Living with a Nuclear-Armed Iran

April 13, 2005

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


William Chadwell
Marvin Feuer
John Sigler
Judith Yaphe

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control



Last November, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control convened an eminent panel of arms experts who concluded that Iran was very likely to acquire nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. The panel could not foresee any combination of events likely to alter Iran's apparent determination-and ability-to build such arms.

This conclusion posed an obvious question: how will the United States and other countries react to such a development? Will an Iranian bomb rewrite the equation of power in the Middle East-and the world? If so, how? To provide answers to these questions the Wisconsin Project organized a second roundtable discussion in April.

This second panel of experts judged that the United States was most likely to adopt a strategy of vigorous containment, with elements reminiscent of those employed during the Cold War. This policy would require the United States to form alliances with countries threatened by Iran, and to try to weaken Iran in every possible way. The United States could be expected to practice economic warfare, push for Iran's political isolation and attempt its military encirclement. Countries threatened by Iran, the panelists judged, would be more likely to seek protection from the United States than to pursue nuclear weapons on their own, contrary to conventional wisdom. However, one panelist believes that there is a better than even chance that at least one additional Middle East state will seek a nuclear capability in response to Iran's. The United States would also have to guard against the possibility of further proliferation by Iran, though the panelists found the likelihood of intentional transfer to be slim. Iran's defection from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would severely weaken the Treaty, though it would remain a useful framework for transparency among states that have decided not to pursue the bomb. The panel thought the time of highest danger would be just after Iran crossed the nuclear threshold, when Tehran will probably want to test the political value of its new capability.

Four panelists participated in the roundtable. They were William Chadwell, a special operations-counterterrorism policy advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Dr. Marvin Feuer, Director of Defense and Strategic Issues at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Admiral John Sigler, U.S. Navy Ret., who served as plans and policy officer at U.S. Central Command, and Dr. Judith Yaphe, a senior research professor in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

The following findings are the moderators' summary of the roundtable discussion. These findings should be considered a composite of the panelists' individual views; no particular finding should be attributed to any single panelist, or be seen as an official statement of policy of any government.

A vigorous containment policy is likely to be the U.S. response to an Iranian bomb. The United States will determine where it has maximum leverage to weaken Iran-economically and politically-and shape its policy accordingly. In doing so, it will borrow tactics from its Cold War containment of the Soviet Union.

Iran appears to have several reasons for pursuing nuclear weapons: first, to increase its prestige and influence in the Middle East, second, to provide deterrence against other regional powers, and third, to deter the United States from invading Iran and toppling the current regime. One panelist believes that Iran may also be seeking nuclear weapons for possible use against Israel. A U.S. containment policy would seek to counter these objectives by weakening Iran politically and dissuading it from venturing outside its own borders. This policy would have significant opportunity costs for the United States. It would require strengthening ties with Iran's neighbors, and cooperating with regimes that the United States might otherwise prefer to keep at arm's length. Forming such coalitions would force the United States to compromise on other important issues in the Middle East. As during the Cold War, concerns about human rights and democracy would be subordinated to concerns about security and nuclear proliferation.

The United States should also prepare for the more tangible costs of containment. These costs would include economic and military aid to bolster allies and increased U.S. military commitments. The American public would have to be persuaded to bear these costs, a task that will be more difficult in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Committing attention and resources to containing Iran will not be easy to achieve-let alone sustain-in the context of the domestic political calendar, and demand from other pressing international issues. But long-term thinking and focus will be required for containment to be successful.

The panelists found that sanctions imposed through a U.N. Security Council resolution would be the strongest sign of international unity against Iran and have the greatest tangible impact on Iran's economy. For this reason, the United States should try to establish the broadest possible support for its containment policy. Britain, France and Germany have promised to support such sanctions should their diplomacy with Iran ultimately fail. Their backing would increase pressure on China, Russia and Japan, whose support would be crucial to success. Nevertheless, it is far from clear how willing these countries would be to forgo their energy contracts with Iran. Convincing these states may require the United States to cede ground on other contentious issues.

If the United Nations failed to adopt sanctions, more limited penalties, imposed by the United States and a coalition of concerned allies, could still help neutralize Iran. A Cold War export control regime like the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom), for instance, could be revived and applied by the United States and its allies in order to make it more difficult for Iran to obtain dual-use, high technology items. However, such controls would have limited value, as Iran could still buy at least some high technology items from firms in Russia and China.

The United States could also try to undermine Iran in the Islamic world and in international organizations. The United States could urge regional leaders to shun the Iranian regime and could block Iran's entry into the World Trade Organization.

The United States would probably not need to increase its troop strength or military bases in the Middle East. U.S. forces are likely to remain in Iraq; a U.S.-friendly government has been installed in Afghanistan; Pakistan is an important ally in the U.S.-led "war on terror;" and the United States has expanded its influence in Central Asia. Deepening U.S. ties with surrounding states, rather than increasing the number of U.S. troops on the ground, could isolate Iran without increasing the vulnerability of the United States.

