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Iran Reacts to Becoming a U.S. Nuclear Target

As we noted last week, the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, issued last Monday, included a provision asserting a U.S. prerogative to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that Washington deems not be in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Following the release of the Nuclear Posture Review last week, both President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates clearly stated that this new provision in America’s declaratory posture regarding the use of nuclear weapons was aimed at Iran, along with North Korea and other potential “outlier” states.  (Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency has never concluded that Tehran is in breach of its NPT obligations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama Administration officials have been asserting for some time that the Islamic Republic is not in compliance with the Treaty.)

President Obama, Secretary Gates, and other Administration officials argue that making the Islamic Republic subject to nuclear first use will somehow incentivize Tehran to back away from the further development of Iranian nuclear capabilities and become more cooperative with U.S. nuclear proposals.  We find this argument nonsensical in its causal logic.  As we noted in our original piece, making Iran a potential U.S. nuclear target will, from a purely strategic perspective, reduce Tehran’s incentives for restraint in developing its own nuclear capabilities, not bolster them: “If Iran, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, will face the threat of nuclear ‘first use’ by the United States, why shouldn’t Tehran proceed to the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons?”

Over the past few days, Iranian officials have been reacting to the Nuclear Posture Review — and, not surprisingly, they appear neither amused nor intimidated by the newest wrinkle in the Obama Administration’s Iran policy.

It is remarkable that the Iranian/North Korean exception has not gotten more critical attention in the United States.  Republicans and hawkish Democrats appear to have bought the specious argument that threatening Iran with nuclear attack will somehow deter Tehran from further development of its nuclear capabilities.  (Republicans, of course, are generally unhappy with most other parts of the Nuclear Posture Review.)  More liberal Democrats and the professional arms control/nonproliferation community have been inclined to see the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy as a “glass half full” rather than a “glass half empty.”  These actors portray the Review as, on balance, a positive step in the right direction of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in America’s military posture; they depict the Iranian/North Korean exception as an unfortunate byproduct of interagency compromise which can be “worked on” in the future.

This is regrettable, because the Iranian exception is a serious step in the wrong direction for American policy toward the Islamic Republic.  Overall, Iranian reaction to the Nuclear Posture Review has focused on highlighting the illegitimacy of U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons against Iran and other non-nuclear-weapons states.  According to Iranian media, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told senior military commanders on Sunday that President Obama’s threats to use nuclear arms against Iran “are very strange and the world should not ignore them because in the 21st century, the century of claiming to advocate human rights and fight terrorism, the head of a country has threatened a nuclear attack.”

Khamenei added that

[T]hese remarks show that the U.S. government is a wicked an unreliable government. . . .  In recent years, the Americans made many efforts to show that the Islamic Republic of Iran is unreliable in the nuclear issue . . . it is now clear that the governments that possess atomic bombs and shamelessly threaten to bomb others are the unreliable ones.  Therefore, the U.S. president’s remarks are scandalous.

Also on Sunday, parliament speaker Ali Larijani added his own criticism of the Nuclear Posture Review, charging that threatening nuclear first use against Iran and other states violates the NPT.  The spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that the Iranian government would lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations regarding the Obama Administration’s nuclear stance toward the Islamic Republic.

Iranian officials have said repeatedly, over years, that the Islamic Republic does not want nuclear weapons and is not seeking them.  Furthermore, political and religious authorities have said that acquiring nuclear weapons would be a departure from Islamic ethical standards.  (In this regard, it is interesting to note that Iran decided not to weaponize and use chemical agents during the Iran-Iraq war, even though Saddam Husayn subjected both Iranian military forces and civilian targets inside Iran to chemical attack.)  Our understanding is that, within the Islamic Republic’s decision-making circles, Ayatollah Khamenei has steadfastly rejected the weaponization of Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities — and that opposition to nuclear weaponization remains his position.  Certainly, Ayatollah Khamenei’s public statements on the subject are consistent with such a position.

This is important in the context of the Islamic Republic’s political order and culture.  Given Tehran’s record of official and religious rejection of nuclear weapons, for Ayatollah Khamenei to shift course at some point in the future and endorse nuclear weapons fabrication by the Islamic Republic would require him to explain, to the Iranian public and his followers throughout the Shi’a world, how Iran’s strategic circumstances had changed to such an extent that it was now both necessary and legitimate for the country to develop a full-fledged nuclear deterrent.  But, as a highly regarded Iranian analyst pointed out to us last week, having the United States threaten to “nuke” the Islamic Republic could plausibly be an important element in the changed circumstances that might warrant a fundamental shift in Iran’s posture toward nuclear weapons.

There is no indication that Iran’s leadership is preparing to depart from its longstanding position regarding the acquisition of nuclear weapons.  But America’s nuclear weapons policy should not incentivize nuclear proliferation — and that, unfortunately, is precisely what the Obama Administration has done.  In the wake of the Nuclear Posture Review, we anticipate that Tehran will be even more inclined to push the development of its nuclear capabilities to a point where it will be perceived as having all of the major “building blocks” for fabricating nuclear weapons, should the Iranian leadership at some future point decide that such a step were necessary to ensure the Islamic Republic’s survival.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 11 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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