Is a Nuclear Iran as Dangerous As We Think?
RUSI Analysis, 27 Feb 2012
By Shashank Joshi, Research Fellow
Pessimists warn that a nuclear Iran cannot be safely contained. But these risks - irrational behaviour, nuclear safety, and further proliferation - need to be dispassionately assessed and put into context.
By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI
The costs of a nuclear Iran
The discourse on Western policy towards Iran is growing more apprehensive and polarised. It is likely to become more so in the aftermath of a second damning report from the IAEA in February 2012, the tightening of economic sanctions on Iran, and Iran's commencement of higher-grade enrichment in the underground facility of Fordow.
In this context, there has been a fresh series of warnings that a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous and costly than any plausible alternative. This month, thirty-two senators from both parties in the US Congress introduced a (non-binding) resolution to rule out 'any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat'. The stark implication of such a resolution is that the cost of a nuclear Iran exceeds any cost whatsoever that might result from a policy of prevention through diplomatic or military means - including a full-scale war in the Persian Gulf.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, though warning against an Israeli strike, spoke of 'the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented'. This, he argued, would result in 'a new cold war in the Middle East' lacking all the 'safety mechanisms' of the US-Soviet rivalry.
These and similar warnings typically rest on three assumptions:
1. Iran is an irrational actor that would neither conform to the logic of nuclear deterrence nor behave responsibly with nuclear weapons
2. A nuclear Iran, or a regional nuclear rivalry, would not be subject to the array of safety measures that characterised American and Soviet arsenals during the Cold War
3. A nuclear Iran would precipitate a destabilising and unstoppable chain reaction of regional nuclear proliferation.
Each of these reflects valid concerns that, through embellishment and imprecision, have resulted in a distorted view of the likely costs of a nuclear Iran. The analysis below, which largely leapfrogs questions of whether Iran wants a bomb at all, is a preliminary and tentative effort to scrutinise and qualify these assumptions. Taken together, the critique suggests that a nuclear Iran and its second-order effects - however undesirable - can likely be 'contained' at lesser cost than that of preventive war.
The first argument, that Iran is an irrational actor that would not conform to the constraining logic of nuclear deterrence, is in keeping with a long tradition of imputing non-deterrability to adversaries. These arguments usually assess irrationality along various dimensions: a regime's willingness to accept risks, the ideological or theological content of its belief systems, the revisionist nature of its foreign policy, the degree of aggressive or apocalyptic rhetoric it employs, and so on.
One specific variant of this claim is historically untenable: that Iran's irrationality is unprecedented. Stalin's Soviet Union, which had absorbed twenty million wartime deaths and sponsored politically subversive Communist movements in Western Europe, was viewed in similarly threatening terms as Iran today. National Security Council Report 68 (commonly known as NSC-68), one of the formative statements of American foreign policy in the twentieth century, written just one year after the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons, judged Moscow to be 'animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own', aimed at 'domination of the Eurasian landmass'.
Western assessments of Mao Zedong's China were similarly fearful. Tens of millions of peacetime deaths have been attributed to Mao's administration, including a great number during the period of the Great Leap Forward immediately preceding China's nuclearisation. Mao spoke in dismissive terms of nuclear war, arguing that 'imperialism would be razed to the ground, and the whole world would become socialist', and in generally belligerent terms that surpass Iranian rhetoric today.
This is why Senator Joseph Lieberman's argument on 16 February 2012, that 'containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it's not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran', is suspect. Not only is it implausible to view Iran as more fanatical than autocratic nuclear regimes of the past but, no less importantly, the nuclear behaviour of even these fanatical predecessors did not correspond to their belligerent rhetoric.
This more benign view of Iranian rationality is shared within important segments of the US government. In mid-February, two of America's top intelligence officials informed the Senate Armed Services Committee of two important judgments. First, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper observed that any Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon would be based 'on a cost-benefit analysis'. This does not mean Iran will abjure a bomb or behave cautiously with a bomb, but it implies a degree of reason that is dismissed in some contemporary alarmist accounts.
Second, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Ronald Burgess, stated that 'Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict'. Although Burgess was referring to conventional war, this assessment flatly contradicts predictions that Iran would initiate nuclear conflict against Israel for messianic purposes. These comments were followed a week later by those from General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, that 'we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor'.
