Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development
[ Page 30 ]
In the event of conflict, Iran might use suicide boat attacks or lay mines in the Strait of Hormuz. In April 2006, Iran conducted naval maneuvers including test firings of what Iran claims are underwater torpedoes that can avoid detection, presumably for use against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, and a surface-to-sea radarevading missile launched from helicopters or combat aircraft . U.S. military officials said the claims might be an exaggeration, although it is conceivable that such tactics could result in heavy damage to U.S. ships in the event of conflict. The potential danger to U.S. ships was again in evidence in early January 2008 when five IRGC Navy small boats approached U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf in what U.S. officials called a “provocative act” and were warned off without armed confrontation. Th e incident could have represented an Iranian attempt to determine whether “swarming” of U.S. ships could compensate for superior U.S. firepower.
[ Page i ]
Iran's nuclear development may pose the most significant strategic threat to the United States during the next Administration. A nuclear-ready or nuclear-armed Islamic Republic ruled by the clerical regime could threaten the Persian Gulf region and its vast energy resources, spark nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, inject additional volatility into global energy markets, embolden extremists in the region and destabilize states such as Saudi Arabia and others in the region, provide nuclear technology to other radical regimes and terrorists (although Iran might hesitate to share traceable nuclear technology), and seek to make good on its threats to eradicate Israel. The threat posed by the Islamic Republic is not only direct Iranian action but also aggression committed by proxy. Iran remains the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, proving its reach from Buenos Aires to Baghdad.
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Achieving nuclear capability would make the Islamic Republic not only a regional threat, but also an international one. A nuclear Islamic Republic would, in effect, end the Non-Proliferation Treaty security regime. Many, if not most, regional states might feel compelled to develop their own indigenous nuclear capability or accept coverage from another state’s nuclear umbrella. Given historical instability in the region, the prospects of a nuclear Middle East—possibly including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—are worrying enough, even before the proliferation cascade continues across North Africa and into Southern Europe. Iran’s continued nuclear development also endangers global non-proliferation by exposing weaknesses in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the inability or unwillingness of the international community to enforce the Non-Proliferation Treaty or United Nations resolutions on non-proliferation.
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Ahmadinejad inserted a new element into Iranian public religious discourse when, in September 2005, he concluded his United Nations speech with a prayer seeking the hasty return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi. Upon his return to Tehran, he spoke of being "placed inside this [divine] aura," guided by the Hidden Imam's hand. He has since allocated $20 million dollars to upgrade a shrine at Jamkaran, from which, many theologians believe, the Hidden Imam will emerge. Within Iran, such messianic rhetoric and reference to folk religion may help Ahmadinejad bypass the injunctions of more established clergy. Should the clergy seek to counter his efforts, Ahmadinejad can argue to his followers that some clerical leaders seek to hamper the return of the Hidden Imam. More dangerous from an international perspective is the possibility that Ahmadinejad may be sincere in his belief that violence can speed the return of the Hidden Imam, for this would throw into question the efficacy of both diplomacy and deterrence. While the President is not the ultimate power in the Islamic Republic, he serves with the implicit endorsement of the Supreme Leader.
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Should oil prices again decline, Tehran may face serious fiscal difficulty. When oil was $60/barrel, the Iranian government had to borrow roughly $20 billion per year. Rising oil prices have masked declining production. In 1974, Iran was producing six million barrels per day of crude, but it has been unable to match those levels since the 1979 revolution. In the late 1990s, oil production surpassed 4 million barrels per day, although oil production has since dropped slightly. On July 8, 2008, a National Iranian Oil Company executive acknowledged that, without significant investment in Iranian infrastructure, production would each year decline 300,000 barrels per day, although this figure may be higher: reservoir damage and decreases in existing deposits claim an estimated 400 – 500 thousand barrels per day. Iranian oil production has declined at a rate of 10 – 12 percent annually, both because of the natural decline, lack of upkeep of existing oil fields, and insufficient investment in development of new projects. The natural annual decline rate for existing Iranian oil fields is perhaps eight percent onshore and ten percent off shore. Current Iranian recovery rates are 24 – 27 percent, less than the world average of 35 percent. This may be tied to shortages of natural gas for use in enhanced oil recovery eff orts such as re-injection. Re-injection could boost daily oil production by 220,000 barrels per day. All major upstream projects have the potential to increase production by a further 1.26 million barrels per day, far short of the Iranian government's stated target of total production of 5.8 million barrels per day by 2015, a figure which would require an estimated $25 – 35 billion of foreign investment.
