The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment
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Furthermore, the strategy that appears to be emerging as the default solution to these troubling outcomes -- a combination of deterrence and extended deterrence -- has serious drawbacks, and these are often downplayed or, worse, ignored. The conventional wisdom holds that U.S. security commitments can keep Iran in check, prevent U.S. allies in the Middle East from accommodating Tehran, and dissuade them from pursuing nuclear weapons. Yet both the willingness and the ability of the United States to defend its partners in the region against a nuclear-armed Iran are questionable. The United States was able to deter a nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War, but the foundations of its security arrangements then -- formal treaty guarantees and large U.S. military deployments on the territory of its allies -- are unlikely to materialize again soon. Although members of the Obama administration have stated that no option, including military force, should be taken off the table, they have done little to create a credible military option that would discourage Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons or contain it if diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, or redlines fail to yield the desired results and Iran obtains nuclear weapons. By deploying additional U.S. air and naval forces in the Middle East, the United States could bolster its diplomatic efforts with coercive leverage, lay the foundation for an extended deterrence regime, and give itself the means to use force if a military campaign turns out to be the least bad option.
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Given Israel's status as an assumed but undeclared nuclear weapons state, the most immediate consequence of Iran's crossing the nuclear threshold would be the emergence of an unstable bipolar nuclear competition in the Middle East. Given Israel's enormous quantitative and qualitative advantage in nuclear weapons -- its arsenal is estimated to consist of anywhere from 100 to more than 200 warheads, possibly including thermonuclear weapons -- Tehran might fear a disarming preventive or preemptive strike. During a crisis, then, the Iranian leadership might face a "use them or lose them" dilemma with respect to its nuclear weapons and resolve it by attacking first. For their part, Israeli leaders might also be willing to strike first, despite the enormous risks. Israel's small size means that even a few nuclear detonations on its soil would be devastating; Iran's former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was exaggerating only slightly when he claimed that "even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything." Iran's nuclear arsenal is likely to be small at first and perhaps vulnerable to a preventive attack. Moreover, even if current and future Israeli missile defenses could not stop a full-scale premeditated attack by ballistic missiles, they might be effective against any retaliation Iran might launch if it were hit first. And the willingness to execute a preventive or preemptive strike when confronting a serious threat is a deeply ingrained element of Israel's strategic culture, as Israel demonstrated in its attacks against Egypt in 1956 and 1967, against Iraq's nuclear program in 1981, and against a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007. On the one occasion that Israel absorbed the first blow, in 1973, it came perilously close to defeat. In short, the early stages of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear competition would be unstable.
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Even if Iran and Israel managed to avoid a direct conflict, Iran's nuclear weapons would remain a persistent source of instability in the Middle East. Tehran would almost certainly attempt to expand the size of its arsenal to enhance the survivability of its nuclear weapons. To that end, it would have a strong incentive to adopt the North Korean model of proliferation: negotiating with the international community while continuing to expand its stockpile. Tehran could also deflect international pressure to disarm by offering to relinquish its arsenal if Israel did so as well, exploiting the desire of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders to make progress toward a world without nuclear weapons. As Iran's arsenal became larger and its fear of retaliation declined, however, it might be increasingly willing to engage in more subtle but still dangerous forms of aggression, including heightened support for terrorist groups or coercive diplomacy.
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There is, however, at least one state that could receive significant outside support: Saudi Arabia. And if it did, proliferation could accelerate throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been geopolitical and ideological rivals. Riyadh would face tremendous pressure to respond in some form to a nuclear-armed Iran, not only to deter Iranian coercion and subversion but also to preserve its sense that Saudi Arabia is the leading nation in the Muslim world. The Saudi government is already pursuing a nuclear power capability, which could be the first step along a slow road to nuclear weapons development. And concerns persist that it might be able to accelerate its progress by exploiting its close ties to Pakistan. During the 1980s, in response to the use of missiles during the Iran-Iraq War and their growing proliferation throughout the region, Saudi Arabia acquired several dozen CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China. The Pakistani government reportedly brokered the deal, and it may have also offered to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear warheads for the CSS-2s, which are not accurate enough to deliver conventional warheads effectively. There are still rumors that Riyadh and Islamabad have had discussions involving nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, or security guarantees. This "Islamabad option" could develop in one of several different ways. Pakistan could sell operational nuclear weapons and delivery systems to Saudi Arabia, or it could provide the Saudis with the infrastructure, material, and technical support they need to produce nuclear weapons themselves within a matter of years, as opposed to a decade or longer. Not only has Pakistan provided such support in the past, but it is currently building two more heavy-water reactors for plutonium production and a second chemical reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. In other words, it might accumulate more fissile material than it needs to maintain even a substantially expanded arsenal of its own.
