Nuclear Iran will not transfer nuclear weapons or materials to terrorists
Given the near certainty that they would be exposed, Iran would not risk the international condemnation and certain attack by transferring nuclear weapons or materials to its terrorist proxies.
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Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been one of the world's most active sponsors of terrorism. Tehran has armed, trained, financed, inspired, organized, and otherwise supported dozens of violent groups over the years. Iran has backed not only groups in its Persian Gulf neighborhood, but also terrorists and radicals in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. This support remains strong even today: the U.S. government regularly contends that Iran is tied to an array of radical groups in Iraq. Yet despite Iran's very real support for terrorism for more than the last 25 years and its possession of chemical weapons for over 15 years, Tehran has not transferred unconventional systems to terrorists. Iran is likely to continue this restraint and not transfer chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons for several reasons. First, providing terrorists with such unconventional weapons offers Iran few tactical advantages as these groups are able to operate effectively with existing methods and weapons. Second, Iran has become more cautious in its backing of terrorists in recent years. And third, it is highly aware that any major escalation in its support for terrorism would incur U.S. wrath and international condemnation.
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In the specific case of nuclear Iran, delegitimization might be tailored against both Tehran and its proxies. It is telling, for starters, that though it retains chemical and biological weapons, Iran has never shared these unconventional capabilities with its proxies. It may have refrained from doing so out of fear of incurring U.S. or Israeli wrath or because it stood to gain little strategic advantage, but it is also possible that Iran’s restraint was based on ideological, normative, or religious rationales. There are accounts, for instance, that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a secret religious fatwa citing “Koranic principles that constrain the use” of nuclear weapons.95 Byman adds that Iran is unlikely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists because “these weapons are widely seen as heinous, potentially de-legitimating both the group and its state sponsor.”96 Their use in terrorism will not only invite retaliation against Iran, but also widespread scorn against Iran’s mullahs, the wider Shia community, and Islam more broadly. Defenders might also manipulate self- restraints by communicating how certain actions contradict religious tenets and social expectations. Lewis Dunn contends that nuclear terrorism “does have the potential of provoking revulsion”—instead of praise—“among the very communities that Osama bin Laden is seeking to rally.” If so, finding ways to “heighten concerns” among terrorist leaders that WMD attacks will “provoke a backlash” among Muslims, might influence their decision to acquire and use such weapons.97 That a nuclear terrorist attack on Israel or the U.S. is likely to kill scores of innocent Muslims might give some perpetrators reason to pause. The global outrage following a nuclear terrorist strike is likely to be palpable among all religious communities. And as Colin Gray explains, “terrorists lose when their outrages delegitimze their political causes.”98 Nuclear self-restraints and taboos exist in interstate relations. In thinking about deterring nuclear Iran and nuclear terrorism, it is worth exploring whether or not a similar set of self-restraints might also be established among state sponsors of terrorism and their nonstate proxies.
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Finally, while some security experts, predominantly Israeli, fear that Iran’s leaders would provide terrorists with nuclear weapons, we judge, and nearly all experts consulted agree, that Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up its control of such weapons to terrorist organizations and risk direct U.S. or Israeli retribution. Many specialists on Iran share a widespread feeling that Iran’s desire to be seen as a pragmatic nuclear power would tend to rein in whatever ideological impulses it might otherwise have to disseminate nuclear weapons or technologies to terrorists. There is less agreement, however, on whether the regime in Tehran could reliably control all elements within the Iranian system that might have the means, motive, and opportunity to do so.
