April 2, 2007
By Peter Brookes
With the creeping possibility of a nuclear breakout, its
vigorous sponsorship of international terrorism and its escalating
intervention next door in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a
triple threat - at least - to international security and America's
Middle Eastern interests. Indeed, perhaps no country fits the
definition of rogue state as well as Iran does. Making matters
worse, Iran's confidence and clout in the region - and beyond - are
indubitably on the rise.
But that is only the beginning. Shiite Persian Iran is
not content with being just an inconsequential pariah. Iran has
grand ambitions. Tehran wants to be the predominant state in the
Middle East, replacing the U.S. as the region's power broker and
lording over its Sunni Arab neighbors. With the fall of its most
fearsome competitors for regional pre-eminence - Iraq's Saddam
Hussein and Afghanistan's Taliban - Iran is unabashedly reasserting
itself on the international stage.
Buoyed by high energy prices, emboldened by continuing American
challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, encouraged by consistent,
unimpeded progress in its nuclear program and the increased
influence of its extremist allies - Hamas and Hezbollah - Iran has
its eye on becoming the regional hegemony. If unchecked, Tehran may
pull it off.
NUKES 'R' US
While Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful,
civilian power generation, analysts are deeply skeptical. All
indicators - from the lack of the program's transparency to its
ties to the prodigious Pakistani proliferator, A.Q. Khan, to its
burgeoning ballistic missile program - point in the direction of
nuclear weapons, not nuclear power.
Moreover, Iran's continued defiance of U.N. Security Council
resolutions calling on it to cease the enrichment of uranium - key
to both producing nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material for
nuclear weapons - has not inspired confidence in Iran's so-called
The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA), says Iran could be involved in industrial-scale
uranium enrichment in as little as six months. Tehran, naturally,
insists it needs access to the full nuclear fuel cycle, and will
only enrich uranium to 4 percent - the level needed for nuclear
reactor fuel. (Fissile material used for weapons - highly enriched
uranium - is enriched to 90 percent.)
According to the latest intelligence estimates, if unfettered,
Iran could be a nuclear weapons state by 2015. A reasonable
estimate? Perhaps. But with limited visibility into Iran's nuclear
program, it is at best a "guesstimate." Further, it probably also
does not take into account the possibility of external assistance
from the former Soviet Union or now-nuclear North Korea, with whom
Iran has budding ballistic missile ties.
Similarly troubling is the question of whether Iran, as a
nuclear weapons state, will involve itself in the dreaded
"secondary proliferation," passing its nuclear know-how on to
others. Could Tehran's de facto ally, Syria, be the recipient of
Iran's nuclear largesse? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
vowed at the U.N. to share Iran's nuclear technology with other
Muslim states. Another question: Would Iran put other states under
its nuclear umbrella?
These scenarios do not even take into account the regional
implications of an Iranian nuclear breakout. In recent months, at
least six Middle Eastern Arab states have declared their intention
to the IAEA to pursue "peaceful" nuclear energy programs.
Suspiciously, one of the six, Saudi Arabia, sits atop 25 percent of
the world's known oil reserves. With only 20 million people, Riyadh
hardly needs nuclear power. Moreover, the advent of an Iranian bomb
would also shoot another hole in the already-leaky Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermining international efforts to
limit access to the once exclusive nuclear weapons club.
To get conventional - or nuclear - weapons on target, Iran is
developing a prodigious ballistic-missile arsenal, now the Middle
East's biggest. Based on the North Korean No-Dong ballistic
missile, its Shahab-3 missile can already reach all of the Middle
East and Turkey. Tehran is working on another version, the
Shahab-4, that can strike into Europe. A longer-range program is
also on the drawing board, making Iran's recent claims of a space
program set off alarm bells about an intercontinental ballistic
missile, which could reach the U.S.
TIES TO TERRORISM
According to the U.S. State Department, Iran continues
to be the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism. At the
request of senior Iranian leadership, Iran's Ministry of
Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps (IRGC) support Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas,
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command with
funding, training and weapons.
Hezbollah - a Lebanese Shiite terrorist group - is a particular
favorite. In fact, Iran established Hezbollah to parry Israel's
1982 invasion of Lebanon. Tehran may fund Hezbollah to the tune of
$100 million per year. Last summer, Tehran's military support for
Hezbollah was evident. Iran likely gave Hezbollah the green light
to ambush an Israeli patrol and kidnap soldiers, which ultimately
kicked off the monthlong conflict.
In the ensuing days, Hezbollah indiscriminately fired as many as
10,000 Iran-supplied rockets and missiles into Israel. In addition,
many were stunned when a C-802 cruise missile struck an Israeli
naval vessel off the coast of Lebanon. While the shooter was never
identified, the Chinese C-802 is in Iran's inventory. It could have
been fired by either Hezbollah or the IRGC.
Today, Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian support, is
threatening to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government
unless it is given additional cabinet seats - potentially giving it
veto power over Beirut's decisions. Iran would love to add Lebanon
to Syria as a client state in its effort to form an arc of Iranian
influence across the region.
Iran has made a number of not-so-veiled threats that it would
deploy its irregular forces and terrorist allies against the U.S.
and American interests, if necessary. This is likely not an idle
threat. American blood is already on the hands of Iran and its
terrorist proxies as a result of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks
attack and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and in
Iraq today. It is almost without question that Tehran sees its
ability to hold U.S. interests at risk across the globe - including
in the U.S. - as leverage against American military action over its
nuclear program or meddling in Iraq.