There are specific reasons why Iran is particularly vulnerable to robust deterrent threats. As Anthony Cordesman notes, 'the greater metropolitan area of Tehran is home to some 15 million people, which constitute 20 per cent of Iran's population. Furthermore, 45 per cent of large Iranian industrial firms are located in Tehran, as is 50 per cent of all Iranian industry'. Iran's vulnerability is exacerbated by Israel's overwhelming nuclear superiority (hence escalation dominance) into the foreseeable future.
Competitions in risk-taking
There is a second, more plausible, concern that nuclear weapons can make it rational to take risks - that brinksmanship, with the possibility of escalation to nuclear level, is encouraged.
Marc Trachtenberg, in a persuasive critique of nuclear optimists, argues that 'each side [in a nuclear rivalry] would be afraid of escalation, but each side would in the final analysis also be willing to run a certain risk, knowing that its adversary was also worried about what would happen if things got out of hand, and that an unwillingness to run any risk at all would remove that element of restraint and give the adversary too free a hand'. As such, 'a political dispute can ... become a gigantic poker game, with each side raising the stakes in the hope that its opponent, frightened by the prospect of nuclear war, will fold before things go too far'.
Whether a nuclear Iran would take greater risks, and the manner in which that would affect its foreign policy and constrain Western policy options, is something that requires serious study. However, some inferences drawn from the experience of India and Pakistan may be misleading.
One important but neglected distinction is that Pakistan hosts militants on its own soil, whereas Iran largely (though not exclusively) helps them 'off-site', in locations such as Lebanon and Palestine. India faces potentially prohibitive costs in attacking Lashkar-e-Taiba, because it would have to attack Pakistani territory. In that scenario, Pakistani nuclear threats would likely be credible.
Israel, by contrast, will continue to be able to strike at Hezbollah or Hamas regardless of Iran's nuclear status. The idea that Iran could credibly offer and implement extended deterrence to these groups is implausible on technical grounds alone. But Iran has historically shown little sign of incurring major costs (let alone costs on the scale of Israeli nuclear retaliation) on behalf of its client proxies in the past.
Limited war with Iran
A nuclear Iran would deter attacks on its core territory. But even when Iran was linked to deadly attacks on allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacking Iran itself never a credible Western option. What has been, and would remain, credible is the use of force on different targets and at lower levels - like Operation Praying Mantis, the US attack on Iranian naval forces in 1988.
Such delimited uses of force - limited war - are possible under nuclear conditions. In 1999, India felt able to militarily respond to Pakistan's invasion of the Kashmir's Kargil sector despite the mutual possession of nuclear weapons, in part because India restricted attacks to its own side of the Line of Control. Nor have Pakistan's nuclear weapons deterred American and Afghan special forces raids into Pakistani territory. In both these cases, Pakistani nuclear threats would not have been credible. In the case of Kargil, the conventional balance proved decisive. In the Persian Gulf, the conventional balance is, and will remain, unkind to Iran.
The question of credibility is an important point because a limited war with Iran would present different challenges depending on (1) the issue under consideration i.e., the location of any crisis, and (2) Iran's particular nuclear posture. With respect to this latter factor, it is important to understand that a preventive war against Iran in the short-term could result in a more aggressive Iranian nuclear posture in the longer-term, thereby inadvertently constraining the West's future military options.
The second argument concerning the prohibitive cost of Iranian nuclear capabilities concerns safety - that of any Iranian arsenal, but also that of broader nuclear rivalries that might develop as a result. Scott Sagan, for instance, has argued that the covert, military-run, and resource-starved nuclear programmes of emerging nuclear powers can result in poor safeguards on fissile material and weapons.
Nuclear latency and deployment
The problem with this debate is that it has taken place without reference to Iran's likely nuclear posture. There is a range of evidence to suggest that Iran may desire a high degree of 'nuclear latency' rather than a fully fabricated, tested and deployed bomb. Last month, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, stated that Iran is 'keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons'. Nuclear weapons status is not dichotomous, but lies along a long and complex spectrum of choices. Most of these do not present the challenges that Sagan and others have described.
If Iran did exercise its option and put together a bomb, it might not be deployed. Iran, a large country with substantial conventional strength, has strategic depth. It can wait for threats to develop rather than keeping weapons on hair-trigger alert. Apartheid-era South Africa, for instance, built a handful of nuclear weapons, kept them stored unassembled in a vault, and eventually dismantled them. India, for a decade after its first nuclear test, didn't even bother to prepare a bomb. When it eventually did, neither it nor Pakistan deployed their weapons for another ten years.
