Issue Report: Is a nuclear Iran intolerable?

Is a nuclear Iran intolerable, justifying military action to prevent?

Iran has worked to establish nuclear energy technology since the 1950s.
Yet, concerns arose regarding these developments after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and as it ramped up efforts to revive its civilian nuclear programs during the 1990s.
Nuclear power in Iran When it was revealed in 2002 and 2003 that it had developed clandestine research into fuel enrichment and conversion, fears were raised about its nuclear program being used to develop nuclear weapons. As it has moved forward with it nuclear program, defying UN mandates and calls for it to open its program to inspections, and as it appears to come closer to developing the capacity for a nuclear weapon, many have asked whether a nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable. The implications of the answers to this question are critical. If the answer is “no”, then military action may be viewed as a just response, obviously after all diplomatic means have been exhausted. Others argue that a nuclear Iran is not such an intolerable thing, or at least it is not so intolerable as to justify launching major strikes against it nuclear program and risking various forms of retaliation from Iran in response.

Nuclear threat: Would Iran indiscriminately use nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons in radical Iran are an intolerable risk

Iran’s leadership holds radical, Islamic views that make it more likely than other countries to take-up the risk of using a nuclear weapon. This radical ideology discounts the faculty of reason, making it difficult to count on Iran making a sound cost-benefit analysis that using a nuclear weapon is not in their interests, and would, likely, lead to their annihilation. In this way, the risks that the Iranian regime will use its nuclear weapons against another country are intolerably high.

General statements that a nuclear Iran is intolerable

US President George Bush: “The international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapons. Iran would be dangerous if it had a nuclear weapon.”[1]

Iran has pledged not to use WMD.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, has already stated that using WMDs is against Islamic beliefs, and has forbidden the government of Iran from developing Nuclear Weapons.

Iran can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon

Senior Associate and Director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment Joseph Cirincione stated on April 4th, 2006, “The threat from an Iranian nuclear bomb is not that Iran is going to get the bomb and attack the United States, or attack Israel, or that they are going to give it to a terrorist group to wage those attacks. No, deterrence is alive and well. Iran understands that such an attack would be the last attack of its regime. It would be a regime suicide move to actually use the bomb.”[2]

Fearing a nuclear Iran strengthens the country

Sanam Vakil of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies said in an October, 2008 NPR debate on the nuclearization of Iran that the world is making Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “stronger everyday by paying attention to him.”

A nuclear Iran is not generally a major security risk

Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, told a conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “I don’t see any threat to the United States coming from Iran anytime soon.”[4]

Israel: Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat to Israel?

A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in May of 2008: “Yes, Israel will not tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of people who say openly, explicitly and publicly that they want to wipe Israel off the map. Why should we?”

A nuclear Iran will be more aggressive toward Israel

Daniel Brumberg, an Iran and Middle East expert at Georgetown University, said in 2004: “Right at the top I’d put what I’d call the Israel issue. If Iran has an effective nuclear deterrent, its allies, particularly Hizbullah, might feel emboldened and that they have the cover to pursue a more hostile approach to Israel.”[5]

Iran will not try to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons

Former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevi said in June of 2008, “Iran is no threat to Israel’s existence. The Middle East nations know Israel cannot be destroyed.”[6]

Israel can fully deter and defend against Iran

"Opposing View: Iranian Bomb 'Intolerable'". USA Today. November 20, 2007

“Israel, with its conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction, is amply capable of assuring its own military deterrence and defence, whatever Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thinks or says.”

Israel's anti-missiles can protect against nuclear Iran

"'Arrow can fully protect against Iran'". Jerusalem Post. March 30, 2007

“Recent modifications made to the Arrow enable Israel’s ballistic missile defense system to successfully intercept and destroy any ballistic missile in the Middle East, including nuclear-capable missiles under development by Iran, Arieh Herzog, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Homa Missile Defense Agency, has told The Jerusalem Post.”

Terrorist threat: Would Iran supply a nuclear weapon to terrorists?

A nuclear Iran may supply the weapon to terrorists

"Opposing View: Iranian Bomb 'Intolerable'". USA Today. November 20, 2007

“The dangers an Iranian bomb would present are intolerable. Iran is the pre-eminent sponsor of terrorism. Iranian weapons are responsible for a large share of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Our forces in Afghanistan have intercepted Iranian arms shipments to the Taliban. Argentina has indicted Iranian officials for blowing up a Buenos Aires Jewish center. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Tehran was behind Hamas’ armed takeover of Gaza. Iran provides haven to fugitive leaders of al-Qaeda. The list goes on. […] A nuclear attack by terrorists would be almost impossible to deter. Against whom would we threaten retaliation?”

