Iran's nuclear terrorism fears
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"The commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and
with greater urgency, it is more likely than not a weapon of mass destruction
will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
This statement was made recently by Graham Allison, one of the authors of
"World at Risk", a report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of
Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, during his testimony before the
US Congress. Sounding alarms about the growing risks of a nuclear
attack on the United States, the report gloomily states that America's "margin
of safety has decreased".
The comprehensive report provides a list of practical steps to reverse this
unwanted situation. For example, making sure North Korea is de-nuclearized
while Iran "must not be allowed to cross its nuclear goal-line".
The trouble with this analysis, however, is that its assumption of an Iranian
march toward nuclear weapons simply lacks empirical substantiation. Even the
US's own intelligence community does not buy it. The fact that there has been
no revision of the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on
Iran, which stated that Iran had shelved its weapons program in 2003 shortly
after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, diminishes the fact that Iran's program
is completely peaceful today.
In light of an upcoming meeting of the "Iran Six" nations on Iran's nuclear
program in February, it is puzzling why US nuclear experts continue to sing a
different tune than US intelligence officials, who obviously have more access
to vital information about Iran. At the same time, such semi-alarmist reports
about nuclear terrorism are bound to send shivers into Shi'ite Iran as it
nervously watches the security and political developments in neighboring
Pakistan, which is rife with Sunni extremism. Inevitably, Iranian leaders and
policy experts have to confront the question: what happens if some of those
ardently anti-Shi'ite extremist groups get their hands on nuclear bombs?
This is no longer an abstract theoretical question, but rather a realistic fear
that Iran cannot possibly ignore, Nor, for that matter, can Iran overlook the
importance of necessary precautions to minimize this risk, even if it means
building a minimal nuclear deterrent capability. To put it simply, Iran's own
margin of safety from external nuclear threats has substantially been reduced
as a direct result of the growing threat of nuclear terrorism.
Regarding Saddam's nuclear threat, it is worth remembering that for several
years prior to the US invasion in 2003, the world was fairly convinced that the
Ba'athist regime had an active nuclear weapons program. In fact, several
prominent European think-tanks put their seal of approval on this thesis. Given
Saddam's record of animosity toward Iran and his use of chemical weapons during
the Iran-Iraq war, Iran was confronted with a serious existential threat that
required an urgent response.
It turns out that Iran's tacit consent to the US invasion of Iraq under the
pretext of weapons of mass destruction was based primarily on Tehran's fear of
Saddam's nuclear threat. Naturally, there was a sigh of relief from the
country's national security officials and pundits when that threat was
But the rising tide of Shi'ite versus Sunni violence in Iraq, and to a lesser
extent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, soon led Iranians to shelve a major chunk
of their optimism. This was particularly true since the "Iranophobia" of some
Arab corners - especially in the Persian Gulf region - had been running high.
Some leading Sunni clerics even openly declaring war on the heretical Shi'ites.
Consequently, with a minor security meltdown dominating parts of nuclear
Pakistan today, the old Iranian fear of nuclear threats is on the rise again.
The concerns have warranted a renewed effort on Tehran's part to intensify its
regional efforts to confront this danger.
Washington may be heading towards an alternative perception of Iran: not simply
as a nuclear threat, but rather as a potential partner in the global fight
against nuclear terrorism. To reach this understanding, US officials need to
acquire a better understanding and insight about Iran's own concerns about
One side-effect of US-Iran cooperation against nuclear terrorism is that it
could serve as a venue for confidence-building between the two sides and
facilitate stalled talks on Iran's nuclear standoff. It would be an error to
postpone such cooperation until the resolution of the standoff and, meanwhile,
a delinking of the two issues is called for.
An improved climate between the US and Iran garnered through collaboration in
the fight against nuclear terrorism could lead to related cooperation on
Afghanistan. This could go a long way in neutralizing any Iranian call for a
nuclear shield to thwart nuclear terrorism.
As the "World at Risk" report correctly stated, nuclear deterrence does not
apply to state-less nuclear terrorism. In that regard, Iran may have more
exposure than to this state-less threat than the US and Europe. Still, there
are scenarios, such as Pakistani Sunni extremists' possession of nuclear bombs,
that can be reduced if those terrorists are faced with an Iranian nuclear
Iran had no fear of Pakistan's bombs when they were directed against India. But
today the threat of those same bombs falling in the wrong hands is shaping
Tehran's national security calculus. It should be remembered that in November
2007, former US defense secretary William Perry told a conference in Barcelona
that there was a "real threat" of a nuclear strike against the US from
non-state actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to some recent reports in the US on "loose nukes", there are several
Asian countries, including China, Japan and India, which are susceptible to
breaches in their nuclear safety resulting in nuclear theft or sabotage. Some
Iranians believe that anti-Shi'ite extremists in Pakistan would be apt to
attack Iran if they managed to steal some of the country's nuclear arsenal.
With northwest Pakistan now lawless and its government unable to stem the tide
of al-Qaeda and Sunni extremism, Iran's worry is that sooner or later this will
infect the Pakistani army. If Pakistan's top military command were infiltrated,
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would be in jeopardy.
There is also the prospect of another round of clandestine nuclear marketing by
Pakistan. Unlike Abdul Ghadir Khan's network, however, which dealt exclusively
with state actors, including Iran, during the 1990s, the non-state actors and
terrorists would benefit. This could also happen due to the cracks in
Pakistan's nuclear export control act, which is not considered fail-safe by
Iran despite some recent upgrades.
This situation is dire enough to warrant serious consideration from Tehran
about direct security dialogue with Washington on the entire gamut of regional
issues: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and nuclear terrorism.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.