We Asked Two Military Experts What Would Happen if Iran Had Nuclear Weapons

Would Iran be a temperamental loose cannon like North Korea? Would they immediately push the Big Red Button and blow up Tel Aviv? What is everyone so afraid of?

Mar 13 2015, 4:00am

Illustrations by Sam Taylor

Earlier this week, Republicans in the US Senate sent a weird open letter to the leaders of Iran, informing them that any nuclear deal they make with President Obama will be torn to shreds by Congress. If you weren't paying close attention you might think republicans want Iran to make nuclear weapons. They don't. They say they just don't want Obama to make a deal that lets Iran off to easy, and apparently fanning the embers of tension is a good way to make sure he can't.

But what's everyone so afraid of? Would Iran be a temperamental loose cannon like North Korea? Would they immediately push the Big Red Button, and strike at the heart of Tel Aviv on day one? Would they use their beefed up negotiating power to bully us right out the region and take away our access to foreign oil? Or in spite of all our fear, would Iran just become a responsible member of the international community, albeit one that happens to have a nuclear arsenal?

To figure out what the world would be like if the Islamic Republic of Iran started wielding nukes, I asked two experts to walk me through it: William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and Kamran Bokhari, advisor on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Stratfor.

Artists' rendering of two competing belligerents, not our two esteemed experts

VICE: Before we get to the hypothetical, how likely is this?
William H. Tobey: They've undertaken some actions that have caused pretty serious concerns, by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council, so I don't think it can be ruled out. But it's not a certain thing.

Kamran Bokhari: Are nukes what they really want, or do they want conventional geopolitical power that's worth more to them? Maintaining influence in Syria. Using the Daesh [aka: Islamic State] threat to get the US on its side? Making sure that the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq continues to stay in power? Having Hezbollah remain the dominant force in Lebanon? Making sure the Houthis continue to make gains in Yemen? That's the kind of thing the Iranians value way more than nukes.

Alirght, let's say they've got them. What happens day one?
Bokhari: They'd quietly acquire the technology and not test until the coast was clear. Or not test. If I'm the Iranians, why would I test, knowing that it'll only bring the wrath of the international community? I'm already under sanctions. I'm already negotiating to get rid of the sanctions and I'm going to get more sanctions. It would be a reversal of all the gains they've made, especially through negotiating with the United States for two years now.

Tobey: It completely changes Iran's risk calculus. It would give Iran essentially a cover to act beneath in ways that would be destabilizing to the region. It would create, for Iran, escalation dominance with its neighbors. It would know that it could take the most extreme step, and it would empower it to undertake—for example—significant terrorist acts in the region.

Is Israel threatened?
Bokhari: If you look at the size of Israel, if there were an enemy country out there that could potentially use nukes against them, for them that's a doomsday scenario, and they cannot even tolerate a single strike. The thing is that in states like that, Israel cannot afford to base its policy on what the other side may or may not do. Usually policymakers in a strategic military environment will assume worst-case scenario.

Tobey: They listen to people in Iran saying things like "Israel is a one-bomb country," and they fear that even more extreme governments than the current one might take over, driven by some theological beliefs that an apocalypse is somehow beneficial. Those are positions held by people in Israel, and that's what's behind some of the belief that this is an existential issue for Israel. And if a nuclear weapon went off in Israel, people's willingness to continue living there would be greatly diminished. They cause enormous destruction.

What would a nuclear strike actually do to Israel?
Tobey: The primary effects that people are talking about would be political and economic. It would create a belief on the part of the people who remained that they aren't safe. It's not literally a one-bomb country. One nuclear weapon can't destroy Israel literally, but if you sap the economic and political viability of the place by essentially eliminating any sense of security, Israel might succumb. It's certainly unimaginable to us, but unfortunately there are people who are imagining it. It's less dependent on kilotonnage than on what the secondary effects are.

Bokhari: For many years there's been this idea that, "Oh, the Israelis are going to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities." Let's talk about what that would entail: It requires a certain amount of aircraft, fuel, midair refueling capability, flight paths, and will the payload be enough to penetrate through god knows how many meters of concrete under which the Iranian nuclear facilities are buried and dispersed widely around the geography? Not to mention Iran is physically 1,200 miles away from Israel. If you do that math, there are physical and logistical constraints you have to factor in before you can conclude one way or the other about whether Israel can or cannot successfully strike at the nuclear facilities.

