Iran as a Nuclear Weapons Power
December 16, 2009
The latest discoveries regarding Iran’s nuclear program are simply the next development in a process that has been going on since the Iran-Iraq War, and Khomeini’s decision to resume nuclear research once Iran came under chemical weapons attack from Iraq. It is important to understand the “neutron initiator” document in this context, and to remember several key aspects of Iran’s efforts:
- Iran did not begin its efforts with a focus on Israel, and its anti-Israeli rhetoric may still be more of a cloak for actions that give Iran power and influence over its immediate neighbors, and the potential ability to deter the US, than any real focus on Israel either ideologically or in a warfighting sense.
- Iran is a declared chemical weapons power, although it has never complied with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), nor stated its holdings. It probably has the capability to manufacture persistent nerve gas. It could certainly put such gas in a unitary warhead and probably has some cluster weapon capability.
- Iran is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), but there are no firm data to indicate whether it does or does not have a biological weapons effort. It is clear, however, that Iran has the capability to develop and produce advanced biological weapons – and could do so as either a supplement or substitute for nuclear weapons. Iran should acquire the ability to develop even more advanced genetically engineered biological weapons in the 2010-2015 time frame. Roughly the same timeframe as it could deploy a major nuclear force.
- There is no inspection regime for the BWC, and US studies raise serious questions as to whether such a regime is possible. Accordingly, even if Iran did fully comply with all IAEA requirements, it could still develop and produce weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, there is no enforceable way a true weapons of mass destruction free zone can be established and enforced in the Middle East or any other area with advanced biotechnology.
- Iran’s missile programs represent a critical part of its military efforts and expenditures. They still, however, do not exhibit a test program that could give them the reliability and accuracy to be effective without using a weapon of mass destruction as a warhead. Even a chemical missile warhead, however, would be more a terror weapon than a true weapon of mass destruction. It would risk provoking a massive response that could be far more lethal to Iran even if it used precision conventional weapons.
- Iran’s conventional forces remain obsolescent and limited in capability. This is why its emphasis on missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and asymmetric warfare both compensate for the limits of its conventional forces and act as a key substitute.
- Iran’s steadily advancing capabilities for asymmetric and proxy warfare still leave it vulnerable to US conventional forces and devastating precision attacks on its military and economic assets. Acquiring weapons of mass destruction acts as a potential deterrent to US conventional attacks on Iran.
- Accordingly, no analysis of Iran’s nuclear programs and intentions should be decoupled from an analysis of its overall military programs – although many discussions of Iran’s nuclear programs have that defect.
That said, it is still possible that Iran may not develop a nuclear weapons capability or deploy other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Diplomacy may change Iranian actions, the regime may change, sanctions and economic problems might halt or delay Iran’s efforts, and/or Iran may develop other security priorities. These options do, however, seem less probable with time.
Nearly two decades of sanctions, diplomacy, and dialog have had some impact in delaying Iran’s programs, in making it keep its programs more covert, and in highlighting the risks Iran runs in moving forward. It has not, however, prevented Iran from acquiring steadily more capable long-range missiles and the technology and production facilities needed to make nuclear weapons. Iran also has retained the technology and production base to make chemical weapons, and even if it does not have covert active programs, its civil sector is steadily improving its dual capabilities and ability to develop and deploy advanced biological weapons.
It is also far from clear that any power can carry out preventive attacks at this point that would do more than delay a determined Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons for several years. Israel and Iran’s neighbors do not have the capability to launch more than limited strikes. It might be militarily possible for the United States to carry out effective initial strikes, follow them up with immediate restrikes, and then maintain a restrike capability that it used to systematically deny Iran the ability to create new, dispersed facilities. This kind of U.S. posture, however, would pose major political challenges in terms of both the willingness of friendly powers such as the Gulf States and Turkey to support any phase of such operations, and it is clear that the United States would have major problems in obtaining broad international support.
These are not reasons to give up on diplomacy or dialog, or to abandon sanctions and efforts to develop military options to prevent or limit Iranian capabilities. They are, however, realities that indicate that the Gulf States, the region, and the world may have to learn how to live with Iranian proliferation, coupled with growing Iranian capabilities for asymmetric warfare.
If that happens, there are two major strategic alternatives: (1) accept a major increase in Iran’s ability to influence and intimidate key oil exporters and other states throughout the region; (2) create the capability to contain Iran through defense and deterrence. In both cases, the result may still be a regional nuclear arms race and at least the possibility of a devastating nuclear exchange.
CSIS has developed a report that examines these options in more detail. It is titled “Iran as a Nuclear Weapons Power” and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/091216_IrannuclearRpt.pdf
The reader should also be aware that it draws on work the author did with Adam Seitz in a CSIS book entitled Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction issued in 2009.
In addition, the reader should be aware of other work coauthored with Abdullah Toukan. This includes the following:
“GCC - Iran: Operational Analysis of Air, SAM and TBM Forces” – found at:
“Iran, Israel, and the Effects of Nuclear Conflict in the Middle East” – Found at:
“Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development Facilities” – Found at:
Table of Contents
|Iran’s Uncertain Path to Proliferation||6|
|Iran’s Paths to Nuclear Proliferation||6|
|Already Half Pregnant||8|
|To Test or Not To Test||8|
|How Sophisticated a Nuclear Weapon Does Iran Need?||9|
|Going From Possession to Functional Nuclear Forces||11|
|Provoking a Response from Iran’s Neighbors||13|
|The Seeds of an Unstable Regional Nuclear Arms Race||13|
|Biological Weapons as an Alternative or Supplement||14|
|Military Options for Dealing with Iranian Proliferation||17|
|Preventive and Preemptive Strikes, and||17|
|Strikes before Iran Has a Significant Force||18|
|The Problem of Targeting||18|
|Possible Methods of Israeli Attack||22|
|Israeli Air Strikes||23|
|Israeli Penetration Capabilities||25|
|Israeli Nuclear Options||26|
|U.S. Options against Iran||27|
|Possible U.S. Strike Methods||27|
|The Effectiveness of US Strikes||28|
|Possible U.S. War Plans: Attacking, Delaying, and Waiting Out||29|
|Iranian Defense against Israeli (and U.S.) Strikes||33|
|Iranian Retaliation against Israel||35|
|Iranian Retaliation against U.S. Strikes||36|
|Containment: Reacting to the Fact Iran Becomes a Serious Nuclear Power||37|
|Deterrence and Nuclear Warfighting||38|
|Missile Defense and Other Defensive Options||40|
|The Only Way to Win Is Not Play.||42|