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Opinion | Strategic Clarity and the Prospect of a Nuclear Iran


18 Dec 2011 14:27Comments
US-Iran.jpgConsidering the real costs and benefits of military engagement and the courage of restraint.

[ opinion ] The nuclear conundrum in Iran has taken center stage in the United States presidential campaign. Republicans are relentlessly hounding President Obama, as GOP candidates offer solutions of bold leadership, military action, and unwavering loyalty to a hardline position. Despite heated political discourse, the administration's national security team has pursued an effective course of action to date. Both sides, however, have failed to promote a dialogue that frames security concerns for those outside the maelstrom of electoral politics while providing the substantive clarity that the situation demands.

Direct use

The concern most frequently raised is the potential for Iran to engage in direct use of a nuclear weapon on another nation-state. Inflammatory rhetoric by Iranian leaders, shrouded in the cloth of religious fanaticism, creates an aura of dread. Some analysts have implied that Iran would strike the United States in an overt or covert manner. Others believe Ahmadinejad has the power and intent to wipe Israel off the map. Would Tehran use nuclear weapons on another state, or specifically the United States and its allies in the Middle East?

Iran would be highly unlikely to pursue such a course of action. The level of global condemnation would be unprecedented. The subsequent retaliation would wipe out the heart of modern Iran and invaluable elements of the Persian heritage. Any leader minimally sensitive to costs would implicitly understand these tangible ramifications; the likelihood of such an action is therefore almost zero, barring the implementation of counterproductive Western policy options. A massive invasion aimed at regime change ironically represents the most likely scenario under which the Supreme National Security Council might discuss threatening to go beyond conventional warfare under the justification of self-defense and preservation.

The leadership in Tehran is of the worst sort, but this does not mean that it does not comprise rational strategists. In the post-World War II age, vigorous and contentious leaders have held control of nuclear weapons for deterrence without seeking their use. During the Cold War, America balanced against a much larger and more serious power on every level. That a regime like Iran is able to create similar levels of anxiety does not accurately represent the degree of its threat to vital U.S. interests. If states respect the deterrence factor at play, the concern of direct use should be assuaged.

Indirect use

Would Tehran pass along nuclear technology or weapons to a terrorist organization? Iran is well known for its active support of Hezbollah and alliance with Hamas. Both have repeatedly engaged Israeli and U.S. forces since the 1980s, and in the post-9/11 world security experts and ordinary citizens share a vivid nightmare: a nuclear explosion in a crowded city. Whether or not Iran would seek to destabilize the United States and its allies through such a measure is a legitimate question, but deeper exploration of the issue, or specifically how Iran strategically utilizes external organizations, suggest that the danger (and concomitant fear) may not be as significant as some maintain.

Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda. According to field experts, there are stark operational differences between these organizations in command structure and tactics. Policy makers must be careful to discern the nuances that distinguish them, as one group can be identified as an extension of state policy (even if covert) and the other as completely independent of any authority. Hezbollah operates under the umbrella of Iran and can be tied to state control, as a proxy force, while al-Qaeda is accountable to no one. This may be difficult to distinguish in conventional or asymmetrical operations, but in regard to nuclear material there exists a direct line that can be traced to the state of origin through forensic science and the cooperation of nuclear allies. Iran would be unable to evade detection and the unbearable mantle of responsibility.

A nuclear state has no interest in giving weapons to an autonomous group. It has never happened in the history of the nuclear age and is highly unlikely to occur given the implementation of proper safeguards. Losing direct control of nuclear material is not in the interest of Tehran, as the state would be held responsible, leaving itself open to either conventional or nuclear retaliation. Rational and pragmatic leadership would seek to avoid these astronomical burdens as demonstrated by even the most basic cost-benefit analysis.

Militant fascism

A nuclear-armed Iran could be emboldened by its new defensive and offensive capabilities, exacerbating hegemonic tendencies that already exist in the Persian Gulf. It has an active security role in the Strait of Hormuz and its influence is heavily felt along the rim. Though Iran has not sought direct territorial expansion, it has had a strong social and political impact. Inhabitants of Lebanon, southern Iraq, and western Afghanistan look to Iran for leadership and Tehran has proven time and again to be responsive. Would nuclear weapons embolden Iran to engage in activities that more openly challenge the Arab states and Israel?