By boxing Iran in and stripping it of the benefits it had hoped to reap from its nuclear arsenal, the containment policy could help bring to the lowest possible level the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Although an Iranian bomb would cause Iran's regional rivals to consider whether to acquire nuclear weapons themselves, they are unlikely to do so.

Iran's neighbors would be forced to adjust their security policies to the new strategic landscape created by a nuclear-armed Iran. These states would have to decide whether to develop an indigenous nuclear capability to deter Tehran, or to seek protection from the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of the panelists did not find that Iran's arsenal would prompt its neighbors to develop a matching capability; the so-called "domino theory," whereby proliferation begets proliferation, would probably not come to pass. One panelist believes that there is a better than even chance that at least one additional Middle East state will seek a nuclear capability in the near term. A key factor in reinforcing the non-nuclear pledges of many states will be the ability of the United States to bring them into its sphere of influence.

Countries in the Middle East that now enjoy friendly relations with the United States are likely to draw even closer if confronted with a nuclear-armed Iran. The smaller Gulf states-Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates-are likely to be pushed closer to the United States whether they want to be or not. They have neither the scientific infrastructure nor the human capital to mount a viable program to produce or maintain nuclear weapons. Some, like Qatar and Kuwait, have already adopted the equivalent of the post-World War II "Japanese model," by allowing U.S. troops to be stationed on their soil. Through a combination of additional military assistance and the guarantee of protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the panelists found that the United States is very likely to convince these states not to acquire a bomb.

Egypt and Turkey both have the money and ability to develop nuclear weapons, but would probably choose not to do so because of their own security calculations. Egypt has a long-standing commitment to nonproliferation, and it has managed to accommodate itself to Israel's nuclear capability. Its relations with Israel would plummet as a result of any move toward the bomb. In addition, Egypt is vitally dependent on U.S. foreign aid. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for Egypt-a self-perceived regional leader-to accept a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran without some response. It is possible, though unlikely, that this response could result in a reconsideration of Egypt's nonproliferation commitments. Turkey, a U.S. ally in NATO, is now intent on joining the European Union. A move toward nuclear weapons would probably sink its candidacy and would also jeopardize its relationship with the United States. Turkey would want to reinforce these important ties, not weaken them.

Saudi Arabia is the one state in the region most likely to proliferate. Although it is unlikely to do so, the possibility cannot be ruled out. Saudi Arabia would have to buy its arsenal-or the means to build one-from abroad; it lacks the ability to develop or maintain nuclear weapons without outside assistance. The opportunities for buying a small nuclear arsenal-sufficient to respond if threatened or hit by Iran-are limited. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has the money to pay for nuclear weapons, is less susceptible to U.S. influence than many other countries in the Middle East, and has recently signed the International Atomic Energy Agency's Small Quantities Protocol, which exempts it from certain nuclear inspections.

Iraq will not be a nuclear weapon threat in the near term because U.S. forces are stationed there, and because Iraq depends on international aid, the provision of which would be unlikely if Iraq went for the bomb. Nor is it clear that Iraq would feel greatly threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. Though the countries share a long border and a history of conflict, the new Shia-dominated Iraqi regime appears to be comfortable with Iran. Iraq nevertheless has an indigenous nuclear capability that would allow it to consider nuclear weapons in the future. A nuclear-armed Iran could, in the long-term, encourage Iraq to resume this path.

Syria has friendly relations with Iran, and would have little to fear from Iranian nuclear weapons. Syria would, however, have much to fear from Israel, which would be likely to attack if Syria pursued such weapons. Syria may nevertheless be emboldened by Iran's arsenal. This could lead to greater adventurism, but not to a move toward nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Syria is currently tied up in the tumultuous events in Lebanon, it is suspected of involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, and U.S. sanctions against Damascus were recently extended. Syria is not likely to follow a path that would make it the target of even more international ire.

The panelists did not think that Iran's arsenal would prompt Israel to renounce its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Making Israel's arsenal overt would be a direct challenge to Egypt. The result would be a net decrease in Israeli security. Instead, Israel should be expected to ensure its ability to respond to an Iranian first strike. Israel could, for instance, focus on sea-based delivery systems.

The United States and its allies will try to prevent Iran from becoming a new source of nuclear arms proliferation.

By mastering the means to make nuclear weapons, Iran will acquire the ability to help others do the same. Iran is a long-time supporter of international terrorism, so the question arises: would Iran spread nuclear technology to terrorist groups? The panelists found that while Iran could decide to step up political support, training, conventional arms transfers and funding for terrorist groups, it is unlikely that such assistance would extend to nuclear weapons. Iran would want to keep tight control of its nuclear weapons because it wants to be seen as a respected nuclear power. Iran would also bear in mind that nuclear weapons, even unconventionally delivered, can be traced to their source. The prospect of retaliation against Iran by the United States or Israel if a terrorist group used a nuclear weapon would be a powerful deterrent.