Tobey: I think a tangible threat would be that it give Tehran room to be more active in its support of groups like Hezbollah, and would feel like the threat of retaliation either by the United States or by Israel would be diminished, because it possesses a nuclear weapon with which it could deter actions against its forces. Hezbollah is now operating in both Lebanon and Syria. In terms of a [non-nuclear] attack on Israel, it would come from the north.

Bokhari: The United States isn't willing to do it because—and again, you can never be sure—but by negotiating with Iran, you keep Iran as sorta the "bad guy." You don't want to attack it, and let it gain sympathy around the world. The Chinese and the Russians aren't going to negotiate then. I'm sure the Europeans would be shocked as well.

Tobey: Now, the Iranians will make the argument that for 300 years or so, their borders have remained essentially unchanged, and Iran doesn't fight wars of aggression, and if you're talking about invasions of neighboring countries over the past few centuries I think that's essentially true. But what Iran has done is use proxy groups or other governments to try and spread its influence. So in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iranian influence is very strong, and it's exercised at the expense of other countries in the region, namely Sunni countries. The spread of Shiism is an Iranian strategic goal, [although] probably not exclusively. I'm sure that Tehran is much happier to have a friendlier government in Baghdad than, for example, the Saddam government that waged a very costly, very long war against Iran.

Would it have an economic effect on the other countries like the US?
Bokhari: I think the biggest economic impact would be on Iran itself. It'll be slapped with more sanctions.

Tobey: There's been a cold war going between Iran and Saudi Arabia for a long period of time. If that cold war heated up, it could affect oil flows, because perhaps Saudi oil production or refining capacity could be damaged, which could affect oil prices, and our economic interests. We're less sensitive to them now because we are producing so much oil ourselves and in fact, the largest Saudi customer is China. But the world economic flows are so interdependent that a recession China would affect the United States.

Is Iran going to know what they're doing with nukes, or might they do something stupid?
Tobey: If you're introducing nuclear weapons, the possibility of accidental or unauthorized launch goes up. You've got a whole new country with nuclear weapons. You don't know what their doctrine is for deployment, checks there would be over use—American systems have locks on them to make unauthorized launch impossible. Would Iranian weapons have such mechanisms? And even if they did, what would the Iranian command and control structure look like? Who's in charge? Is it the supreme leader? Is it the president? Could one person order the use of nuclear weapons.

Bokhari: You can miscalculate, but you're not intentionally doing something stupid. [For instance, when Islamic State militants] burned that pilot, which was the height of brutality, I'm pretty sure there was a certain logic behind it. It's not like, "Oh well, you know what? I think I wanna axe my foot today. Lemme go burn another Jordanian pilot." It's not a deliberate blunder. There is a method behind the madness.

Is there a real chance that Iran might hand nukes over to groups like Hezbollah or Hamas?
Tobey: There are people who worry about that, and there are people who counter that it would be unlikely given that it would be tracked back to Iran, and the consequences would be so severe—that they could a military attack in return—that they would be deterred from doing so. I think it's a difficult question. We know that Iran has supported terrorist attacks against civilians. Would that translate to handing over nuclear weapons to terrorists? I don't know.

Bokhari: It's not like nukes are somewhere on the shelf and you pick them up and go use them. It's not as simple as that. They're de-mated unless there's a situation where nukes need to be ready to be deployed. We at Stratfor looked into this in 2006. We did a major study of CBRM (Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Missiles) and non-state actors and frankly speaking, the infrastructure required to have nukes for non-state actors renders it impossible almost for them to acquire them. You need territory, resources, technical know-how, and facilities, so it's just not feasible that they could get it. This idea is kinda like saying that the rag-tag Taliban in Pakistan could get their hands on a nuke, which is fantastical.

Is it possible that anything non-horrible could come out of this?
Bokhari: It's not outside the realm of possibility that we could work with Iran to counter Daesh and then the jihadists. It's not beyond the pale to think that the United States and Iran could have some kind of an understanding. We've done this in the past. The United States has a history of working with unsavory actors. Washington aligned with Stalin to defeat Nazi Germany. It worked with Communist China to deal with the Soviet Union. We toppled the Taliban regime in collusion with the Iranians, and also coordinated and cooperated in regime change against Saddam. It's not black and white.

Tobey: I just don't know. I hope it can be avoided.

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