There is a small but crucial literature on the determinants of nuclear posture and it is imperative that its findings be carefully applied to Iran's particular circumstances. Only this will clarify the specific issues of nuclear safety that may arise.
The Indo-Pakistani nuclear rivalry suggests one more lesson, however. These two countries have defied William Hague's suggestion that emerging nuclear powers can't implement safety mechanisms. In the same week that Hague issued his warning, India and Pakistan extended for another five years a pact on reducing the risks from accidents related to nuclear weapons. In 1998, the two sides had inked an 'Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities', which formalised an understanding that had been reached in 1985. Were Saudi Arabia and Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, there is no intrinsic reason why they could not undertake an even more substantive range of confidence-building measures.
The third and final charge is that Iranian nuclear advances would set in motion an uncontrolled proliferation cascade as other regional powers scrambled for their own bombs. This is reasonable and well-grounded concern. Multipolar nuclear rivalries may well be more complicated and unpredictable than bipolar ones. Saudi Arabia has likely discussed a possible transfer of nuclear technology, material or weaponry from Pakistan in the event that the Kingdom feels under grave threat.
Nuclear chain reactions
Yet history suggests that nuclear weapons don't inevitably, or even usually, beget nuclear weapons. Most intelligence estimates over the years have drastically overstated the number of countries likely to obtain bombs. A declassified American document from 1964, the year of China's first nuclear test, identified over a dozen nations 'with the capacity to go nuclear' and five more on the margin - yet only a tiny fraction ever did. When the Soviets got the bomb, Yugoslavia or Sweden - both on that list of proliferation risks - did not follow. Taiwan did not follow China. South Korea and Japan did not follow North Korea.
Some will argue that these states (Yugoslavia apart) were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection - both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear. Yet this is also true of Iran's rivals today, despite the obvious technical and political challenges to bringing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey under the American nuclear umbrella.
Egypt's political future is in great flux. The political empowerment of Islamists and growing estrangement between the military junta and Washington will complicate any security co-operation. Turkey, meanwhile, has been drifting away from Israel and has adopted its own popular and activist stance in the Middle East. But Turkey remains a member of NATO and on uneasy terms with Iran. Egypt remains a major beneficiary of American aid and advanced conventional weaponry.
Saudi Arabia is the greatest proliferation risk. Riyadh was deeply concerned over the speed and ease with which the US allowed Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to fall, and reacted by deepening other alliances. Saudi Arabia might not deem Washington to be a reliable protector. But in 2003, when US-Saudi relations were similarly strained after the 9/11 attacks, a Saudi strategy review 'considered at the highest levels in Riyadh' included two options beyond acquiring nuclear weapons. These were to 'maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection', or 'try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East'. The choice between such options will be shaped by important disincentives to Saudi pursuit of nuclear weapons, such the potential loss of access to American conventional armaments on which Saudi forces are largely dependent.
Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director for safeguards at the IAEA, has argued that the attitude of the other Gulf Arab states - Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE - will be: 'let's not pick a fight here. After all, we all want to sell oil. There is a Big Brother [Iran] that's behaving a little bit badly, but let's keep him happy and not antagonize him'. Heinonen's conclusion is that 'I don't think a nuclear domino comes here'. This echoes earlier studies that found 'in the Gulf, regional tolerance of a nuclear-armed Iran is even more likely [than elsewhere in the Arab world], particularly by Oman', a tolerance reinforced by the fact that 'public opinion in the Arab world is largely sympathetic to an Iranian nuclear option'.
It is true that the regional response to a nuclear Iran is unpredictable and potentially destabilising. However, it is important to study the specific factors that will render second-order nuclear proliferation more or less likely, and the Western policies that can shape those factors, rather than shaping our approach on the basis of worst-case assumptions.
The pessimists' response to Iran's nuclear program is embedded in a series of assumptions. Some of these assumptions are logically and historically untenable; others are more reasonable, but underdeveloped and lacking in careful assessment.
