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Iran: The Worst-Case Scenarios

By Fatemeh Aman The Iranian military conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf in early April (file photo) (Fars) What is the greatest danger that a nuclear Iran might pose? The short answer: The highly destabilizing effect on a conflict-ridden region, and not the possibility of Iran using a nuclear weapon or transferring a weapon to terrorists, argues a leading U.S. expert on nuclear proliferation. The other major danger? A major U.S. military strike within months.

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) – The question of how to respond to Iran's nuclear program, for months one of the key security issues on the world's agenda, looks certain to become the subject of even greater debate after the publication of a new article in the latest issue of the "New Yorker" magazine.

A leading U.S. investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, concluded that "there is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President [George] Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change" -- and that planning for a military attack and clandestine activities are developing at a "high tempo."

Just how dangerous Iran currently is and what the United State's response should be was the subject of a discussion at RFE/RL's Washington bureau on April 7 with Joseph Cirincione, the head of the nuclear nonproliferation program at a U.S.-based think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

His conclusions were that military action should not currently be on the agenda and that the key danger posed by a nuclear Iran is not the direct threat of nuclear war, but nuclear proliferation coupled with regional instability.

"The Arab Sunni rivals of Iran could not allow Iran to gain the military, diplomatic, and political leverage that would accrue to a state acquiring a nuclear weapon or even a state that is seen on the path to a nuclear weapon."

Cirincione argued that states acquire nuclear weapons for two reasons: to boost security and prestige. No state -- with the exception of the United States during World War II -- has ever acquired a nuclear weapon with the intention of using it, he argued.

And no state has ever transferred nuclear weapons to a group it could not control -- that is simply not in its self-interest. Cirincione therefore believes Iran is unlikely ever to transfer nuclear-weapons technology to terrorists.

Instead, a far greater danger if Iran -- a non-Arab, Shi'ite Muslim state -- does obtain nuclear weapons is the destabilizing effect on its neighbors, he believes.

"The Arab Sunni rivals of Iran could not allow Iran to gain the military, diplomatic, and political leverage that would accrue to a state acquiring a nuclear weapon or even a state that is seen on the path to a nuclear weapon," Cirincione said, predicting swift responses if Iran's neighbors discovered that Iran "either had a weapon or had a program that was soon to acquire a weapon. Other countries would start recalculating their nuclear options."

The reactions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to a nuclear Iran would be particularly unpredictable.

With many political, territorial, and ethnic issues in the region both unresolved and "volatile," Cirincione predicts that conflicts could have the potential to "quickly go nuclear."

The expansion of nuclear states around the globe would also bring about the final collapse of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

What Should The United States Do?

"Iran has six or seven possible and likely responses [to a military strike], all of which are devastating to regional and international security."

For Cirincione, another worst-case scenario would unroll if the United States were to launch a major air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in the next few months. He says the reason British officials, among others, oppose a possible military option is not because military action is impossible or that it would not work. In fact, a limited air strike against a "choke point," such as the Iranian uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, would likely disrupt Iran's nuclear program for a long time. The problem, according to Circinione, is what happens then.

"Iran has six or seven possible and likely responses, all of which are devastating to regional and international security," he argues. "They could, of course, strike back militarily, directly with strikes against the United States and Iraq or allies such as Israel. That's possible, although I would consider it unlikely. They could take military action to block the Strait of Hormuz. That's possible. They could stop selling oil. They could use their connections with Hizbullah, whom they fund generously every year to launch terrorist strikes against U.S. interests."

Cirincione added that Iran could also appeal to Shi'ite colleagues in Iraq to launch strikes against U.S. interests, or to the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government, asking it to order the United States out of Iraq.

Cirincione believes the diplomatic options for the United States are far from exhausted.

"If the U.S. goal is to stop the Iranian program, there are many ways to do that, including making a deal with the existing Iranian regime, negotiating with the Iranian regime, doing with Iran what we did with Libya -- guaranteeing the security of the regime in exchange for an end to the nuclear activities," he said.

"If your goal is to change that regime, then you cannot negotiate. Then, you are not looking for a deal."

The United States and the international diplomatic community also have the advantage of time. A major U.S. intelligence report on Iran, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), concluded in the summer of 2005 that Iran is five to 10 years away from being able to enrich uranium for use in military weapons.

"And just two months ago, the director of U.S. national intelligence, John Negroponte, testified to Congress that Iran could not have a nuclear weapon until about 2015, stretching it out even more from the August NIE," Cirincione added.

Iran's nuclear program is not an urgent problem, Cirincione believes. He therefore advocates removing military action from the current agenda. And, he stressed, the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program should be evaluated by experts -- not just by politicians.

What Would Sanctions Mean?

What Would Sanctions Mean?

Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)

MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.