Possibly, but there are methods for containing these activities, or restricting them to current levels. The ability of the United States to project overwhelming power in the Gulf suggests Iranian territorial expansion is unfeasible in the conventional sense, and the best inroads Iran could hope for are political and social gains that do not rely on military conflict. Whether or not Iran acquires a nuclear capability seems to be a moot point. Iran has demonstrated it can succeed with its "soft power" endeavors and nuclear weapons are neither required nor likely to ratchet up these efforts. Iran is effectively contained by competing states in the region, and when backed by U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf, could be met with superior force within minutes.

Domestic upheaval

In 2009, Iran had a contentious presidential election that many called the beginning of a revolution. Yet the Iranian government retained central authority and suffocated any serious opposition, effectively neutralizing the possibility of armed dissidents. With its Machiavellian system of governance, supported by the dominant Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and militia enforcement mechanisms, there is no maneuvering room for the sort of ideologically driven, violent opposition movement that many would fear in a nuclear state.

Even if there was a significant change in leadership, it would be safe to assume new leaders would also be rational, sensitive to cost, and unlikely to pursue the direct or indirect use of nuclear weapons. Anyone capable of seizing power in Iran would be pragmatic enough to recognize the dangers of using nuclear weapons, especially if they are intent on maintaining power within territorial Iran. They would not be interested in jeopardizing that goal by inviting outside military action. Furthermore, any new leadership would seek international recognition and ties to the global community, possibly requesting assistance to ensure political, social, and economic stability. Indeed, such an opening (as in the case of Ukraine) could provide serious incentive for disarmament and reengagement.


Another major concern is the prospect of a regional nuclear arms race. If Iran goes nuclear, Israel will ramp up its arsenal and Arab states would look to balance. Even ignoring the tremendous amount of investment and technology required for such an endeavor, it is very possible to stave off widespread proliferation in the region if individual solutions are applied on a case-by-case basis.

Egypt does not have the resources to initiate and develop a nuclear program. It already struggles to buy conventional arms and maintain an effective security force; of course, there is also the massive government transformation currently under way. Additional budgetary demands are presently unrealistic and not likely to change dramatically in the next decade. Turkey, while perhaps capable of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, has other conditions that limit proliferation. It enjoys the protection and membership of NATO, aspires to join the European Union, and already hosts a sizable contingent of U.S. armed forces.

Saudi Arabia represents the most likely state to begin a nuclear program in response to developments in Iran. Riyadh may not feel that a U.S. alliance is adequate enough defense on its own accord. With significant pressure from allies and increased security reassurances, these anxieties can be dealt with through political and economic policies. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and given substantial investment in the United States of Saudi assets, it seems reasonable that strategic alliances and guarantees would be adequate to keep nuclear weapons out of Saudi Arabia.

Israel is likely to seek expansion of its own arsenal and increased second-strike capability to ensure effective deterrence and operational ability. A large expansion could be mitigated through security guarantees with the United States and potentially (granted tenuously plausible) assurance from Tehran that the Iranian arsenal would not expand beyond a small, but effectively deterring size. The region would arrive at a balancing of the most serious nature. It worked for more than a half century for two superpowers and has continued to keep a stable peace among the contemporary Great Powers. Israel is not a large state and a minimal deterrent figure could thus meet any potential scenario.

Restrain and balance

A nuclear arsenal in Iran remains undesirable and preferably avoided at serious cost, but the overt use of military force would not be successful in its application -- it would invite a disproportionate response directed at U.S. targets and deliver a dramatic shock to fragile global markets still trying to overcome stagnant conditions. Nonproliferation efforts currently under way should continue so long as they prove successful in limiting breakout potential. Solutions that do not involve significant military action can be pursued on multiple fronts. Aerial and naval strikes should be avoided absent an unequivocal, imminent threat to vital interests. Summarily, the United States and its allies possess more than enough influence to contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

Restraint in the face of overwhelming temptation defines a courage displayed throughout decisive moments in American history. Clarity fused with purpose and direction can plot a course around the dangers of a nuclear Iran -- and hopefully the dangers of electoral politics. A renewed sense of practical idealism would not only resonate with American greatness at home, it would also strengthen responsible democratic governance around the world.

Michael Miner is a teaching fellow at Harvard University. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and International Society for Iranian Studies, and author of "The Coming Revolution: An Improbable Possibility."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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