Apocalypse Soon? Deterring Nuclear Iran and its Terrorist Proxies
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A nuclear-capable Iran will represent a complex security challenge. Generally, six concerns have been raised. A nuclear Iran might: (1) limit US, European, and Israeli military mobility in Iran’s strategic backyard and coerce neighboring Arab states; (2) become emboldened, increasingly ambitious, and more risk accepting in its foreign policy; (3) better protect and defend its militant nonstate proxies; (4) increase its support for terrorism (up to and including nuclear terrorism); (5) confront Israel directly (up to and including launching a nuclear first strike);4 and (6) undermine the nonproliferation regime by compelling other states to seek their own nuclear capabilities. Of these concerns, the first four—coercion, assertiveness, protection, and nuclear terrorism—are explored in further detail. Employing the logic and theory of deterrence, the article suggests ways in which the United States and its allies might contend with, contain, and coerce nuclear Iran in its relationship with terrorism and nonstate proxies.
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For over thirty years Iran has supported international and regional terrorism and is today, by U.S. Government accounts, “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.”6 Iran has sponsored a variety of nonstate militant groups, ranging from Lebanon’s Shia militia, Hezbollah, to various Sunni Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and from radical secular groups, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP–GC) to regional secessionist groups like the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Following Wikileaks’ 2010 global dump of U.S. diplomatic and military exchanges, Iran has also been publicly linked to militias fighting coalition forces in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army, and to Sunni groups active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including those associated with the Taliban. And in February 2011, Senegal officially severed ties with Iran after accusing it of arming rebels in West Africa.7
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Nurturing Islamic revolutions by supporting insurgent and terrorist groups has been part and parcel of revolutionary Iran’s political and ideological identity. “The goals of Iran’s terrorism,” writes Gregory Giles, “are to advance Tehran’s influence... in the hopes of creating like-minded theocracies in the region.”26 Consider that Iran not only supports Hezbollah militarily but actively influences its ideology as well by sending clerics to Lebanon, actively engaging in indoctrination, and championing “a revolutionary spirit” among Shia communities.27 Importantly, challenging the regional political status quo also serves Iran’s strategic goals. By bolstering Shia militias and by working toward the construction of like-minded regimes, Iran has sought to end its regional isolation by strengthening allies.
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Ultimately, Iranian success in extending a nuclear deterrent to Hezbollah, Hamas, and others is going to be complicated, unpredictable, and uncertain. While Iran has close ties with various proxies and a stake in their survival, the conventional military balance between it and its rivals will invariably favor the challengers (Israel, in the case of Hezbollah and Hamas, and the U.S./NATO in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere). “Extension of deterrence,” explains Stein, “is in all probability ill-advised against a local challenger who is vulnerable, highly motivated, and can dispose of multiple and flexible options.”78 This is critical because Iranian nuclear capabilities are unlikely to change its power asymmetry vis-a`-vis the West; nuclear use in a limited war between Israel and Hamas, for instance, is not credible. As Keith Payne explains, in extended deterrence “the need is for a broad spectrum of capabilities to deter a broad spectrum of opponents and threats in a variety of plausible threat contingences.” “Resilience and flexibility” are crucial.79 Overall, it is unclear how nuclear Iran will credibly extend its deterrent to its nonstate proxies.
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Third, Iran has used terrorism to spoil the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Facilitating terrorism against Israel is Tehran’s way of exerting influence on an issue that dominates Arab politics. Furthermore, the continued existence of the state of Israel is inimical to current Iranian interests and terrorism is a way for the regime to punish, target, and hopefully remove what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called a “cancerous tumor” in the Middle East.28 That Israel and Iran, under the Shah, had relatively warm relations suggests that Iran’s venomous hostility is ideologically driven. As Amir Taheri writes, for “the Khomeinists . . . Israel is a foe, which cannot be placated or accommodated, let alone turned into a friend.”29 But as a military dwarf vis-a`-vis Israel, Iran’s only recourse has been to support anti-Israel movements, by coordinating the al Aqsa Intifada and paving the way for the rocket wars of 2006 and 2008/9, for instance. Doing so has given Iran an avenue to conduct a protracted, low-intensity war with Israel. By picking up the anti-Israel mantel, Tehran has also found a way to resonate with Arab and Sunni audiences; hating Israel has helped Iran—the Middle East’s only Persian and Shia state—shed regional suspicion.
