I’m not alone in thinking that we need a Plan B, a containment strategy for Iran in case it builds nuclear weapons despite our best efforts. The Center for a New American Security has released a new report (Kahl, et al., 2013). The authors go into some depth, but I think they could be a little bolder. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to its neighbors that is great enough to realign Middle Eastern politics.
Remember that a nuclear-armed USSR provided the threat that realigned European politics during the decades of that containment. Europe went from “everyone against Germany and Italy” to “everyone including Germany and Italy against the Soviet Union.”
Realigning the Middle East will be more complicated. Like Kahl, et al., I recommend encouraging the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations to become a more cohesive military alliance, and to encourage Israel to provide some missile defense technology to them. Unlike them, I recommend that Israel make itself more acceptable as an ally by moving forward with a three-state solution toward Palestinian autonomy. Israel and Fatah would begin making concrete moves toward statehood for the West Bank, while Gaza would be left to wait for its government, Hamas, to either amend its charter to recognize Israel’s right to exist, or for some other party to become the government of Gaza. One goal would be to weaken Hamas’ popular support and its ties with Iran. The other, more ambitious goal, would be to encourage the GCC to reach out to Israel to provide both missile defense and nuclear muscle to a total encirclement of Iran that would include the GCC as well as Turkey (a NATO member) and all the other nations bordering Iran. If successful, these moves would make Iran’s strategic position much worse with nuclear weapons than without them. The Middle East would go from “everybody against Israel” to “everybody and, by the way, Israel, against Iran.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran should realize that such game-changing diplomacy is within the reach of its adversaries. It’s own nuclear arsenal will make it possible.
Kahl, Colin H., Raj Pattani and Jabob Stokes. 2013. If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran. Center for a New American Security, http://www.cnas.org/ifallelsefails, accessed 5/24/2013.
A reasonably succinct situation analysis of Iran and its regional, global, and nuclear ambitions.
Even though 9/11 and the Beslan School Hostage Crisis were not nuclear terrorist attacks, they tell us that nuclear terrorism, if it occurs, will be something its perpetrators get to do only once. These gruesome attacks both stimulated and legitimized a vigorous counter-terrorism response on the part of the countries that were attacked. In the case of 9/11 the US got a free pass from the entire world, including the so-called “Arab Street” to invade Afghanistan and render al-Qaeda Central irrelevant to what has now become a loose affiliation with a tarnished brand. (The US invasion of Iraq was seen as going too far.) The Beslan crisis, in which Ingush and Chechen terrorists siezed a school full of young children whom they abused and killed, gave rise to global revulsion so intense that the entire world turned a blind eye to whatever the Russians saw fit to do in Chechnya for roughly two years.
The Boston Marathon bombing has a second lesson: it is far easier to reconstruct an event than it is to predict one. The bad guys who place the device may not be smart enough to know or care. But the bad guys who obtain the material and make the bomb will have to weigh whatever they might achieve by attempting a nuclear explosion against the destruction of their organization and themselves with it.
Most terrorists are in the business of coercing a government or society into satisfying some set of demands. To do this they create terror as theater, playing to the media. An apocalyptic weapon will not coerce anybody to do anything – it will just get them wiped out. Coercion requires that they stay around for repeat performances, which is more likely if they stick to guns and conventional bombs.
A device that contains enough special nuclear materials to be at all credible as a nuclear explosive will create the same terror and counter-terrorism response whether or not it works and whether or not it is interdicted. Only an apocalyptic terrorist organization will attempt to obtain or build an apocalyptic weapon.
The one historical example of an apocalyptic group using weapons of mass destruction is Aum Shinrikyo, the organization that released Sarin into the Tokyo Subway. They had purchased land in Australia, intent on mining the uranium under it and making an atomic bomb. But the work went slowly, and their impatient leader, Shoko Asahara, decided to go with chemical weapons instead. They killed and injured people, stimulated a counter-terrorism response, and were, as they say, “rolled up” by Japanese authorities.
So there it is. One nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction, one time, and the perpetrating bunch is history, whether or not the device does much damage. It makes all but the craziest terrorist organizations stick to their usual arsenals.
Jackson, Brian A. and David R. Frelinger. 2007. Rifling Through the Terrorist’s Arsenal. Santa Monica: RAND.
Pape, Robert A. 2003. The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. American Political Science Review. 97:3. 343-361.