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Alternatively, Pakistan might offer an extended deterrent guarantee to Saudi Arabia and deploy nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and troops on Saudi territory, a practice that the United States has employed for decades with its allies. This arrangement could be particularly appealing to both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It would allow the Saudis to argue that they are not violating the NPT since they would not be acquiring their own nuclear weapons. And an extended deterrent from Pakistan might be preferable to one from the United States because stationing foreign Muslim forces on Saudi territory would not trigger the kind of popular opposition that would accompany the deployment of U.S. troops. Pakistan, for its part, would gain financial benefits and international clout by deploying nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia, as well as strategic depth against its chief rival, India. The Islamabad option raises a host of difficult issues, perhaps the most worrisome being how India would respond. Would it target Pakistan's weapons in Saudi Arabia with its own conventional or nuclear weapons? How would this expanded nuclear competition influence stability during a crisis in either the Middle East or South Asia? Regardless of India's reaction, any decision by the Saudi government to seek out nuclear weapons, by whatever means, would be highly destabilizing. It would increase the incentives of other nations in the Middle East to pursue nuclear weapons of their own. And it could increase their ability to do so by eroding the remaining barriers to nuclear proliferation: each additional state that acquires nuclear weapons weakens the nonproliferation regime, even if its particular method of acquisition only circumvents, rather than violates, the NPT.
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Were Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, the Middle East would count three nuclear-armed states, and perhaps more before long. It is unclear how such an n-player competition would unfold because most analyses of nuclear deterrence are based on the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War. It seems likely, however, that the interaction among three or more nuclear-armed powers would be more prone to miscalculation and escalation than a bipolar competition. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union only needed to concern themselves with an attack from the other. Multipolar systems are generally considered to be less stable than bipolar systems because coalitions can shift quickly, upsetting the balance of power and creating incentives for an attack.
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More important, emerging nuclear powers in the Middle East might not take the costly steps necessary to preserve regional stability and avoid a nuclear exchange. For nuclear-armed states, the bedrock of deterrence is the knowledge that each side has a secure second-strike capability, so that no state can launch an attack with the expectation that it can wipe out its opponents' forces and avoid a devastating retaliation. However, emerging nuclear powers might not invest in expensive but survivable capabilities such as hardened missile silos or submarine-based nuclear forces. Given this likely vulnerability, the close proximity of states in the Middle East, and the very short flight times of ballistic missiles in the region, any new nuclear powers might be compelled to "launch on warning" of an attack or even, during a crisis, to use their nuclear forces preemptively. Their governments might also delegate launch authority to lower-level commanders, heightening the possibility of miscalculation and escalation. Moreover, if early warning systems were not integrated into robust command-and-control systems, the risk of an unauthorized or accidental launch would increase further still. And without sophisticated early warning systems, a nuclear attack might be unattributable or attributed incorrectly. That is, assuming that the leadership of a targeted state survived a first strike, it might not be able to accurately determine which nation was responsible. And this uncertainty, when combined with the pressure to respond quickly, would create a significant risk that it would retaliate against the wrong party, potentially triggering a regional nuclear war.
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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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Yet a strategy rooted in extended deterrence could prove far more challenging and far less effective than most analysts and policymakers recognize. Its proponents tend to draw heavily on the experience of the Cold War, but this parallel oversimplifies the problems that the United States would face if nuclear proliferation occurred in the Middle East. Throughout the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the United States and the allies under its nuclear umbrella were not only aligned against a single overriding threat; they also had few serious security challenges among themselves, particularly as the rivalry between France and Germany dissipated in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, most Middle Eastern states view Iran as a threat, but their own relations remain tense, and in some cases even hostile. These cross-cutting rivalries could complicate U.S. efforts to establish an effective extended deterrence regime in the region, particularly if Washington pledged to defend both Israel and several Arab states.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress might be reluctant to formally endorse a pledge to defend Arab nations, in particular given the resentment toward the United States that exists in many of these countries. Even informal public guarantees could generate significant opposition in Congress. And private commitments are unlikely to be effective, because unlike with public declarations, Washington would not be putting its reputation on the line. Another difference between the Soviet Union and a nuclear-armed Iran is that in most instances with Iran, the United States would not have the option of using significant forward-based forces as a tripwire and so would lack a way to signal its willingness to retaliate after any attack against its partners in the Middle East. Many of those governments would not welcome the presence of U.S. troops because they are reluctant to be perceived by their domestic audiences as U.S. protectorates unable to defend themselves.