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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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Consider that Iran is currently fashioning a rudimentary deterrent based on the threat of terrorism. Relying on the logic of deterrence by punishment, Iran is threatening terrorism to deter a preemptive military strike against it. Byman, for instance, notes that Iran has “cased” U.S. diplomatic offices “to ensure that it can strike back should the United States attack.”32 Given Iran’s history, the threat seems credible. Tehran has also signaled that its proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to punish the West. Speaking, in 2004, of Western forces then stationed in Iraq, an Iranian official warned that “we have 140,000 potential hostages.”33 In 2006, Iran threatened the West directly with an army of 40,000 suicide bombers ready to die overseas. “We are ready to attack American and British sensitive points,” an official explained “if they attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”34 And Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, is thought to have stocked its missile cache with as many as 50,000 projectiles (roughly 35,000 more than it had during the 2006 conflict with Israel).35 The threat is that Iran will use Hezbollah to open a front against Israel. Taken together, it appears Iran continues to recognize the strategic utility of sponsoring terrorism, offering lessons for how best to manage a future, nuclear-capable Iran. What follows is an exploration of how Iran’s historical support for terrorism, insurgency, and subversion might be affected by its development of nuclear weapons.
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The first argument posits that besides curtailing military threats against it directly, nuclear weapons will give Iran leverage over how (and where) military force can be used in the Middle East more broadly. Western military adventurism in Iran’s strategic backyard, it is suggested, will be placed in check by Iran’s strategic interests and its ability to guarantee those interests. Writing of NATO, Bruno Tertrais explains that Iranian nukes might be “a strong disincentive for some NATO countries to participate . . . in any new operation in the broader Middle East that might be judged by Tehran as contrary to its own strategic interests.”37 The implication is that nuclear Iran (however weak, conventionally) will compel the United States, its European allies, and Israel to rethink how they use military force in the region. Drawing parallels to the Yalta Conference of 1945, in which the United States, United Kingdom, and USSR mapped out divergent spheres of influence, Emanuele Ottolenghi suggests that a nuclear Iran will force the West to “negotiate a Middle Eastern Yalta with Tehran—one that may entail a retreat of U.S. forces from the region and an unpleasant bargain for the Gulf states and Israel.”38 And speaking of Israel, Michael Oren, before taking up his post as Israeli Ambassador to the United States, wrote that a nuclear Iran will “deny Israel the ability to respond to terrorist attacks.” In reaction to an “Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah,” Oren warns, “Iran would go on nuclear alert, causing widespread panic in Israel and the collapse of its economy.”39 Asserting its hegemonic role in the Gulf, nuclear Iran might also blackmail its weaker Arab neighbors by forcing them to avoid behavior it considers provocative and compelling them to bandwagon with it. Bret Stephen explains that “Iran could easily apply some combination of inducements and pressure to persuade Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain to shut down their U.S. military bases.”40 Or, it might coerce oil-rich Arab states into diminishing their production levels, simultaneously strangling the global flow of crude while filling its own coffers. In sum, Iran might use its nuclear clout to generate political, economic, and strategic effects that go well beyond the mere protection of its sovereignty and security.
