New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


America and a Nuclear-Armed Iran


The following essay was published last week on the Decide America website.  This text was the basis of remarks Dr. Ford delivered to a July 13, 2011, conference on “Perspectives on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge,” sponsored by Hudson Institute and the Partnership for a Secure America.

Good afternoon, and many thanks to the Partnership for a Secure America for helping make this event possible.  In order to leave as much time as possible for our discussions, allow me simply to offer an outline of what I think the stakes are – from an American perspective – as we struggle with the Iranian proliferation challenge.

I.          U.S. Security Interests

(1)           Preventing Nuclear Use Against Us or our Allies

First and most obviously, we have a security interest in preventing the use of nuclear weapons against our country, our forces, and our friends.  Experts disagree about how seriously to take the kind of inflammatory rhetoric one periodically hears from Iranian officials such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – comments such as his expression of desire that Israel be wiped away, a translation which Western apologists have sometimes questioned, but which translators working in Ahmadinejad’s own office and the Iranian Foreign Ministry insist is accurate – but it is certainly true that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons there will necessarily be some danger that Tehran will use them.  One can argue over how “deterrable” such use would be, but even if one thinks Iran could be dissuaded from direct use, it is impossible to rule out unauthorized or inadvertent use.

As far as we know, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – a.k.a. the IRGC, or Pasdaran – is or will be the entity given responsibility for nuclear weapons stewardship in peacetime and employment in time of war.  The IRGC is a notably radicalized organization even within that notably radicalized government, and it has not been above bucking Iran’s political authorities when it feels like it.  (In May 2004, for instance, it forced the closure of Tehran international airport in protest over the government’s decision to allow a Turkish consortium to manage operations there.)  Particularly in time of crisis, one cannot entirely rule out IRGC willfulness.  We also know precious little about Iran’s likely command, control, and communications (C3) system for nuclear weapons.  How much autonomy would be available to IRGC commanders in the field in a crisis?  How reliable would its procedures be for preventing unauthorized use or screening out false alarms?  What would the launch posture be for Iranian nuclear weapons, and what dangers of overreaction or error might be inherent in Iran’s C3 system?  Even “deterred” Iranian weapons would surely present some very real dangers.

(2)       Preventing Terrorist Acquisition of Nuclear Capabilities

Second, we have an interest in preventing terrorist acquisition of Iranian nuclear weapons, material, or technology.  Iran, of course, is the premier sponsor of international terrorism in the world today, providing arms and other support to Hamas in Gaza, treating Hezbollah in Lebanon as nothing less than an overseas instrumentality of the Iranian Revolution, and still playing a prominent role in supplying arms to Shi’ite extremists killing U.S. troops in Iraq.   There is even evidence of at least some Iranian ties to al-Qa’ida terrorists, both before and after 9/11, as detailed by the 9/11 Commission and in recently-published WikiLeaks cables.  Iranian operatives have had roles in terrorist attacks in locations ranging from Buenos Aries to Saudi Arabia, and Iran possesses an extremely large and sophisticated terrorist-support infrastructure.  Indeed, a whole branch of the IRGC – the Qods Force, apparently named for its anticipated role in facilitating Islamic reconquest of the holy city of Jerusalem – exists for the very purpose of managing Iran’s extensive relationships with such groups.

Especially given the scope and depth of Iran’s involvement with international terrorist groups, terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons, material, or technology could come about either deliberately or inadvertently.  It is possible that Iranian officials could permit one or more terrorist organizations such access.  It is not clear how likely such a scenario is, but it might prove a more “deniable” – and thus attractive – alternative to direct nuclear use, especially in time of crisis.  At the very least, the possibility of terrorist access might be an effective risk-manipulation tool for Iran, to dissuade outside involvement in whatever regional quarrels Tehran might choose to pick.

And one cannot rule out the possibility of transfer occurring without top-level Iranian authorization.  Iran has developed a rich network of black or grey market ties around the world for the acquisition of dual-use and weapons-related nuclear technology.  This includes ties not merely to remnants of the infamous A.Q. Khan proliferation network, but also ones involving Russian scientists – both for work on the Bushehr reactor and reportedly on more sinister projects, such as nuclear detonator technology, as well.  Iran also has a network of contacts it used secretly to acquire weapons-grade nuclear material abroad.  According to a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment, for instance, “Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material,” though not – at that point, anyway – enough for a bomb.  This spider web of illicit contacts and transnational nuclear smuggling networks coexists with Iran’s equally murky relationships with terrorist groups.  One cannot rule out contact and cross-pollination between these dangerous shadow worlds.

