsors terrorist groups, supports militancy, encourages subversion and engages in political coercion throughout the Middle East. Tehran does so partly to demonstrate its ability to inflict pain on its adversaries should they threaten Iran, but it also engages in these destabilizing activities to intimidate others and advance its revisionist and hegemonic agenda. Equipped with a nuclear deterrent to shield Iran from large-scale retaliation, Iranian leaders might pursue these activities more aggressively, contributing to more violence and instability in an already tumultuous region.
Emboldened adventurism could take many forms. Tehran might increase the frequency and scale of Iranian-sponsored conventional terrorism or cyber terrorism against the United States, Israel and Iran’s regional rivals in the Gulf. A nuclear-armed Iran might also provide Hezbollah and Palestinian militants with more sophisticated, longer-range and more accurate conventional weaponry for use against Israel, and Iran might give its proxies greater leeway to use the advanced weapons sys- tems they already possess instead of keeping them in reserve.65 Iran might become more assertive in backing subversion in Iraq or among Shiite populations in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran might also extend its nuclear umbrella – or at least a nuclear shadow, if it chooses not to make explicit guarantees – over “resistance” groups across the region, emboldening militant allies to be more assertive while limiting the freedom of threatened states to respond.66 And Tehran might feel freer to deploy Iranian forces more assertively in conflicts in the Levant, engage in coercive diplomacy to cow weaker neighbors in the Persian Gulf or blackmail the world by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 20 percent of the world’s tradable oil passes).67
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Motivations and perceptions such as those discussed in Chapter Three point to some insights about possible future behavior. For example, if the desire for greater influence and prestige were a factor motivating the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons, then it follows that, once the weapons are operational, the regime is likely to act in ways that reflect the belief that it is entitled to greater influence and respect, at least at first. History supports this: New nuclear powers seem to undergo a process of learning and adjustment as they attempt to gauge the utility of their new weapons. As part of this process, a new nuclear power may take actions intended to test the responses and limits of other powers. In the past, these tests most often occurred in the diplomatic sphere, although there are some cases of limited acts of aggression, often through proxies.One early historical example of this type of behavior was General Secretary Josef Stalin's approval in 1950 of Kim Il Sung's plan to invade South Korea. Prior to January 1950, Stalin had repeatedly turned down Kim's request for military support, fearing that a war in Korea would spark a wider confrontation with the United States, for which the Soviet Union was unprepared. However, after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in September 1949, Stalin seems to have been convinced that a "second front" was feasible in East Asia and that the United States, in the face of the Soviet Union's atomic potential, was unlikely to respond.3 Another example from the Cold War period was China's attack on Soviet border forces in 1969. This mostly forgotten incident, which is one of few direct confrontations between two nuclear powers, provides further indication that new nuclear powers may believe that they can engage in limited military confrontation with more powerful adversaries despite the risks of retaliation.
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Emboldened Iranian adventurism would be consistent with the historical tendency for new nuclear states to become more aggressive at lower levels of violence, at least for some period of time. Nuclear Iran could become more aggressive and adventuresome in several ways ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼and North Korea’s track record of provocations69 Pakistan’s emboldened support of anti-India ter￼￼￼rorism and militancy70 are only the most recent examples.71 Such behavior would also be consis- tent with the Cold War dynamic known as the “stability-instability paradox,” in which nuclear deterrence at the strategic level coincided with numerous disputes, crises, interventions and proxy wars at lower levels of violence.72
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A nuclear-armed Iran might exhibit similar behaviors. For example, it might begin to press the other members of OPEC (none of which has nuclear weapons) to give more weight to its preferences regarding oil-production quotas. Or it might try to coerce the governments of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) states into making concessions over rights to offshore oil and gas fields. We might also see stepped up Iranian support to terrorist organizations and additional efforts to prevent a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For its part, North Korea might adopt an even harder line in negotiations over military dispositions on the peninsula. It might also seek additional financial support and economic assistance with the threat of further proliferation of nuclear technology in the background.In short, both history and logic suggest that the leaders of adversary states may feel entitled to a greater degree of deference from their neighbors and from the United States once they have demonstrated their possession of nuclear weapons. In the "shadow games" that policymakers constantly play as part of their assessment of their options, the realization that military options against a regional adversary state now armed with nuclear weapons have become riskier and less attractive will affect those decisionmakers' willingness to pursue confrontational policies vis-à-vis that adversary. And while the presence of a nucleararmed adversary in the neighborhood may strengthen the attraction between other regional states and their security partner, the United States, it could also result in a net reduction in U.S. influence over the region's affairs.
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An Iranian nuclear first strike might be the nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers, but it is not the most likely one. Should Tehran acquire nuclear arms, the Iranian leadership may feel itself so immune from consequence that it has no obstacles to conventional aggression, whether direct or by proxy. While Western officials may think that the United States can deter Iran, Iranian officials may believe that their nuclear capability will enable them to deter the West. Indeed, in September 2005, the hard-line monthly Ma'refat opined, "Deterrence does not belong just to a few superpowers," and cited the Quranic verse declaring, "Against them [your enemies] make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of enemies of God and your enemies."