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These propositions are oft-repeated. Tertrais writes that “nuclear Iran would feel emboldened to project its power and influence in the region.” Specifically, he argues that Iran’s “new status” would “incite” it to increase support for Hamas, “making the peace process even more complex.”42 Michael Eisenstadt cautions that nuclear weapons will “embolden Tehran to behave more aggressively, to more frequently resort to coercive diplomacy, to ramp up its support for terrorism, or to undertake military adventures.”43 Sagan envisions a scenario in which members of the IRGC “feel that it is safer for them… to attack Americans in Iraq, to attack military bases in the region, to support terrorist attacks elsewhere.”44 Kenneth Pollack writes that Iran may calculate that its “nuclear shield” allows it to support “subversion, nonnuclear terrorism, [and] insurgencies” because its adversaries would be hard pressed to retaliate given “the risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.”45 And Eric Edelman and colleagues write that at the very least, nuclear Iran will become “increasingly aggressive.”46 These and other authors often turn to Pakistan, circa 1999, and Iraq, circa 1990, for illustration. In the first case, a year after testing a nuclear weapon and flush with its newfound power, Pakistan sent paramilitary forces into India-controlled Kashmir. The conflict, pitting two nuclear rivals, escalated rather spectacularly. The result was the Kargil War, in which over 1000 soldiers died. Sagan explains that the episode “occurred not despite Pakistan developing nuclear weapons but rather because Pakistan got the bomb.”47 It mistakenly believed that it could use its nuclear shield to send proxies into India without triggering a war. In the second case, Iraq’s adventurism in 1990 was perhaps a result of its unconventional weapons program, used successfully in spring 1988 to force the Iranians to the bargaining table. Eisenstadt suggests that Iraq may have been emboldened by its “maturing chemical and biological weapons programs” to reassert itself. It invaded Kuwait believing that its WMD shield would deter others from intervening.48 It is possible that nuclear Iran might likewise misinterpret the value of its nuclear shield and stumble into a costly conflict as a result.
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Third, nuclear Iran might use its arsenal to protect its nonstate and state allies. The concept of an Iranian nuclear umbrella is closely related to that of Iran’s nuclear shield, but instead of protecting its own vital interests, Iran flexes its muscles to protect the integrity of others. In practice, nuclear Iran will not only be emboldened to increase its support for terrorism, the argument suggests, but will also be better able to protect its investment. This scenario is premised on the logic and theory of extended deterrence. As opposed to deterring attacks on one’s own territory and/or interests (“central deterrence”), extended deterrence involves protecting an ally, third party, or prote ́ge ́ by way of one’s own conventional and nuclear capabilities.49 As in the case of deterrence more generally, Paul Huth suggests a further two distinctions, between “extended-immediate deterrence” (in which an overt threat is made against a defender’s allies and an immediate counterthreat is established) and “extended- general deterrence” (in which threats against an ally exist more broadly but a challenger is not actively preparing to use force).50 In the case of nuclear Iran and its terrorist proxies, both concepts are in play. Ottolenghi tells us that “[u]nder an Iranian nuclear umbrella, terrorists will be able to act with impunity” and “Hezbollah . . . would be able to cement its dominance in Lebanese politics.”51 Barry Rubin agrees, writing that Iran will use its “nuclear umbrella” to protect its regional “clients” in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. He even suggests that “Islamist movements everywhere, including in Europe”—notwithstanding their current relationship with Tehran—“would likely become more violent and reckless” as a result of Iran’s nuclear capability.52 In a related argument, Chuck Freilich suggests that rather than extend its deterrent, Iran might supply Hamas and/or Hezbollah with control over their own nuclear weapons, giving them each their own absolute deterrent against Israel. He explains: “Even a minimal nuclear capability would enable Hizballah and Hamas to conduct ongoing low-level attacks . . . in the confidence that Israel would be deterred from massive retaliation.”53 In all cases, the suggestion is that Iran’s nuclear capability will extend itself to the services of third parties, protecting their interests and survival by deterring retaliation and curtailing counterterrorism operations. As a result, terrorist groups will be free to act as they please, knowing that their victims will be kept in check by Iran’s nuclear capability.