Iran's Nuclear Terrorism

Ahmedinejad NuclearIn many an imagination, the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb readily conjures an image both terrifying and powerful – that of international terrorists exploding a nuclear device, supplied by Tehran, in the very heart of foreign capitals and causing death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. But are such fears of a nuclear passage between Iran and international terrorism really justified?

Judging by their pronouncements, many in Washington certainly believe so. The White House’s 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism warns that, ‘the potential Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) terrorism nexus that emanates from Tehran’ is ‘most troubling’, while Zalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to Iraq, has argued that there is no ‘check that Iran would not transfer even some of its WMD technology to terrorists’.[1] Elsewhere commentators have sometimes warned that the ‘dangerous mix of Iran’s nuclear ambitions with its active sponsorship of terrorism raises the spectre of Tehran’s providing a nuclear or other WMD to a terrorist group’.[2] Such fears also resonate in the public consciousness of the US and Western Europe, where many people have expressed similar concerns.[3]

But if not wholly fallacious, this argument is as exaggerated as many other oft-heard claims about Iran’s nuclear programme. There are powerful and compelling reasons why no nuclear power is known to have ever transferred, or would ever be likely to transfer intentionally, the raw materials needed for a warhead – highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium – to a non-nuclear third party, whether it is another sovereign state or a non-state actor (‘terrorist’). Nor is there any reason to suppose that, should it eventually cross the nuclear threshold, Iran would act any differently. This is certainly not an invitation for complacency by the outside world about the risk of nuclear proliferation. But it does mean that the risks posed by a nuclear Iran need to be viewed in its proper perspective, and unwarranted fears should not be allowed to obscure risks that are much more important.

The essential reason why this risk is exaggerated is that any transfer of nuclear materials would be a fundamentally irrational act: any such action would undermine the very interests that its nuclear status is intended to bestow. Undermining National Security The most important single reason why any state seeks to acquire nuclear weapons is of course its own defence against a putative aggressor. But any government that transfers its nuclear weapons resources to a third party would be undermining its own defences in a number of ways.

This is most obviously because any such action would be a blatant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and thereby risk provoking massive retaliation from the outside world. Article One of the NPT obliges every signatory state ‘not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices’, and even if, hypothetically, the transferor or recipient in question were not signatories, their actions would readily be viewed as an act of war by much of the watching world. While the origins of any nuclear cargo may of course sometimes be extremely difficult to trace,[4] not many would-be proliferators would want to take the risk of evading responsibility.

There is another reason why Iran, or any nuclear power, would be acting against its own national security interests if it deliberately exported its own nuclear weapons capabilities. On the one hand, in a world of rapidly shifting allegiances, it would risk passing such a destructive weapon into the hands of an immediate-term ally that could readily become tomorrow’s enemy. The dangers of taking such a short or immediate-term view became clear in the 1980s when the US government despatched highly prized conventional weaponry[5] to the Afghan militias that fought the Soviet army in the 1980s, only to find a decade later that the recipients had mutated into Al-Qa’ida, and also helped build Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, enabling them to fight Iran until the ceasefire of 1988 but also, unwittingly, Kuwait in 1991.

To take this argument one stage further, if Iran transferred any fissile material into the hands of a third party, it would have no guarantee that the third party would not then do the same and transfer it to another recipient, one that could then harbour an agenda that is hostile to Iran, or one of its allies. A comparison could be drawn with the way in which during the Iran-Iraq war Israel sold US-supplied weapons to Iran, one of Washington’s chief enemies at the time, in a bid to stop Iraq from gaining the upper hand in the Iran-Iraq war and becoming too powerful. Such a scenario is probably all the more likely to eventuate in the Middle East, where allegiances are notoriously fickle, than elsewhere in the world, and amongst non-state actors, whose names, organizations and loyalties are known to shift readily.

Devaluing National Prestige

The other main driving force for nuclear status, besides self-defence, is a concern for national prestige. A bomb’s development represents such a technical achievement, and its acquisition bestows such vast strategic value, that a state immediately and necessarily acquires the immense political and international standing of belonging to a highly select ‘nuclear club’. Just as during the post-war years, nuclear status symbolized the standing of the superpowers’ rival political systems, compensated Britain and France for their fast-diminishing empires and alleviated India’s feelings of racial inferiority,[6] so too will it grant Iran recognition as a key player in the Middle East.

But by exporting the technology, knowledge and resources that this prestige depends upon, a nuclear state immediately devalues the very standing that it has strived so hard to acquire. The world’s existing nuclear powers are anxious to restrict membership of the elite club to which they belong not just out of genuine fears of global security but also because the larger this circle becomes, the more the standing of its members diminishes.

Is Iran Different?

There are two possible counterarguments to the assertion that Iran, like any other state, would be extremely unlikely to act against its own self-interest by exporting its nuclear resources. Neither, however, holds any real weight.

It is sometimes claimed, for example, that Iran has such close links with its ‘terrorist’ protégés in the Middle East, such as Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), that to transfer such fissile material into their hands would be an easy decision for Tehran to make. But this argument is unconvincing. If the links between them are so close, then no such transfer would be necessary: these protégés would fall well within Tehran’s nuclear umbrella and would not need any such weapon in their own hands. In any case, transferring nuclear materials even to a state’s closest foreign allies would still be a clear violation of Article 1 of the NPT. Another possible counterargument is that Iranian foreign policy is to an important degree determined by elites that, being both fanatical and unelected, are not likely to pursue any rational course of action: ‘In Iran critical decisions on national security issues are made by an unelected few. There is no accountability’, as Zalmay Khalilzad has pointed out.[7] But this line of argument is equally unconvincing. On the one hand, even fanatical and unelected leaders have a great deal to lose if they unnecessarily provoke the retaliation of the outside world: this means that, for everyone except the insane, exporting nuclear materials is an act of potential self-destruction.