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The prospect that Iran might transfer a crude nuclear device to its terrorist protégés is another danger, but it, too, is unlikely. Such a move would place Tehran squarely in the cross hairs of the United States and Israel. Despite its messianic pretensions, Iran has observed clear limits when supporting militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Iran’s rulers understand that such provocative actions could imperil their rule by inviting retaliation. On the other hand, by coupling strident rhetoric with only limited support in practice, the clerical establishment is able to at once garner popular acclaim for defying the West and oppose the United States and Israel without exposing itself to severe retribution. A nuclear Iran would likely act no diaerently, at least given the possibility of robust U.S. retaliation. Nor is it likely that Iran would become the new Pakistan, selling nuclear fuel and materials to other states. The prospects of additional sanctions and a military confrontation with the United States are likely to deter Iran from acting impetuously.
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Some see another risk in Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, namely, that Iran will transfer these weapons to terrorist organizations, principally Hizbollah. In this case, these organizations are liable to attempt to blackmail the US, Israel, or other countries into accepting their demands. Possession of nuclear weapons will make them more daring in carrying out terrorist attacks; in a particularly extreme case, they may even use nuclear weapons. Despite the gravity of this possibility, however, it is unlikely. In addition to the problems and limitations for terrorist organizations in possessing and using nuclear weapons, it is hard to see what important interest Iran would have in transferring nuclear weapons to these organizations. Such a transfer will not strengthen Iran’s deterrence or its effort to achieve regional hegemony. It will reinforce Iran’s image as an irresponsible country with no restraint on its involvement in terrorism, because the source of the weapons will be clear to everyone. It will also give Hizbollah the ability to blackmail Iran. If Iran’s goal is to deter Israel from attacking Hizbollah, it is more likely to prefer doing this itself, instead of transferring nuclear weapons to the organization for purposes of deterrence. Above all, giving nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations is liable to put sensitive dangerous weapons beyond Iran’s control, while putting them into the hands of organizations with a limited sense of responsibility and great destructive capability. It can be assumed that Syria will strongly oppose giving nuclear weapons to an organization in its field of influence, which could seriously embroil Syria with Israel.From Syria’s perspective, Israel is liable to respond to a nuclear threat in Hizbollah’s hands with a harsh attack against Syria or Lebanon.
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Deterring Iran from transferring nuclear weapons, materials, and technologies to state and nonstate actors would require another set of measures. For the most part, Iran has reasons not to pursue such perilous activities, but it could be tempted to exploit the di⁄culty of tracking the clandestine trade in nuclear materials. The United States and its allies would need to act decisively to prevent Tehran from seeking to profit in the international nuclear bazaar, for example, through the Proliferation Security Initiative and through un resolutions that imposed additional sanctions on Iran and its potential business partners. To impress on Iran’s ruling mullahs that it is singularly important for them to control whatever nuclear arsenal they may develop or obtain, Washington should hold Tehran responsible for any nuclear transfer, whether authorized or not; Tehran cannot be allowed to escape punishment or retaliation by pleading loss of control. Increased investments in monitoring and spying on Iran would be critical. The United States must improve its ability to track nuclear weapons, materials, and debris and prove and publicize whether they came from Iran (or any other country, for that matter). Such nuclear forensics is crucial to determining who is responsible for nuclear transfers and would be crucial to building support for any U.S. retaliation against Iran, if it were the culprit.