Perhaps the most frightening scenario is that Iran might
transfer weapons of mass destruction capability to a terrorist
ally. While this is risky behavior, it is a possibility. Iran could
transfer nuclear capability to a Hezbollah-dominated government in
Lebanon, or a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, significantly
increasing the threat to Israeli security. Osama bin Laden has not
been shy about his desire for WMD or al-Qaida's readiness to use
them. The insurgency's recent use of chlorine gas in Iraq is
evidence of a terrorist group's willingness to employ WMD.
IRAN IN IRAQ
Despite its insistence that it seeks stability in Iraq,
Tehran is providing funding, weapons and safe passage into Iraq for
Shiite militias and other militants. Hezbollah is helping with
training. The IRGC, MOIS and the shadowy Quds Force are supplying
explosively formed penetrators, rocket-propelled grenades,
.50-caliber sniper rifles and other weapons to Shiite militias,
resulting in nearly 200 U.S. deaths and 700 wounded over the last
six months, according to the U.S. military.
Iran is also using "soft power" such as radio, television and
the print media to shape Iraqi public opinion, including funding
friendly Shiite political parties and promoting pro-Iranian
officials in the Iraq government. As with Beirut and Damascus,
Tehran would love to bring Baghdad under its political sway,
allowing Iran to dominate the heart of the Middle East.
To implement its hegemonic designs, Iran must become the
dominant military force in the Persian Gulf. Nuclear weapons only
go so far. Iran's conventional forces are large in contrast with
other regional militaries, but have limited capability, especially
compared with U.S. forces. Most of its equipment is worn, even
obsolete, but Tehran has used windfall profits from oil and natural
gas exports to modernize its conventional armed forces through
equipment upgrades, procurement and a robust military-exercise
program. For instance, spending nearly $1 billion, Iran is
purchasing the highly capable Russian short-range air defense
system, the SA-15 (Tor-M1). But even with ongoing modernization
efforts, limitations in command and control, intelligence,
electronic warfare, logistics and joint operations will undermine
Tehran's dreams of hegemony - at least for the short term.
Iran has also flexed its muscles through military exercises,
especially over the last year. It is clear Iran has no intention of
taking the U.S. head-on in a military dust-up. Tehran will use an
asymmetric strategy, including land- and sea-based ballistic and
cruise missiles, missile-equipped patrol boats and mines. Irregular
warfare, including suicide attacks, is a certainty. In fact,
Iranian exercises have been so aggressive that American commanders
are worried an incident could spark an engagement in the Persian
Gulf as Tehran edges its war games into busy gulf sea lanes.
Iran has talked about wielding the oil weapon, too, closing the
Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's oil
flows. But, in practice, the threat rings a bit hollow. Sure, Iran
could slow maritime traffic by mining the six-mile-wide sea lanes
of the strait or by attacking international shipping with, for
instance, its Kilo-class diesel submarines or Seersucker anti-ship
missiles. Expending a large number of assets, it could possibly
close the strait to navigation for a few days, a week tops. But
there are trade-offs. Iran would certainly unsettle global oil
markets and intimidate its oil-producing neighbors. But if it
closes the strait, it would have a difficult time getting its own
oil and gas to market, hamstringing its fragile economy.
Diplomatic efforts over the past couple of years have yielded
little to nothing in terms of moderating Iranian behavior,
especially its nuclear program. While punitive economic sanctions
would pummel the Iranian economy, already beset by high
unemployment and inflation, permanent U.N. Security Council members
China and Russia are reluctant to get tough. Russia is building
Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr for $1 billion; China is
investing $100 billion in Iranian oil and gas over the next 25
So what is the prognosis for the near future? Iran is
very likely to continue to play a cat-and-mouse game on its nuclear
program despite international obligations and pressure. Tehran will
continue to flout U.N. resolutions while offering up the
possibility of negotiations to end the crisis, which some,
especially the Europeans, find attractive. Iran will also continue
its involvement in Iraq, being careful to keep its fingerprints off
events while working to bring Iraq into its sphere of influence and
hastening along an ignominious U.S. defeat and withdrawal.
But don't forget Israel. Even with the current government's
weakened state, Israel could decide to take things into its own
hands. A strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be more
difficult than the one against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. But
an attack against key Iranian nuclear facilities could set the
program back years. Iran's Arab neighbors would vociferously
protest Israeli aggression for public consumption, but privately
breathe a large sigh of relief. Unfortunately, a strike might not
end Iran's nuclear ambitions, and there remains the possibility of
a wider Israeli-Iranian war, involving Iranian missile and
terrorist attacks on Israel.
So is war with Iran inevitable? War is never inevitable. But
while conflict with Iran is not a certainty, misperception and
miscalculation that lead to war are always a possibility. Dealing
with Tehran is nettlesome. This means that while running out other
diplomatic and economic sanction options, Washington would be wise
to build a regional coalition to contain and deter Iran, and look
for opportunities to roll back Iranian influence wherever possible
- while keeping the military option squarely on the table.
Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow
and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served
in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.
First appeared in Armed Forces Journal
With the creeping possibility of a nuclear breakout, its vigorous sponsorship of international terrorism and its escalating intervention next door in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a triple threat - at least - to international security and America's Middle Eastern interests.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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