Iran's leaders have evolved since the 1979 Revolution and are likely to behave pragmatically in matters of national security and foreign policy. The Revolutionary Guard force, which appears to be behind the nuclear program now, is in its second generation of leadership and many of its members have gone into politics. Iran's newly elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the most obvious example of this phenomenon. The primary interest of the ruling elite is to preserve and extend the influence of the existing regime. An incendiary action, like transferring nuclear weapons to a terrorist group, would jeopardize this interest.

Nevertheless, a breakdown in control is always possible. In order to guard against such an outcome, the United States may try to encourage a satisfactory level of security for Iran's nuclear weapons. The United States, acting indirectly through U.S. allies, may try to help Iran improve physical protection at nuclear sites. Such increased protection could include improving perimeter and internal security and vetting personnel.

Such assistance could reduce the likelihood of unauthorized use but is likely to be perceived as a reward by Iran, and an endorsement of the legitimacy of its nuclear program. For these reasons, helping Iran secure its warheads should be approached cautiously and should come with strings attached. In exchange, Iran might be compelled to adhere to the Nuclear Supplier Group guidelines for export of nuclear material and technology. Down the road, Iran should also be encouraged to cease producing weapon useable fissile material and begin regular dialogue with states in the region regarding its nuclear doctrine.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be severely weakened by Iran's defection; other arrangements will be used to partially fill the void.

Iran's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would deal a serious blow to the Treaty's credibility as a means of preventing nuclear proliferation. The NPT was undermined by Iraq and North Korea's behavior; the panelists doubt the Treaty's credibility could survive another high-profile drop-out.

Yet, a large number of states value the Treaty-and the inspections it requires-as a means of proving that their nuclear work is peaceful. When Brazil and Argentina decided to abandon their military nuclear programs, for example, they used the NPT and a regional arms control arrangement to facilitate the process. South Africa also used the NPT and its inspections as a means of proving that it had given up the bomb. Despite Iran's defection, states will still use the Treaty for this purpose.

The arms control vacuum left by a weakened NPT would largely be filled by ad-hoc, coalition-based initiatives. Measures such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), aimed at interdicting shipments of mass destruction weapon technology, have already been created to complement and enforce existing nonproliferation laws. The United States would probably seek to broaden the number of countries that endorse PSI-especially among Iran's neighbors-in order to improve its efficacy. Unilateral U.S. actions, such as the recent U.S. Executive Order freezing the assets of key Iranian nuclear entities and their suppliers, are also likely to increase. The weakening of the NPT may put more emphasis on the reforms called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to enact and enforce effective export control laws. All these measures would be aimed at denying Iran the means to enhance its nuclear arsenal and to sell its nuclear weapons or expertise.

After acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran will want to test the limits of its new strength. This experimental period will be a time of danger, in which a miscalculation by Iran or the United States could lead to nuclear war.

Iran's strategy as a nascent nuclear power will be to expand its own influence and limit that of the United States. The United States, in turn, will try to prevent Iran from reaping any political benefit from its nuclear arsenal. The chance of conflict between Iran and the United States will rise as both states jockey for early advantage. For this reason, the first few years after Iran crosses the nuclear threshold probably will be the most dangerous.

Iran's main goal will be to increase its power in the Middle East. Iran can be expected to increase its ties with weakened states like Syria, and try to gain a greater foothold in Iraq, now more ideologically compatible. Iran could also attempt to befriend Arab states in the Persian Gulf that have historically relied on the United States for their security.

Iran may also increase its support for the terrorist groups it has long sponsored, like Hamas and Hizballah, and support new groups in Iraq. This would continue Iran's long-standing use of surrogates to further its policies in the region. These surrogates would operate directly counter to U.S. interests, which are to establish a U.S.-friendly regime in Iraq, further the Arab-Israeli peace process, encourage the democratic political transition underway in Lebanon, and punish Syria. An Iranian nuclear arsenal could embolden these groups to act more aggressively, motivated by the notion that they are protected by a nuclear power. The United States would hold Iran responsible for the actions of these groups, as they operate in part thanks to Iranian support; the risk of a confrontation between Iran and the United States would therefore increase.

Iran could also become more assertive in Central Asia, particularly in the struggle over control of energy resources in the Caspian Sea. Here too, Iran would run up against the United States, which has expanded its presence in Central Asia since the military campaign in Afghanistan. Iran's adventurism in Central Asia could also challenge Russia's long-standing influence in the region.

During this experimental period, when neither side would have a reliable method of communicating with the other, a crisis could develop. Until each side learns how to read its adversary, each risks a misinterpretation that could produce a nuclear confrontation. The United States will have to seek a balance between an over-reaction that could needlessly escalate a low-level crisis, and permissiveness that would embolden Iran. As was the case with the Soviet Union, once a formalized deterrent relationship between the two sides is established, the chance of escalation will decline. However, should other states in the region acquire nuclear weapons during this period, the dangers of nuclear confrontation will multiply and the period of danger projected here will extend farther into the future.