Vol. 5, No. 5 29 September 2005
What If Iran Gets the Bomb?
The Iranian Challenge to the West
The Iranians are conducting a clandestine nuclear program in parallel to the public one, the aim of which is clearly the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Israeli intelligence assessment speaks of three or four years; the Americans add another year or two to this timetable.
The Americans conducted a large-scale operation in Iraq in order to bring down a regime which was engaged, it was thought at the time, in supporting terrorism and having weapons of mass destruction programs. Iran is clearly in the same category, and therefore it is concerned about an American/Israeli operation against its nuclear facilities.
From the Israeli viewpoint, an Iranian bomb will mean that for the first time an enemy country - and Iran is an enemy country by all definitions - will acquire the capability to inflict a very heavy blow on Israel. The more so since the formal Iranian position is that Israel should disappear from the map, that the solution of the Palestinian problem should be the establishment of a Palestinian state not alongside Israel but instead of Israel. No Arab government today holds such a position.
A nuclear Iran has to take into account certain important constraints. One is American deterrence. The Iranians have no doubt about the balance of power between themselves and the Americans. And if they had any doubts, the American conduct of the war in Iraq left no doubt about American capabilities. The Iranians must also take into account that if Iran uses a nuclear bomb against any of the allies of the U.S., especially against Israel, America will regard this as an attack against itself, and will react accordingly.
If Iran acquires the bomb, it will encourage other countries in the Middle East to join this nuclear arms race, especially Egypt, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, and Syria. It would be difficult for a country like Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, to stay out of this circle.
The Failure of the Reformists
Iran has been undergoing important domestic change since the late 1980s, in fact, since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This change is reflected by the fact that the Iranian political system is now more open, there is more freedom. People allow themselves to criticize the regime or at least the policy of the regime. People speak more freely.
After the election of former president Muhammad Khatami in 1997, a majority in parliament was captured by those who wanted reform. The elected institutions in Iran - the presidency, the parliament, many municipal councils - were in the hands of reformists, moderates who wanted change, while the unelected institutions - the army, the revolutionary guards, the legal system, the economic system, and, above all, the spiritual leadership - remained in the hands of the radical wing of the regime.
There were many expectations. Immediately after his election, former president Khatami referred to his admiration of Western culture and suggested a dialogue between the Iranian people and the American people. The feeling was that things were moving toward further important changes inside Iran and in its foreign policy, but this has not happened. During the last two years, change has occurred in the other direction, which means the reformists lost their strongholds one by one. They lost a majority in many municipal councils; last year they lost the majority in the parliament; and this year they lost their last stronghold, the presidency, when a radical president was elected.
The election of a radical as the new president of Iran was not a surprise because there was no chance that a reformist would be elected this time. The surprise was that an unknown politician like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Teheran and an ultra-radical, won. He won because he managed to deliver a message that he's going to take care of the poor and transfer money from the rich to the poor. Many of the poor people voted for him. The other reason he won is that the radical establishment and spiritual leader Ali Khamenei himself supported him.
What are the reasons for the failure of the reformists in the last two years? Although they had a leader, former president Khatami, he was not determined enough to lead the struggle and eventually many of those who wanted change despaired of the current situation and didn't come to the polls to vote.
In the short run, the election of the new president is a clear victory for the radical establishment and for Khamenei, but the president doesn't have much ability to change foreign policy. Even with eight years of Khatami as president, he did not manage to advance his call for improving relations with the United States. He did not differ with regard to Iran's nuclear policy, and he never said one positive word with regard to Israel.
Iran's Drive to Acquire Nuclear Weapons
The other bad news relates to the nuclear arena. Beginning three years ago, there have been a series of revelations regarding the Iranian nuclear program. We know now about an entire series of nuclear sites which had been unknown before. The Iranians are conducting a clandestine nuclear program in parallel to the public one, under the title of building a full nuclear fuel cycle, the aim of which - though not of course admitted by the Iranians - is clearly the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The bottom line is that Iran is close to having these weapons. The Israeli intelligence assessment speaks of three or four years, which means they need about another year to get control of the technology, and another year or two to gather a sufficient amount of fissile material, probably highly enriched uranium, and then to turn it into an atomic bomb. The Americans add another year or two to this timetable. In the past, both the American and Israeli intelligence communities were mistaken, predicting since 1992 that Iran would acquire its first bomb in five to eight years. This was not accurate because it is difficult to make a really accurate assessment. But three to five years is the timetable we have to think about until Iran acquires its first atomic bomb.
Iran is under heavy pressure emanating from American military moves around Iran, mostly in Afghanistan and more importantly in Iraq. Iran is now encircled by pro-American regimes and in some of the countries bordering on Iran there are American troops. The message of the American move into Iraq is very clear to the Iranians. The Americans conducted a large-scale operation in Iraq in order to bring down a regime which was engaged, it was thought at the time, in supporting terrorism and having weapons of mass destruction programs. Iran is clearly in the same category. According to the American definition, Iran is the country most involved in terrorism around the world.