(3)       Preventing Iranian Domination of the Middle East

Third, the United States has an interest in preventing Iranian domination of the Middle East, and in safeguarding the security of our friends and allies.  Though much Iran-exculpatory hooey has been said and written about the purported role of U.S. nuclear weaponry in creating Iran’s own interest in such tools, the real explanation for Tehran’s nuclear ambitions is likely to be threefold: (1) the clerical regime desires a tool with which to intimidate and overawe its neighbors as part of a strategy of advancing both the Iranian Revolution and the country’s neo-Persian dreams of regional hegemony; (2) the regime desires weaponry with which it feels it can “immunize” itself against outside military intervention, thus taking “off the table” any external check upon Iran’s regional ambitions; and (3) Iran wants nuclear weaponry in hopes of demonstrating its “arrival” as a world power.

Through this prism, the most likely danger is less any possible Iranian intent to use nuclear weapons – at least in the sense of actually detonating them – than how Iran will behave if and when it feels that such weapons allow it to indulge its regional pretensions, and its broader ambitions within the Islamic world or beyond, without fear of regime-ending consequence.  Given how appallingly Iran has behaved over the years without nuclear weapons, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that feels empowered and less inhibited than before is alarming indeed.

(4)       Preventing a “Cascade” of Follow-on Proliferation

Fourth, the United States has an interest in preventing a “cascade” of follow-on proliferation in the Middle East.  It has long been felt by many experts that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead some other regional states to embark upon nuclear weapons programs themselves – either simply for self-protection, or out of a sense of rivalry with Iran for regional leadership.  It’s no longer any secret that regional leaders such as the Saudis have long urged us to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.  If we or the Israelis do not, however, such states have publicly suggested, they will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons alone – a message sent publicly by the Saudis just last month, for example, and by Egypt a year ago. Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey seem poised for their own regional rivalry, also with potential nuclear implications.  Because Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey have now all expressed the desire to develop ambitious nuclear power infrastructures, ostensibly for civilian purposes but arguably beyond their real needs or sometimes even capabilities, this is no idle concern.

(5)       Keeping Peace in the Middle East

Fifth, even apart from such follow-on proliferation, the United States has an interest in keeping the peace in the Middle East – not least because of the impact that conflict there could have on the international oil market and thus upon fragile economies around the world.  This interest is obviously related to the earlier ones I’ve mentioned, but it’s worth spelling out separately.  In the past, Iran’s conflicts with its neighbors have led to attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf and the planting of sea mines in or near the Straits of Hormuz.  More conflict in that troubled region is the last thing anyone needs.

(6)       Preserving the Nonproliferation Regime

Sixth, the United States has an interest in preserving the nonproliferation regime in a form capable of slowing or preventing further nuclear weapons proliferation.  From the mid-1980s until its discovery in late 2002, Iran undertook a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations and the requirements of Articles II and III of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).  This program continued after 2002, partly in secret and partly in plain view – the latter now under the pretense that Iran had to produce fissile material for nuclear power reactors it did not possess and did not need, for which it had no capability to manufacture fuel rods, and which it lacked uranium reserves to fuel anyway.

Today, though now finally faced with modestly serious United Nations sanctions, Iran continues to push ahead with its nuclear work and to thumb its nose at IAEA safeguards, the NPT, and several legally-binding Security Council resolutions.  Yet Iran continues to remain within the NPT, and justifies all of its activities as being ones it has a right to undertake under Article IV of the Treaty, advancing ever more scandalous legal positions in support of this claim – even to the point that it contends that other countries’ refusal to provide it with more nuclear equipment constitutes a violation of the Treaty.

Clearly, the Iranian situation presents an essentially existential threat to the coherence and efficacy of the nonproliferation regime.  If the international community cannot respond effectively to Iran’s proliferation challenges – and so far its responses have been inadequate, sometimes shamefully so – it is hard to see how the regime can survive as a serious bulwark against nonproliferation.  A world in which would-be proliferators can do what Iran has done with all the relative impunity that Iran has enjoyed is a world in which nonproliferation obligations are worth very little indeed.  The United States has an interest in preventing the advent of such a world.