Furthermore, although autonomous or semi-autonomous organizations and departments do govern many developing countries, the same argument could also just as plausibly be levelled against many Western governments. Over the past two decades, for example, maverick elements in Washington have on occasion sponsored several private foreign policies that were at odds with formal administration policy. During the 1986 Irangate scandal, for example, the Reagan Administration was rocked by reports of secret arms transfers, in clear violation of Congressional order, to Tehran in return for assistance in securing the release of American hostages in Beirut. A decade later, elements within the US Department of Defense (DoD) gave secret backing to the Bosnian Muslim forces that harboured their own ambitions to undermine Serbian influence in the Balkans.[8]

Recognizing the True Threat

But if the threat of any state, not just Iran, intentionally transferring its nuclear weapons resources to a non-nuclear third party is easily exaggerated, a much more serious risk of proliferation is that such materials might be exported against the wishes or efforts of those to the particular government or regime to which they belong.

This is most likely to happen in two scenarios. The first is where law and order breaks down, allowing valuable assets of any sort, not merely nuclear materials, to fall into the hands of those who, by force of arms or bribery, exploit such instability. In this respect the long moments of lawlessness that befell Iraq in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 posed a dire threat to international security: it was at this time that some 380 tons of extremely potent explosives, powerful enough to detonate nuclear warheads, went missing from a former Iraqi military facility that was supposed to be under American control. ‘Our immediate concern is that if the explosives did fall into the wrong hands, they could be used to commit terrorist acts and some of the bombings that we’ve seen’, as IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming stated.[9] The disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which realized the worst nightmares of international arms control agencies, probably provides the best-known single example of the dangers of nuclear proliferation posed by political instability.

In this particular regard Iran probably presents much less risk of nuclear proliferation than, for example, Pakistan, whose sixty year political history has often been troubled and turbulent. Barely more than a quarter century after Khomeini led a massive upheaval of the imperial order, most ordinary Iranians harbour very little appetite for revolution, and despite regular outbreaks of strikes, protests and violence, a bloody, violent political transformation looks much less likely to eventuate than a gradual, even imperceptible change of the regime’s values.

Besides political instability, the other main risk of proliferation lies in the possibility of corrupt scientists and officials leaking highly valued technical secrets or knowhow, or privately exporting nuclear materials, against the wishes of their governments. The most obvious single example is the private ‘nuclear supermarket’ that was orchestrated by the Pakistani metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan during the 1970s and 1980s: not only did Khan have the exceptional expertise to assist foreign nuclear programmes but also enjoyed the freedom to meet, at home and abroad, representatives of foreign governments that were anxious to make full use of his skills.

On this score, too, Iran also poses a low risk. Although there is of course widespread corruption inside the country, its nuclear scientists are kept under very close guard by the political authorities who wish to keep their activities entirely secret from the outside world and to take precautions against the activities of foreign intelligence services. Such constraints are much more difficult for a democratic government, of the sort that President Bush has ironically prescribed for the Middle East and elsewhere, to undertake.


The real reason why Iran is often said to pose a particular and distinctive threat of nuclear proliferation is ultimately a matter of psychology: any discussion of Iran’s nuclear programme typically elides with a consideration of ‘terrorism’, for whenever one is discussed so too is the other. Former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, argued that ‘our most pressing concerns are Iran’s nuclear weapons programme… and support for terrorism’,[10] while Condoleezza Rice claimed in 2004 that ‘Iran’s direct support of regional and global terrorism, and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, belie any good intentions it has displayed’. John Bolton has said that ‘we cannot let Iran, a leading sponsor of international terrorism, acquire nuclear weapons’,[11] while President Bush has argued that ‘to promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbour terrorists and pursue WMD’.[12] Like ‘bread and butter’, such sequential usage quickly allows two quite different entities to assume a shared identity in a way that prejudices fair debate about the issue and obscures much greater risks of nuclear proliferation. In the future, disassociating the two issues will be an important, but a far from easy, task.

Roger Howard
Author of Iran Oil: The New Middle East Challenge to America (2007) and What’s Wrong with Liberal Interventionism (2006).


[1] Zalmay Khalizad, speech to the American-Iranian Council, 13 March 2002.
[2] Shahram Chubin and Robert Litwak, ‘North Korea, Iran and Terrorists’ Access to Nuclear Materials’, Geneva Centre for Security Policy 2006.
[3] Pew Global Attitudes Project, 13 June 2006.
[4] Stephen Peter Rosen, ‘After Proliferation: What to do if More States Go Nuclear’,
Foreign Affairs (Vol 85, Number 5), Sept/Oct 2006.
[5] Such as the highly-prized Stinger antiaircraft missiles that were delivered in the mid-1980s.
[6] George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, (Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1999) p. 65.
[7] Ibid,.
[8] ‘Clandestine agencies’ of the United States and Iran, claimed Professor Cees Wiebes of Amsterdam University in a report published in April 2002, purchased and airlifted vast quantities of arms to Bosnia’s Muslims soon after the outbreak of civil war in May 1992. The knowledge and complicity of the White House in this operation remains wholly unclear.
[9] ‘Tons of Iraq Explosives Missing’, CNN, 25 October 2004.
[10] Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington DC, 28 October 2003.
[11] Washington Post, 4 February 2004.
[12] George W. Bush, State of the Union address, 2005.

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