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Should observers accept that energy needs alone motivate the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, Tehran's nuclear calculation is unwise. The majority of Iran's natural gas reserves have yet to be developed. Iran already relies on natural gas-fired plants to produce about 75 percent of its electricity. Increasing that production capacity would not appear to require major infrastructure investments. Six of Iran's most populous cities—Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Ahvaz, already have direct access to natural gas pipelines; Mashhad, Ahvaz, and Shiraz are close to major refineries. Should the Islamic Republic reform its investment climate, it could develop natural gas processing plants, pipelines, and power plants in a manner more economically attractive than with nuclear power.
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Furthermore, while Iranian leaders cite a desire to become self-sufficient in energy production as a reason for their nuclear investment, number crunching suggests Iran will become dependent upon imported uranium. As Iran's estimated conventional uranium resource is only between 15,000 and 30,000 tons, operating all its planned reactors would deplete Iran's uranium reserves by 2023, making Iran dependent upon external sources. Both the relative expense of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and its limited uranium resources suggest it is unlikely that energy needs alone motivate Tehran.
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The Islamic Republic has long been Hezbollah's major arms supplier; it provides more than $100 million annually to Hezbollah. Recent Iranian shipments to Hez-bollah have included "Fajr" and Khaybar series rockets that, in 2006, Hezbollah fired at the Israeli city of Haifa (30 miles from the border), and over 10,000 Katyusha rockets that were fired at cities within 20 miles of the Lebanese border. In addition, Iranian authorities have also supplied Hezbollah with unmanned aerial vehicles that Hezbollah flew over the Israel-Lebanon border on November 7, 2004, and April 11, 2005. Israeli forces shot down at least three of these Hezbollah unmanned aerial vehicles during the 2006 fighting. On July 14, 2006, Hezbollah apparently hit an Israeli warship with a C-802 sea-skimming missile, which had also been supplied by Iran. UN monitors and international diplomacy have failed to prevent Iranian officials from re-supplying Hezbollah in contravention of the ceasefire. In May 2008, Hezbollah forces briefly turned their guns on fellow Lebanese when they seized West Beirut from the Lebanese Army, although, their demonstration of power complete, they later withdrew
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The IAEA uses cameras to monitor facilities and sends inspectors to check seals placed on facilities. However, both because the IAEA must gain the consent of the inspected party and because of funding constraints, it does not remotely monitor facilities in near-real-time in Iran. Given the Islamic Republic's history of cheating, obfuscating, and lying, the lack of near-real-time monitoring represents a major procedural weakness. The IAEA or other international consortia should break with current practice, and use remote cameras which provide near-real-time surveillance capabilities and employ onsite inspectors 24 hours per day, seven days each week. However, video monitoring can only apply to Iran's declared sites. Written into any agreement should be verification procedures to address undeclared nuclear programs inside the country. Given the IAEA's inability to detect undeclared activities with confidence, however, such verification procedures might resemble mechanisms applied by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
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Some suggest that Iran could be deterred in much the same way as the Soviet Union. Parallels to Cold War deterrence, however, are not convincing. First, although many analysts argue that Iran is like every other country, in point of fact there are ideological elements among Iran's leadership that actively believe that Iranian actions and violence can hasten the return of the Hidden Imam. Secondly, the opacity of Iran's nuclear command structure means that it is possible for those messianic hardliners to enjoy disproportionate influence there. Thirdly, Iranian nuclear development will likely spark proliferation across much of the Middle East. Although our allies during the Cold War felt secure under the United States' nuclear umbrella, that is no longer the case. Riyadh, for example, has already indicated it would want a matching capacity of its own. Already, many regional states have announced their intention to build nuclear power plants. Under the current Atoms for Peace initiative, Moscow, Paris, and Washington have committed to help Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Tripoli, and Ankara develop reactors. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine with certainty that Tehran would be able to resist the temptation to transfer technology. On July 13, 2008, Ahmadinejad told his Senegalese counterpart that he saw no problem in transferring technology to other Muslim countries. History offers a guide: Moscow helped Beijing acquire its nuclear capacity despite political differences between the two countries, and the rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadir Khan helped Iran advance its program despite tensions between the two states. At the very least, this would spell the effective end of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.