From Stephen Peter Rosen
The prospect of being hanged, we are told, wonderfully concentrates the mind, but on what? The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon now concentrates our attention on the possibility of Israeli preventive military action or on American sanctions, both of which might prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. These are important policy options, but concentrating on them diverts us from what may be the moment of maximum danger, which will take place one or two years after Iran tests a nuclear weapon.
I am assuming that Iran will openly test its weapon, for the psychological impact the test will have, both in Iran and abroad. Given the uncertainties that other nations have about the ability of Iran successfully to construct a workable weapon on the Chinese/Pakistani model, only a successful test will yield the political benefits for which Iran has paid so heavily. Iran may test the weapon above ground, to minimize the chances that preparations for the test are detected, and to achieve the maximum visual impact, something the regime has sought and exaggerated in its ballistic missile test program. On current projections, this test could come in 2010 or 2011.
After the test, what will Iran do? It is noteworthy that many new nuclear powers (but not India) have offered nuclear weapons technology, not the bomb itself, to allies and clients. The technology is valuable, and easily transmitted covertly, for money or for diplomatic influence. Iran may not make explicit nuclear threats. It is hard to find any new nuclear power that has done so. But Iran is likely to feel more secure against American and Israeli military action on Iran in retaliation for Iranian actions short of nuclear weapons use, because it will in fact be riskier to proceed with such retaliation once Iran has the bomb.
Iran’s friends will also be emboldened. Hezbollah and Hamas may feel that Iran is better able to protect them against Israeli or American military action once Iran has a nuclear arsenal. The hard core of the Revolutionary Guards and their counterparts in Hezbollah will feel free to pursue a more aggressive agenda against Israel by military but non-nuclear means, once Iran has nuclear weapons. Iran may warn Israel that attacks by her on Lebanon or Gaza would be “dangerous.” Another Lebanon war or more attacks from Gaza are hardly unlikely under such circumstances. If so challenged, Israel will call Iran’s bluff, and use all the non-nuclear force at its disposal against targets in Lebanon or Gaza.
In that case, will Iran sit by and do nothing? At moments of intense non-nuclear crisis, facing defeat or political reverses, the United States, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and even Israel have taken actions designed to convince foreign observers that they were getting their nuclear weapons ready to use, in order to persuade foreigners to be more cooperative. It is not necessary to attribute any eccentricity to the leadership of Iran in order to suggest that they, too, may seek to avoid the defeat of their allies in an intense crisis by increasing the readiness of their nuclear weapons. Seeing Iranian preparations for nuclear weapons use, what will Israel do?
In other words, it is not an Iranian nuclear bolt out of the blue that will be the problem, but Iranian-Israeli interaction in an intense crisis in which Israel sees Iranian nuclear forces becoming more ready for action, and in which Iran fears Israeli pre-emption. That will be the moment of maximum danger.
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