These assumptions contribute to a view that a nuclear Iran cannot be contained and, therefore, that any cost is worth bearing in the implementation of preventive policies. Moreover, if Iran does build and deploy nuclear weapons, we will be lacking in the intellectual and practical groundwork necessary to fashion a robust and effective strategy of containment. A nuclear Iran is undesirable, but there is reason to suppose that it is containable at acceptable cost.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
 Josh Rogin, 32 senators call for 'no containment' strategy for Iran, The Cable, Foreign Policy, 16 February 2012, http://bit.ly/xJ1Ne7
 'A Report to the National Security Council - NSC 68', President's Secretary's Files, Truman Papers, 12 April 1950
 Alan Lawrence, China's foreign relations since 1949 (Routledge: 1975), p75
 Josh Rogin, 32 senators call for 'no containment' strategy for Iran, The Cable, Foreign Policy, 16 February 2012, http://bit.ly/xJ1Ne7
 Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p.42.
 Testimony on the current and future worldwide threats to the national security of the United States, Senate Armed Services Committee, 16 February 2012, http://1.usa.gov/xMgBmj
 Tom Wilson, Iran's dangerous concoction of nuclear ambitions and Shiite Messianism, The Commentator, 22 February 2012, http://bit.ly/qq53hs. Interestingly, one study has found that 'Ahmadinejad is actually ridiculed by many of his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps because of his apocalyptic rhetoric'; see Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic M. Wehrey, 'A Nuclear Iran: The Reactions of Neighbours,' Survival (Vol. 49, No. 2 2007) p.124.
 Interview with Martin Dempsey, CNN, 17 February 2012, http://bit.ly/xsnfWm
 Anthony H. Cordesman, Iran's evolving threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 21 January 2010, http://bit.ly/5Fwg4b
 Anthony H. Cordesman and Alexander Wilner, Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions (Washington D.C.: Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), February 22, 2012), http://csis.org/publication/iran-and-gulf-military-balance-ii-missile-and-nuclear-dimensions .
 Marc Trachtenberg, Proliferation Revisited, University of California at Los Angeles, 24 June 2002, http://bit.ly/xLTLIq
 A valuable set of dissenting arguments can be found in Robert M. Farley, 'Not the End of the World As We Know It: Nuclear-Armed Iran and the Mid-East Balance of Power,' Yale Journal of International Affairs, November 10, 2011, http://yalejournal.org/2011/11/nuclear-armed-iran-and-mid-east-balance-of-power/.
 Devin T. Hagerty, 'The Implications of a Nuclear-armed Iran in Light of South Asia's Nuclear Experience,' in Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia: Crisis Behaviour and the Bomb, ed. Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, Asian Security Studies (London: Routledge, 2008), pp.212-243.
 S. P Kapur, 'India and Pakistan's Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia Is Not Like Cold War Europe,' International Security (Vol. 30, No. 2 2005), pp.127-152.
 Rajesh M. Basrur, 'The Lessons of Kargil as Learned by India,' in Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia : the Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict, edited by Peter R Lavoy (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
 Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. Al-Rodhan, Gulf Military Forces in an Era of Asymmetric Wars (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007).
 See Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002)
 Mark Fitpatrick, Can Iran's Nuclear Capability Be Kept Latent?, Survival (Vol. 49, No. 1, 2007)
 Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell, Iran sanctions 'biting' in recent weeks: CIA chief, 31 January 2012, http://reut.rs/ABrGy2
 Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, Capability versus intent: The latent threat of nuclear proliferation, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 14 June 2007, ttp://bit.ly/wr7h2N
 D. Albright, 'South Africa and the Affordable Bomb,' Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Vol. 50, No. 4, 1994).
 Ashley J Tellis, India's Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001).
 Vipin Narang, 'Posturing for Peace? Pakistan's Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability,' International Security (Vol. 34, No. 3, January 1, 2010), pp.38-78.
 George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb (University of California Press, 2002), p.276.
 John J. Weltman, 'Managing Nuclear Multipolarity,' International Security (Vol. 6, No. 3 December 1, 1981), pp.182-194.
 Francis J. Gavin, 'Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War,' International Security (Vol. 34, No. 3, 2010), p. 17.
 F. Gregory Gause, Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2011).
 Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor, 'Saudis Consider Nuclear Bomb,' The Guardian, September 18, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/sep/18/nuclear.saudiarabia .
 Kate Amlin, 'Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?,' NTI: Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 1, 2008, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/will-saudi-acquire-nuclear-weapons/ .
 Scott Peterson, 'What Would Happen If Iran Had the Bomb?,' Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/0216/What-would-happen-if-Iran-had-the-bomb-video .
 Dassa Kaye and Wehrey, Op. Cit., 'A Nuclear Iran,' Survival p.119.
Further Analysis: Iran, Middle East and North Africa, Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Strategy, Global Security Issues