Consideration of a Pre-emptive Strike
The American administration under President Bush is indicating quite clearly that it is not ignoring the military option with regard to the Iranian program if the diplomatic option fails. The outcome is that Iran is very much concerned about an American/Israeli operation against its nuclear facilities.
There is very little to compare when considering a possible military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities and the case of the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981. The Iranian site is much better protected. It's not a matter of one plant, as in the Iraqi case, but a series of three or four important sites. Some of them are deep underground, and the Iranians may have some secret sites we don't even know about. Furthermore, even if Iran's known sites are destroyed, it might take Iran a relative short time to rebuild them?
There are other difficulties. Any country that attacks Iran will have to pay a political price, especially Israel. Even those who may benefit from such an attack will condemn it. In addition, Iran can respond to an attack, unlike Iraq in 1981. It can respond, for example, by using Hizballah to fire its large rocket system against the north of Israel. It can try to disrupt the oil flow from the Gulf area. It can act against American targets in the Middle East and the Gulf area. And Iran says explicitly that if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear sites, it will respond by using its new operational missile, the Shihab III, which can reach Israeli targets.
The bottom line is that to carry out such an attack is a huge mission. It may be necessary to repeat such an attack two or three times because one attack may not be enough. In my judgment, it's a matter for a superpower to consider, not a local power, even if its name is Israel.
A Change in European Attitudes
Another outcome of the revelations about the Iranian nuclear program has been a real change in position by many European governments and, above all, the French government, which until a few years ago did not believe that the Iranians really intended to acquire the bomb.
Since 2003 the International Atomic Energy Agency, with the encouragement of the European governments and the blessing of the American government, has been sending inspectors to the Iranians' known nuclear sites, and the agency publishes a report every three months about the Iranian nuclear program. All of these reports very harshly criticize the Iranians for hiding their activities. On the other hand, the agency has failed to declare that the Iranians are violating their commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that they are really aiming to acquire the bomb.
The European governments, backed by the American administration, have been conducting negotiations for the last two years with the Iranian government in order to find some compromise which will stop, if not end, the Iranian nuclear program. In my judgment, on the one hand, Iran is not going to give up its nuclear program. For the Iranians this is a national project. There is much agreement inside the Iranian establishment to continue this program and they say it explicitly, without any reservations.
On the other hand, the European governments did manage to conclude two agreements with the Iranians - one in October 2003 and the other in November 2004 - to at least temporarily suspend their nuclear activities. These temporary agreements did manage to delay the Iranian timetable for acquiring the bomb by perhaps one year.
If the negotiations with Iran fail, the next step could be to refer the matter to the UN Security Council, but it is not at all clear that the council will impose sanctions on Iran. While the Americans and the Europeans will support such a move, the position of the Russians and the Chinese is not at all clear and either could veto such a resolution. And if they don't veto, are there real, substantial sanctions that could be imposed on Iran?
Furthermore, both China and especially Russia are important partners of Iran, especially in the economic field. The Russians are investing a lot of money in Iran, and are building the nuclear plant in Bushehr. The Chinese are supplying the Iranian army with military material and technology. In addition, both Russia and China regard American attempts to contain Iranian nuclear efforts as manifestation of American patronage over the Middle East, and they want to contain that too.
Can a Political Deal be Struck?
To what extent can we expect a grand deal between the Western world and Iran like the one that took place with Libya? The conditions for such a deal are clear to both sides. Iran is required to give up its nuclear program, give up its involvement in terrorism, and not try to disrupt the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Europeans add a fourth condition, which is better treatment of human rights inside Iran. The Iranians want guarantees for their security, especially on the part of America which poses the main threat to Iran. They want agreements on large-scale technological assistance by the West, especially with regard to the oil sector. Iran would also like to have greater influence on what happens in its neighborhood, especially in the Persian Gulf area, and recognition of their interests in that area.
Yet despite the fact that there has been some dialogue between the Iranians and the American administration for the past five years, there is no trust between the parties and without that, no real dialogue has developed.
The key obstacle is the position of the Iranian regime. The radical wing of the regime is refusing to negotiate with the Americans on substantial issues because the lack of a relationship with the United States is one of the last symbols of their revolution. If they initiate a real dialogue with the United States, or even with Israel, what is left of the revolution? So they are not willing to give this up.
The Israeli Perspective
So what happens if Iran acquires the bomb? For some Israeli leaders, this is the most significant strategic threat, especially considering that Israel is not bothered about Egyptian or Jordanian threats, the Syrian threat is relatively limited, and Iraq is now out of the picture.
An Iranian bomb will mean that for the first time an enemy country - and Iran is an enemy country by all definitions - will acquire the capability to inflict a very heavy blow on Israel. The more so since the formal Iranian position is that Israel should disappear from the map, that the solution of the Palestinian problem should be the establishment of a Palestinian state not alongside Israel but instead of Israel. Even more moderate leaders like Khatami said specifically: The Jews should go back to their countries of origin; the State of Israel should be part of the Palestinian state. No Arab government today holds such a position.
Why is Iran So Hostile to Israel?
Why is Iran so hostile to Israel? Before the establishment of the regime, Khomeini and his followers regarded Israel as a political entity which should not exist for several reasons: Israel is occupying Muslim territory and suppressing Muslim people, the Palestinians; Israel is controlling Muslim holy sites, especially Jerusalem.