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Although it is possible that Iran could transfer nuclear weapons to one of its many terrorist proxies, this is exceedingly unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, it is incredibly unlikely that any state, regardless of its ideological inclinations, would knowingly allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of actors it did not directly control, simply out of fear that the weapons might then be used against it. It is also worth noting that Iran is known to be affiliated with a mixture of Islamist factions and radical secular groups.32 Although these ties are inexcusable, links with groups of varying ideological and political inclinations indicate that Iranian involve ment is motivated by secular and national interests rather than radical preferences. The 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism also identifies Iran’s use of terrorist proxies as a means of advancing “its key national security and foreign policy interests” and makes no mention of religious or ideological loyalties (emphasis added).33
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Given Iran’s track record of supporting terrorism, concerns about Iran sponsoring a nuclear terror attack are understandable. Nevertheless, it should be possible to deter Tehran from passing a nuclear device to terrorists to use against the United States, Israel or other states falling under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. As noted above, the Iranian regime has historically calibrated its support of terrorist activities to minimize the risks of direct retalia- tion and confrontation. Whatever risks it might have been willing to run in the past by launching attacks against U.S. or Israeli targets would pale in comparison to the gamble that Tehran would be taking by using a terrorist organization to deliver a nuclear attack. Nothing in the regime’s past behavior suggests that it would run such risks of annihilation. Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials note that Iran already has the capability to produce and weaponize some chemical and biological agents.150 Yet despite having these capabilities, there is no documented case of the IRGC or other Iranian entities transferring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to proxies or terrorist organizations.151 Moreover, Iran has varying degrees of influence over Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other Iranian-backed proxies, and controls none of them completely.152 It is hard to believe that Tehran would provide its ultimate weapon to sub-state groups without certainty about how it would be deployed – especially because the fate of Iranian civilization could hang in the balance.153 For some time, this reluctance would be compounded by the small size of the Iranian nuclear arsenal, which would require Iran to maintain possession and tight control to maximize deterrence. The proxy organizations most likely to engage in terrorism on Iran’s behalf – particularly Hezbollah – also have significant political objec- tives and investments of their own and therefore much to lose. Even if individuals within some of these groups are willing to martyr themselves, the organizations have a self-interest in survival and achieving their political goals, and they have a territorial “return address.” As such, they are deterrable.154
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It therefore requires a very particular view of the Iranian regime to imagine that it would indulge in this kind of reckless behavior. Though Iran does indeed supply terror organizations with mate ́riel, the context is one in which the attack is relatively limited in scope, conducted at arms’ length, and untraceable back to the sponsor; moreover, suicide bombing, though a serious issue, is not an existential threat to Israel*a nuclear attack would be, and the consequences would be devastating for Iran. Iran supplies these organizations out of an ideological commitment, but also because these organizations increase its reach and provide it with a form of deterrent, a way to strike back if either Israel or the United States were to attack Iran.50 There is no evidence that Iran wants to endow these organizations with an independent capacity for mass destruction*especially one that could be traced back to Tehran if used.51
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These technical and scientific activities, however, are only one aspect of attribution, which also includes traditional law enforcement and intelligence activities.160 Indeed, part of deterring Iran from sponsoring nuclear terrorism would involve making the regime understand that it would not be likely to get away with such attacks even if nuclear forensics proved imperfect. Recent research shows that attribution would not depend on significant advances in forensic capabilities. Historically, there has been a strong positive relationship between the number of fatalities in conventional terror- ist attacks and the likelihood of attribution, and attribution rates have been particularly high for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally. In the case of a nuclear terrorist attack, the very small number of suspects would also make traditional forms of attribution easier. Few countries sponsor terrorism; few terrorist organizations have state sponsors; each sponsored group has few sponsors (usually only one); and the number of potential nuclear sponsors of terrorism is very small. Moreover, given the enormous risks Iran highly unlikely to risk annihilation by providing its nuclear weapons to terrorist groups involved, even an extraordinarily risk-acceptant state would only contemplate transferring a device to a group with a record of unwavering loyalty and sufficient operational competence to carry out a complex operation across international lines – and this level of trust implies pre-existing ties.161 In short, absent a shred of evidence, if Hezbollah, PIJ or Iraqi-based Kataib Hezbollah uses a nuclear weapon against the United States, Israel or any other nation, there will be only one suspect: Iran.162 Part of reinforcing deterrence will be ensuring that Iranian leaders understand this. This can be done through private messages to Tehran stating that if any group with known ties to Iran carries out a nuclear attack, the United States will presume that Iran is the source and respond accordingly.163 Convincing Iran of the high likelihood of attribu- tion would likely prove sufficient for deterrence or, under the exceedingly low-probability scenario that Tehran still decides to go forward, force Iranian operatives to rely on a completely untested organization – a move that would significantly increase the likelihood of failure.164￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