Iran After the Bomb

How Would a Nuclear-Armed Tehran Behave?

by Alireza Nader

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Research Questions

  1. How would nuclear arms affect Iran's fundamental interests and strategies?
  2. What factors are likely to influence a nuclear-armed Iran's calculations?
  3. How likely is Iran to use nuclear weapons against the GCC or Israel?
  4. How would a nuclear-armed Iran be likely to work with terrorist groups such as Hizballah or Hamas?

Abstract

This report explores how a nuclear-armed Iran would behave, if it would act aggressively, and what this would entail for the United States and its main regional allies, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel. The Islamic Republic seeks to undermine what it perceives to be the American-dominated order in the Middle East and to deter a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack, but it does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations. Nuclear arms are unlikely to change its fundamental interests and strategies. Rather, they would probably reinforce Iran's traditional national security objectives. The ideological beliefs of the Iranian political elite will not shape the country's nuclear decisionmaking. The regional geopolitical environment and Iran's political, military, and economic capabilities will have a greater bearing on Iranian calculations. It is very unlikely that Iran would use nuclear weapons against another Muslim state or against Israel, given the latter's overwhelming conventional and nuclear military superiority. Further, the Iranian government does not use terrorism for ideological reasons. Instead, Iran's support for terrorism is motivated by cost and benefit calculations, with the aims of maintaining deterrence and preserving or expanding its influence in the Middle East. An inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran is a dangerous possibility, but there is not much evidence to suggest that rogue elements could have easy access to Iranian nuclear weapons.

Key Findings

  • The Islamic Republic is a revisionist state that seeks to undermine what it perceives to be the American-dominated order in the Middle East. However, it does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations.
  • Nuclear arms would probably reinforce Iran's traditional national security objectives, including deterring a U.S. or Israeli attack.
  • Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against other Muslim countries, particularly in view of its diminishing influence and deteriorating economy; it is unlikely to use them against Israel given Israel's overwhelming military superiority.
  • The Iranian government does not use terrorism for ideological reasons. Instead, Iran's support for terrorism is motivated by cost and benefit calculations, with the aims of maintaining deterrence and preserving or expanding its influence in the Middle East.
  • Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East. An inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran is a dangerous possibility. However, there is not much evidence to suggest that rogue elements could have easy access to Iranian nuclear weapons, even if the Islamic Republic were to collapse.
  • Elements of the political elite, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be fervent Mahdists or millenarians, but their beliefs are not directly related to nuclear weapons and will not shape Iran's nuclear decisionmaking.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Islamic Republic: A Revisionist Yet Restrained Power

  • Chapter Three

    Nuclear Iran and the Persian Gulf

  • Chapter Four

    Nuclear Iran and Israel

  • Chapter Five

    Nuclear Iran and Terrorism

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion and Findings

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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