Think Again: A Nuclear Iran


May 29, 2013

the Shrine of the Tomb of Imam Reza

photo by A. Davey/

This commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy and Newsday on May 28, 2013.

“Iran Is an Irrational Actor”

Wrong. It's as clear as day that the Islamic Republic pursues goals in the Middle East that put it on a collision course with the United States. Iran is opposed to Israel as a Jewish state, for instance, and competes for regional influence with the conservative Gulf Arab monarchies. But that doesn't mean it is irrational: On the contrary, its top leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is deliberative and calculating. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's antics and often wild rhetoric shouldn't obscure the fact that the Islamic Republic is interested in its own survival above all else. When contemplating the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, we should all be grateful that notions of martyrdom and apocalyptic beliefs don't have a significant pull on Iranian decision-making.

Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons capability is motivated by deterrence, not some messianic effort to bring about the end times. The Islamic Republic has a relatively weak conventional military that is no match for U.S. and most Western forces — most of its regular naval and ground forces operate equipment from the 1960s and 1970s. It has tried to make up for this through a doctrine of asymmetry: It has supported terrorist and insurgent groups across the Middle East and created a “guerrilla” navy, which — at best — might be able to swarm U.S. ships and interrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf. This is all meant to prevent U.S.-driven regime change.

Nukes could provide the ultimate deterrent for an insecure regime. And Iran has a lot to be insecure about: It is a Shia and Persian-majority theocracy surrounded by hostile Sunni Arabs, which has recently watched the United States overrun unfriendly regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with relative ease. The regime perceives both conflicts as having damaged U.S. credibility and power — but knows this is no guarantee it can protect itself in a future conflict against the vastly superior American military without a nuclear bomb.

As dangerous as it is, Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons makes logical sense. And it isn't an effort that is unique to the Islamic Republic: Any Iranian political system, whether imperial, theocratic, or democratic, would at least consider a nuclear weapons capability. Although a nuclear-armed Iran would be a dangerous development, a closer look demonstrates that it could well be a containable challenge for the United States and its allies.

“Iran Would Nuke Israel”

No way. Khamenei may describe Israel as a “cancer that must be removed,” but he doesn't wake up every morning thinking of destroying Israel. The Islamic Republic's hatred for Israel is real, but its policies toward Israel are more pragmatic than often assumed.

Iran's leadership sees Israel through the prism of the shah's cozy, under-the-table relations with Tel Aviv. While the shah viewed an Iranian-Israeli alliance as a tool to contain communism and pan-Arabism, the Islamic Republic sees Israel as an outpost of Western “colonialism” in the region. The revolutionary regime sees the “liberation” of Muslims, especially Palestinians, as one of its core foreign-policy objectives.

But beyond ideology, opposition to Israel offers the Islamic Republic several practical benefits. It notably alleviates Iran's own regional isolation in the Middle East, providing a unifying goal that appeals to Sunni Arabs and distracts from Iran's espousal of Shia clerical rule.

Iran is likely to oppose Israel as long as its revolutionary system exists, providing military and financial support to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. But the Iranian regime is not fanatical in its perceptions of Israel. For example, Tehran has hesitated to attack Israel with its own missiles, as it fears the Israeli reaction. Any Iranian nuclear attack against Israel would certainly mean massive Israeli and U.S. retaliation, and the regime's destruction.

From Khamenei's point of view, Israel's existence is a much better alternative than a nuclear war resulting in mutual destruction. The regime can blame Israel for all the region's woes, taking some pressure off itself. Hence, the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders in Syria is not due to Tehran's opposition to Sunni insurgents, but ascribed by the regime to “Zionist plots.”

This, however, does not eliminate the possibility of an inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran, especially given the lack of communication between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Iran's development of nukes would, at the very least, necessitate a clearer line of communication between Tehran and Washington.

“Nuclear Weapons Would Embolden Iran”

Not quite. A common fear of a nuclear Iran is not that it would use nukes directly against rivals such as Saudi Arabia, but that it would become more aggressive in undermining conservative Arab regimes. A nuclear-armed Iran, for example, might feel more secure in impeding shipping through the Strait of Hormuz or stoking unrest in the Persian Gulf.

In reality, however, a nuclear bomb would not be of much use to Iranian efforts to spread its influence across the Middle East. The Saudis and their allies, including the Sunni-dominated Bahraini regime, often claim that Iran uses minority Shia populations as a fifth column to further its own ambitions. It is true that Iran has supported Shia seditionists in the past — Tehran was tied to a 1981 attempt by Shia groups to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy — but today, its influence is rather limited. The Shia-led revolt in Bahrain is not being directed from Tehran, but is the result of the Bahraini government's repression of its own population. Saudi fears of Iranian machinations should not obscure the real reasons for instability in some Gulf Arab states.

Many Arabs now realize that the Islamic Republic is not so different than their own repressive regimes, especially after having witnessed Tehran's brutal reaction to the 2009 post-election protests. Iran's continued support of the violent Syrian regime has also undermined its position in the region. Moreover, most Gulf Shia do not appear to be devoted followers of Ayatollah Khamenei, but instead follow other religious leaders, such as Iraq's Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Tehran's possession of nuclear weapons is unlikely to increase its influence with them.

