Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States – Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Capabilities
October 17, 2011
Iran’s foiled assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, raises questions about Iran’s judgment and which elements within the regime are in control of the country’s decision-making process. If successful, such an act could have lead the country into diplomatic isolation or war. This lack of judgment on Iran’s part is especially worrying for the US, Israel, and Iran’s Arab neighbors, given the likely military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program. A nuclear conflict with Iran would have potentially devastating regional and global consequences. Iran’s nuclear program and the implications thereof must be considered in the context of these recent events.
The tone and content of Iranian military competition with the US continues to move in a hardline direction, and has only been reinforced by the recent assassination plot. Iran’s accelerated research and development into its ballistic missile and nuclear programs have been accompanied by increasingly defiant statements from the regime. These developments reflect Iran’s stated goals of building a deterrent capacity, establishing its capability to “close the Gulf,” and decisively influencing the political, religious, and social environment of the region to the likely end of asserting itself as the dominant regional power.
Although the Iranian regime often affirms peaceful regional intentions, a net assessment of its push to expand the aforementioned capabilities, repeated assertions that the Gulf is “Persian,” threats to “close the Gulf,” and menacing rhetoric concerning Israel signify Iran’s intentions to vigorously compete with the US and other regional actors.
The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a two-part net assessment of these developments, and how they affect the US and Arab states. It examines their ramifications for the strategic landscape in the Gulf region, and potential US, Israeli, and other regional responses to Iran’s burgeoning efforts to compete strategically in the Gulf.
Web Address for New Briefings
The second of these two briefings is now available. It has the following title and web address:
- Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States – Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Capabilities can be downloaded at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110916_Iran-US-IsraeliPerspII.pdf
The first part has been released previously and has the following title and web address:
- Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States: Part One http://csis.org/publication/irans-accelerating-military-competition-us-and-arab-states-part-one
Moving Towards A Nuclear Weapons Capability
Although Iran’s nuclear program has seen significant recent progress, the IAEA’s knowledge of Iranian nuclear developments and access to the country’s nuclear sites continues to diminish. Areas in which the IAEA has noted Iran’s lack of cooperation include the possible military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program, R&D into centrifuge development, enrichment activities, and access to sites such as the Heavy Water Production Plant. As of May 2011, examples of activities of concern regarding which the IAEA requires clarification include the following:
- Neutron generator and associated diagnostics: experiments involving the explosive compression of uranium deuteride to produce a short burst of neutrons.
- Uranium conversion and metallurgy: producing uranium metal from fluoride compounds and its manufacture into components relevant to a nuclear device.
- High explosives manufacture and testing: developing, manufacturing and testing of explosive components suitable for the initiation of high explosives in a converging spherical geometry.
- Exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonator studies, particularly involving applications necessitating high simultaneity: possible nuclear significance of the use of EBW detonators.
- Multipoint explosive initiation and hemispherical detonation studies involving highly instrumented experiments: integrating EBW detonators in the development of a system to initiate hemispherical high explosive charges and conducting full scale experiments, work which may have benefitted from the assistance of foreign expertise.
- High voltage firing equipment and instrumentation for explosives testing over long distances and possibly underground: conducting tests to confirm that high voltage firing equipment is suitable for the reliable firing of EBW detonators over long distances.
- Missile re-entry vehicle redesign activities for a new payload assessed as being nuclear in nature: conducting design work and modelling studies involving the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.1
This list of concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program provides examples of key areas of potential nuclear weapons development in which Iran has provided little, if any, cooperation. Iranian lack of cooperation regarding such matters provides a strong indication that the country is moving forward with R&D into nuclear weapons development, despite claims to the contrary.
The Developing Regional Nuclear Arms Race and Prospects for War
Given the likely military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, an assessment of potential preventative or preemptive US or Israeli strikes on the country’s nuclear facilities as well as possible Iranian responses to such an attack must be considered. Israeli options for such a strike include the following courses of action:
- A conventional strike using Israeli air power, which could take any one of three routes (northern, central, or southern), all of which would involve traversing unfriendly air space to reach targets in Iran.
- A low yield nuclear strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, employing either ballistic missiles or nuclear-armed strike aircraft.
Given the extensive US assets in the Gulf region, the US would have the option to carry out numerous strikes on Iran’s facilities using more aircraft than Israel has available to do so. Such an attack would most likely include F-16C/F-15E strike aircraft, F-22’s, F-18’s of the US 5th Fleet, and B2 bombers based out of Diego Garcia. Given the greater number and flexibility of US forces as well as their closer proximity to Iran, the US is much better positioned to carry out such a strike.
If such a strike were to occur, Iran could potentially respond in the following ways:
- Withdraw from the NPT and increase its long-term resolve to develop a nuclear deterrent program.
- Immediate retaliation using its ballistic missiles on Israel. Multiple launches of Shahab‐3 including the possibility of CBR warheads against Tel Aviv, Israeli military and civilian centers, and Israeli suspected nuclear weapons sites.
- Use proxy groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israel proper with suicide bombings, covert CBR attacks, and rocket attacks from southern Lebanon.
- Launch asymmetric attacks against American interests and allies in the Arabian Gulf.
- Target US and Western shipping in the Gulf, and possibly attempt to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
The Israeli-Iranian Nuclear-Missile Balance
However nightmarish the prospect of an Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange may be, Israel’s nuclear capabilities and the potential militarization of Iran’s nuclear program make the assessment of such a scenario a necessity. While Iran does not yet possess a nuclear weapon, potential delivery systems include ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and strike aircraft. While Israel’s means for delivery are similar, its aircraft and missiles are more advanced than their Iranian equivalents.
Despite Israel’s advantage in weapons technology, one nuclear detonation on Israeli territory could prove to be an existential threat to the country given its size. With its greater size and population, Iran would be better poised to survive an Israeli nuclear strike on its population centers. It must be noted, however, that that the greater metropolitan area of Tehran is home to some 15 million people, which constitutes 20% of Iran’s population. Furthermore, 45% of large Iranian industrial firms are located in Tehran, as is 50% of all Iranian industry. As such, any nuclear strike on Tehran would have disastrous consequences for the Iranian state.
The US-Iranian Nuclear-Missile Balance
The US-Iranian balance is more complex. Assuming a dispersed, mature Iranian nuclear force, Iran would most likely leverage these forces against the US’ conventional superiority. In addition to US forces and installations in the Gulf, Iran could potentially threaten the US allies in the region, Europe, Israel, and oil export capabilities. Any Iranian nuclear strike would, however, be limited in nature so as not to garner massive nuclear retaliation.
In the event of an Iranian nuclear missile launch, US satellite surveillance could potentially allow for preemptive damage limitation. In such a confrontation, the US would have a clear advantage in that it possesses a massive conventional and nuclear reserve strike capability in addition to stealth aircraft and precision guided munitions, which could be used as weapons of mass effectiveness to strike at Iran’s critical infrastructure and leadership.
The Chemical and Biological Wild Cards
Although Iranian chemical and biological capabilities are not often discussed or scrutinized, Iran’s pharmaceutical and chemical production base make the existence of such programs possible, if not probable. As chemical weapons can be produced in the same facilities that manufacture pesticides and industrial chemicals, the existence of an Iranian chemical arsenal cannot be ruled out.
In addition to traditional agents in biological warfare such as anthrax, plague, and smallpox, Iran could possess genetically engineered pathogens (“designer diseases”) for weaponization, among others.
Although ballistic missiles and cluster munitions constitute likely means for delivering chemical and biological weapons, they could also potentially be delivered via non-state actors so as to limit the risk of retaliation, bypass defenses, and maintain a level of plausible deniability.