(7)       Preserving the Value of U.S. Alliance Ties

Seventh, the United States has an interest in preserving both the perception and the reality that a security relationship with us can be counted upon when the going gets tough.  We have strong security relationships with a number of states in the region that are threatened by Iran’s ambitions to regional hegemony and pursuit of nuclear weaponry.  In this era of U.S. skittishness about the visible exertion of power overseas and embarrassment about asserting claims to global leadership, coupled with crippling federal deficits at home and continuing economic malaise, our geopolitical stock is not at a high point.  Amidst widespread assumptions of American global decline, we have an interest in preserving the idea that an alliance with us means something.

Just what reaction regional states in the Middle East would have to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry is not certain.  It is possible that many or most of them will choose to follow classical balance-of-power prescriptions and engage in “balancing” behavior in the face of Iranian threats, banding together in countervailing regional alliances.  An alternative scenario, however, might see them concluding that there really isn’t any point in fighting the inevitable – a conclusion that would lead, instead, to “bandwagoning” behavior, with states scrambling to cut deals with the rising Iranian hegemon.  The likelihood of each type of behavior will be conditioned in part by regional impressions of the degree to which we can be counted upon to remain a strong and committed regional player, and a good ally to those in need.  If we send the wrong signal, it will not be overlooked.

Such a dynamic would not have implications only for the Middle East.  After all, that region is not the only area of the world where U.S. allies face a potentially threatening regional hegemon, and look to Washington’s anticipated strategic direction and intestinal fortitude in deciding whether to “balance” or to “bandwagon.”  No one wants to risk fighting a losing battle against a rising power alongside a tired and vacillating ally.  Much may hinge on how reliable a partner we are perceived to be – and our earliest test could easily come in the Gulf.

(8)       Influencing the “Arab Spring”

Eighth and finally, events in Iran matter because they may affect – and be affected by – political trends in the Arab or broader Islamic world.  In particular, the ongoing “Arab Spring” presents both threat and opportunity for Iran.  It is a threat, of course, in that the clerical regime – which faced its own, harshly suppressed “Green Revolution” in late 2009 – could lose everything if democratization really took hold in the region.

But the Arab Spring is also an opportunity for Iran, in that it may provide Tehran chances to hasten the demise of some regional regimes that had staked out positions against Iran’s regional pretensions, chances to build ties to more radicalized religious (and especially Shi’ite) elements that may be empowered by political shifts within regional countries, and chances to exploit the IRGC’s skills at subversion and the stoking of conflicts abroad.  Whomever prevails in the internal Arab struggles of the “Spring,” moreover, the winner will have to deal with Iran in one way or another.  How the Arab Spring develops, therefore – and where the Arab world goes next – may be conditioned in part by the degree to which Iran is perceived to be a “coming power,” or, alternatively, one past its apogee.  As my Hudson Institute colleague Lee Smith has pointed out, Arab politics has finely-tuned antennae for nuances of waxing or waning power.  Iran’s nuclear trajectory thus matters for the United States in this respect as well.

II.         Where Now?

This ought to give us something to chew on as we ponder the Iranian proliferation challenge.  The stakes are obviously perilously high.

In terms of U.S. policy approaches, I think the game is also gradually changing.  For the moment, we’re still in the prevention and dissuasion business – that is, to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, either simply by negation of opportunity or by dissuasion.  Awareness of the stakes should keep us intently focused upon succeeding in this game, though the international community has let far too much time go by already.

As time goes by, however, we’re beginning to move into a new game: mitigation.  Part of this, of course, is the job of deterring Iranian use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technology – and ensuring that Iran does not feel that outsiders are so “deterred” from taking steps against it that Tehran has been “immunized” against outside military pressure and can do whatever it likes in its region.

But part of the mitigation game is also making sure that the right signals are sent to future would-be proliferators who might be keen to follow Iran’s example.  The narrative we don’t wish to see prevail is one in which a plucky underdog wins a signal victory against a dominant power, thereby establishing for itself an enviable “place in the sun.”  That narrative needs to be strangled in the cradle.

Instead, it should be our broader objective to ensure that a constructive counter-narrative prevails – one in which even if Iran does end up winning a tactical victory by acquiring the nuclear weaponry it desires, it will be seen to have suffered a strategic defeat.  Flouting nonproliferation obligations as Iran has done needs to be seen as a road not to a country’s geostrategic rise but rather to a squalid and dangerous future of economic impoverishment, diplomatic isolation, and worsened military and regime change pressures as outsiders and neighbors alike band together in the face of worsening threats.  If we cannot keep Iran from “winning” by getting nuclear weapons, in other words, but it must be seen to lose the bigger game.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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