The Israelis are also regarded by the Iranians as linked to the United States and to the former hated regime of the Shah. In addition, there is the security aspect. Since the early 1990s, the Iranians have come to regard Israel as a threat to their regional aspirations.
A State Sponsor of Terror
Continued Iranian assistance to Hizballah and, for the last three years, substantial assistance to Islamic Jihad and Hamas inside the Palestinian territories has become part of the game. By supporting Palestinian terrorism, Iran continues its struggle against Israel, while Iran pays no price for its actions. They have never been punished by Israel, the Americans, or anyone for their support of terrorism.
However, since the 9/11 terror attack, the Iranians are much more cautious on the question of sponsoring terrorists. They understand very well that fighting terrorism has become a key issue around the world and they cannot associate themselves with terrorist organizations. They are making an effort to show a clear distinction between themselves and al-Qaeda or other radical Islamic organizations. From time to time they leak reports to the press that they have arrested some al-Qaeda operatives inside Iran, where some of them indeed moved after the American operation in Afghanistan.
The Iranians have spoken of "the export of revolution" to other Muslim countries, especially during the first decade under Khomeini. However, since the 1990s, we have heard much less about this idea for two reasons. First, the Iranians were not very successful in exporting the revolution to any country. Second, they learned very quickly that the concept of "exporting the revolution" alienated many governments against the Iranians. So they made it clear that "exporting revolution" did not refer to using force but to providing a model for other countries.
The Iranians have taken advantage of the vacuum in Iraq which has existed for the last two years in order to improve relations with the Shi'ite community in that country. Certain Shi'ite organizations get a lot of money from Iran. The Iranians are also sending all kinds of instructors to Iraq. While the Americans are trying to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, in the long run it could be significant. However, I don't see an axis of Shi'ite Iraq and Shi'ite Iran. There is a lot of animosity between the two countries after a very traumatic war between them. Yet Iran's position in Iraq is much better today than what it was under Saddam Hussein's regime and this should be a matter of concern.
Constraints on Iran's Use of the Bomb
A nuclear Iran has to take into account certain important constraints. One is American deterrence. The Iranians have no doubt about the balance of power between themselves and the Americans. And if they had any doubts, the American conduct of the war in Iraq left no doubt about American capabilities. The Iranians must also take into account that if Iran uses a nuclear bomb against any of the allies of the United States, especially against Israel, the U.S. will regard this as an attack against itself, and will react accordingly.
Another constraint involves Iran's reasons for seeking a nuclear bomb. One reason is deterrence. The Iranians started their nuclear program back in the late 1980s because Iraq was intending to acquire the bomb. Iraq was perceived as the most important threat to Iran and the Iranians wanted an answer to this threat. In Iran's view, the Iraqi threat was replaced in the 1990s by the American threat. Israel is seen as a limited threat, but the Americans are projecting the most important threat from the Iranian viewpoint and the Iranians want an answer to this threat.
Moreover, the Iranians regard their nuclear capability as a very important symbol for acquiring hegemony in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf area. If I'm correct that the Iranians want a bomb mostly for deterrence and not so much for offensive intentions, Iran is not likely to waste this weapon, once it acquires it, against a country like Israel that does not pose a real threat to its existence.
Consequences of a Nuclear Iran
However, even if Iran is not going to use the bomb against anybody including Israel, there are still very negative implications from its acquisition of the bomb. First, if Iran acquires the bomb, it will encourage other countries in the Middle East to join this nuclear arms race, especially Egypt, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, and Syria. It would be difficult for a country like Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, to stay out of this circle.
Secondly, an Iran with the bomb is going to be a more aggressive country. This could be seen, for example, in encouragement of Hizballah to initiate new attacks against Israel. It could be in the field of oil prices. With the safety net of a nuclear capability, Iran might behave differently and more aggressively.
Finally, Iran with the bomb is going to be the cornerstone of the radical camp in the Muslim world and in the Middle East as well. More moderate countries like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will have to accommodate themselves more than in the past to this new situation in which a central radical country will have the bomb.
Despite the trends of the last two years, which were negative ones for the reformists, change in Iran will continue because there is a genuine demand for a change. The younger generation in Iran, which now is the majority of the population, demands more personal freedom, more political freedom, less corruption, a better life, and a better economy. If this is the will of most of the Iranian people, it's going to be very difficult for the radical regime to contain this change. At the end of all this I expect a dialogue between Iran and the United States, and a dialogue between Iran and Israel. And if this is to be the case, even if Iran has the bomb by that time, the bomb will have a different meaning.
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Dr. Ephraim Kam has served as Deputy Head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University since 1995. He previously served as a colonel in the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence. He specializes in security problems of the Middle East, Iranian strategy, Israeli national security issues, and strategic intelligence. His publications include: Surprise Attack: The Victim's Perspective (1988); The Changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Implications on the Middle East (1991, Hebrew); The Political Framework of the Palestinian Entity (1993, Hebrew); and From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat (2004, Hebrew). This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on July 26, 2005.
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