A nuclear Iran would be more inclined to support terrorism

"The World Cannot Live With the Threat of a Nuclear Iran". US News and World Report. March 23, 2009

“[Nuclear Iran] will be emboldened to use terrorism to threaten or subvert others in the area—especially those who might be inclined to pursue peace with Israel.”

Iran would be deterred from giving nucs to terrorists

"Opposing View: Iranian Bomb 'Intolerable'". USA Today. November 20, 2007

“The danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons exists, if barely. This would be possible only with a nuclear state’s complicity. The political plausibility of any government giving terrorists control of such weapons is next to nil, considering the risks involved for the benefactor state. The technical and logistical complexity of such an operation would also be great.”

Middle East: Is a nuclear Iran intolerable to Middle East security?

A nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in the Middle East

Even if Iran opts not to use a nuclear weapon, there are major additional risks. It’s possession of a nuclear weapon would make it much more likely to act aggressively in the international system through conventional means or through its sponsorship of terrorism. Nuclear weapons will support such aggression because it will make other states think twice about responding aggressively, out of fear that Iran will then respond with nuclear strikes.

"Can Iran Be Contained?". American Enterprise Institute. November 5, 2008

“An Iranian nuclear first strike might be the nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers, but it is not the most likely one. Should Tehran acquire nuclear arms, the Iranian leadership may feel itself so immune from consequence that it has no obstacles to conventional aggression, whether direct or by proxy. While Western officials may think that the United States can deter Iran, Iranian officials may believe that their nuclear capability will enable them to deter the West. Indeed, in September 2005, the hard-line monthly Ma’refat opined, ‘Deterrence does not belong just to a few superpowers,'”

Allies of Middle East will prevent a nuclear Iran from dominating

Dr. Barry Posen writes in a February 28, 2006 article in the New York Times: “Because many of Iran’s neighbors lack nuclear weapons, it’s possible that Iran could use a nuclear capacity to blackmail such states into meeting demands – for example, to raise oil prices, cut oil production or withhold cooperation with the United States. But many of Iran’s neighbors are allies of the United States, which holds a strategic stake in their autonomy and is unlikely to sit by idly as Iran blackmails, say, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that these states would capitulate to a nuclear Iran rather than rely on an American deterrent threat. To give in to Iran once would leave them open to repeated extortion.”[7]

Iran's military cannot project force in Middle East

Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said to the USA Today in 2007: “Iran represents ‘a force that has to be taken seriously in the defense of its country, but it has very little capacity to project outside the country. Iran cannot seriously engage the U.S. for any length of time. In an asymmetric capacity perhaps, but not in conventional warfare.”[8]

Iran is more concerned about self-defense than aggression

Iran is more focused on national defense than using military power and nuclear weapons to increase its influence in the region. Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies expressed this view in an interview with the USA Today.[9]

Arms race: Would a nuclear Iran spark an international arms race?

A nuclear Iran will spark an international arms race

An October 2005 report by the Army's Strategic Studies Institute

argues that, “Iran’s continued insistence that it acquired its nuclear capabilities legally under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would, if unchallenged, encourage its neighbors (including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Turkey,and Algeria) to develop nuclear options of their own by emulating Iran’s example, by overtly declaring possession (in Israel’s case)or by importing nuclear weapons (in Saudi Arabia’s case). Such announcements and efforts, in turn, would likely undermine nuclear nonproliferation restraints internationally and strain American relations with most of its key friends in the Middle East.”

Richard Russell writes in an October 2005 article titled “Arab Security Responses to a Nuclear-Ready Iran”: “A deterioration in Turkish-American relations, coupled with failed efforts to gain entry into the EU, over time could lead Ankara to be substantially less confident in NATO’s resolve to come to Turkey’s defense in the event of a military contingency with Iran. The Turks might then calculate that they need to have their own, independent nuclear deterrent as a hedge against Iran’s nuclear forces, as well as future nuclear weapons aspirants to Turkey’s southern borders.”[10]

A nuclear-armed Iran will not provoke a Middle East arms race

Dr. Barry Posen writes in a February 28th article in the New York Times: “A Middle Eastern arms race is a frightening thought, but it is improbable. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, among its neighbors, only Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could conceivably muster the resources to follow suit. Israel is already a nuclear power. Cairo depends on foreign assistance, which would make Egypt vulnerable to the enormous international pressure it would most likely face to refrain from joining an arms race. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has the money to acquire nuclear weapons and technology on the black market, but possible suppliers are few and very closely watched. To develop the domestic scientific, engineering and industrial base necessary to build a self-sustaining nuclear program would take Saudi Arabia years. In the interim, the Saudis would need nuclear security guarantees from the United States or Europe, which would in turn apply intense pressure on Riyadh not to develop its own arms. Finally, Turkey may have the resources to build a nuclear weapon, but as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it relied on American nuclear guarantees against the mighty Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. There’s no obvious reason to presume that American guarantees would seem insufficient relative to Iran.”[11]

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