A nuclear-armed Iran would still be economically dependent on the Gulf Arab states in any case. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful player in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), whereas Iran's position has declined in recent years. Riyadh's increased energy exports to Iran's traditional customers, mostly Asian countries, have allowed the United States to impose sanctions on Iran without a dramatic rise in oil prices. Iran also depends heavily on the United Arab Emirates — despite sanctions, the emirate of Dubai serves as Iran's economic gateway to the outside world. A nuclear Iran would still have to consider its economic health: Meddling with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz could damage its interests more so than those of its neighbors.

The Islamic Republic might not give up its opposition to the Gulf Arab states any time soon, but its ability to undermine the regional order is quite limited — and will remain so, even if it obtains nuclear weapons.

“Iran Would Extend Its Nuclear Deterrence Over 'Proxies'”

Don't be so sure. American and Israeli analysts often worry that Hezbollah and Hamas would be emboldened by a nuclear-armed Iran. They fear that these “proxies” could attack Israel with reckless abandon, secure in their knowledge that Israel could not respond aggressively for fear of provoking a nuclear conflict.

First of all, the term “proxy” is problematic. Hezbollah has to protect its own domestic interests first, despite its close religious and ideological ties to Tehran. The Lebanese paramilitary organization may have been armed and equipped by Iran, and appears to be working closely with Tehran in propping up the Syrian regime, but not all of its interests converge with Tehran's ambitions. Given the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon, Hezbollah must appeal to the country's Sunni and Christian communities as well as the Shia. It cannot appear to be a total Iranian pawn. Even if Israel attacked Iran, there is no guarantee that Hezbollah would retaliate, especially given Israel's proven ability to demolish Shia strongholds through airstrikes.

Iran might also hesitate to extend its nuclear umbrella over Hezbollah. The whole point of Iran's patronage of Hezbollah is to expand its regional influence without bringing war to Tehran's doorstep — and risking a nuclear exchange with Tel Aviv undermines that aim. The Iranian regime would prefer others do its fighting for it rather than getting directly involved in a conventional or nuclear war with Israel. Not even Hezbollah is worth the regime's demise.

Iran's establishment of a nuclear umbrella over Hamas is even more unlikely. The Palestinian movement receives Iranian military support, but it has distanced itself from Tehran financially and politically in the wake of the violence in Syria. The Arab Spring has opened up many opportunities for Hamas, with the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood decreasing its isolation. The Hamas leader in-exile, Khaled Mashaal, has taken residence in Qatar and praised Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as a “leader” of the Muslim world.

Similarly, don't expect Khamenei to simply hand nukes over to Iranian “proxies”, empowering them to wreak havoc across the Middle East. The supreme leader does not even trust someone like Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was once responsible for his promotion to the top post in the Islamic Republic but recently disqualified from competing in the upcoming presidential election. Trusting a non-Iranian group with a nuclear weapon would simply be too risky for the risk-averse Khamenei.

“A Nuclear-Armed Iran Cannot Be Contained”

It can be, but not without some cost. Planning for a nuclear-armed Iran is often considered as an admission of U.S. failure to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring the bomb. Some analysts even consider it dangerous: They fear that it signals to American allies, especially Israel, that President Barack Obama might not follow through on his threat to use force if necessary.

In reality, the real choice lies not with Obama, but the Iranian leadership. Iran might successfully go nuclear even if it faces a total economic embargo and military strikes. The nuclear knowledge and technology developed by Tehran, after all, cannot be destroyed by smart bombs and cruise missiles. And a military attack against Iran could convince it that it needs nukes more than ever before.

In truth, the United States has contained Iran, in one way or another, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Tehran has faced sanctions since that time, and the United States has maintained a sizeable military presence in the Persian Gulf for the past three decades to protect its allies and constrain the Islamic Republic's regional ambitions.

There is no denying that containment and deterrence are costly. The United States will have to maintain considerable military forces in the region, and might have to strengthen relations with its Sunni Gulf allies, some of which are the most undemocratic regimes in the Arab world. A nuclear-armed Iran could also suck away resources from the U.S. “pivot” to East Asia.

But the U.S. policy of prevention also has costs. Economic sanctions, although increasing the pressure on the Iranian regime, are also devastating Iran's democratic-leaning and pro-American middle class. If sanctions and diplomacy do not work, an Israeli or U.S. military attack against Iran could not only lead to a prolonged and bloody war, but also set back the hope of democracy in Iran, and the wider region, for generations to come.

Iran appears to be going through a major transformation. Its upcoming presidential election may be engineered by Khamenei, an aging man set in his ways, but Iranian society has changed dramatically since 1979. Iranians want to rejoin the world their culture helped create. The Islamic Republic might be ideological, but it is not irrational, and its own actions, including the pursuit of nuclear capability and support for the Syrian regime, are weakening it in the long term. The Iranian regime is doing a good job of containing its influence all on its own.

A nuclear-armed Iran is a dangerous possibility. But that should not distract American decision-makers from seriously thinking about containment. Containing Iran will be costly, but a policy of pure prevention could be even costlier.

Alireza Nader is senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of Iran After the Bomb.

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