A Nuclear Middle East
An Arms Race, Covert Operations and the Shape of Things to Come
By William Tucker
Author’s note: This is a section from a paper I am working on entitled A Nuclear Middle East: An Arms Race, Covert Operations, and the Shape of Things to Come. Once I complete this I will adapt it for another webcast in the near future. Please keep in mind that this is a rough draft of a rough draft that is a bit rough, but you should get the idea.
Iran’s Nuclear Doctrine
Iran does not yet possess nuclear weapons and many still debate whether the regime has made the decision to move in that direction. However, that is not the purpose of this discourse. Rather it is important, and possible, that a nuclear Iran should be considered. Although they are often kept from the public’s view, it is possible to discern the most salient aspects of a nation’s nuclear doctrine. In that regard it is also possible to generate a rough outline of what Iran’s nuclear doctrine might look like even though the nation only appears to be moving in the direction of nuclear armaments. Thus far the features that influence Iranian actions such as political, military and economic topics have been discussed in a general manner, but that is often enough to discern how a nation will behave. The possession of nuclear weapons will not change this behavior, rather it will magnify it.
Another aspect to consider would be time. Accepting that Iran is not yet a nuclear armed nation and positing that the nation is actively working on changing that description then we have to assume that once a viable nuclear weapon is constructed it will not be enough to be of any use to the state. Limited nuclear arsenals are of little utility as they cannot be used as a first strike against a nuclear armed adversary without a substantial nuclear retaliation. Nor can they be used as a method of intimidation since it is likely that doing so would invite a reciprocal threat from a nuclear armed adversary regardless of the directness of the threat. For Tehran time is essential. Iran has managed to independently enrich uranium to at least twenty percent and yet uranium must be enriched to at least ninety percent for use in a nuclear weapon. To do this, Iran would need several enrichment facilities and at least another year to accomplish this level of enrichment in a quantity sufficient for constructing a single nuclear device. The timeline can be decreased if Iran were able to reprocess spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, but doing so would negate the clandestine nature of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and alert the international community.
Looking ahead to fall of 2011 and into 2012 we can expect that Iran will have at least two simple fission-type nuclear weapons based upon designs used by North Korea. The assessment and corresponding timeline comes from intelligence estimates of the US, Israel and other Western nations, while the North Korean-Iranian connection is well established. If the aforementioned intelligence assessments are accurate then we could extrapolate that Iran could have ten nuclear devices at most by 2015. Of course this is pure conjecture as many things can occur in the next five years, but it is certainly possible if Iran is allowed to pursue a nuclear weapons capability unencumbered. What we should take away from this is not that Iran could possess nuclear weapons, many nations have reached this point, and instead we need to focus on the limitations that such a paltry arsenal imposes on Tehran. If Iran wishes to use its influence to further regional ambitions all the while ensuring domestic security then it must have a nuclear arsenal with second strike capability. Unless Iran receives support from an established nuclear power such as Russia or China, the arsenal needed to support a second strike capability will not come to pass any time soon. This will severely inhibit the deterrent sought by the possession of nuclear weapons.
This puts Iran in a quandary as the weapons they are pursuing for deterrent purposes may actually result in a military attack. Then again Iran has been threatened with such measures for some time, but the regime in Tehran will exercise caution when necessary to protect their hold on power. To avoid punitive measures it can reasonably be presumed that Iran will follow the Pakistani model by separating the warhead from the delivery system, and in some cases, keeping the warhead itself disassembled. Without a standing arsenal and keeping the components in separate locations, Iran can buy time until its arsenal is better established. Unfortunately for Iran this would also preclude nuclear testing for the same reasons. A test prior to having a sufficient arsenal for defensive purposes may invite an attack if Iran cannot respond in kind. On the other hand North Korea has been able to conduct two nuclear tests with a limited arsenal and has not suffered any punishment beyond sanctions. This lesson has not been lost on Iran.
Iran’s nuclear doctrine will be an evolutionary one – as the arsenal matures the doctrine will be updated to account for the new capabilities. At the onset, however, Iran will take a cautious approach to their doctrine and will likely only use a nuclear weapon if the state is facing an existential threat. As the nuclear arsenal matures, Iran will likely include a doctrine of first strike that will be extended beyond existential threats to cover a whole host of issues that Iran sees vital to its interests. This will also cover for a limited second strike capability. Taking into account the small size of Iran’s nuclear arsenal over the next five years and the limited delivery capabilities that Iran possesses it is unlikely that Tehran will have much of a second strike capability. This will make Iran seem far more aggressive in nuclear matters once they go public with the existence of their arsenal than most other nuclear nations. Pakistan, which has an estimated 50 to 60 nuclear weapons, operates in much the same fashion.
A second strike capability is predicated on survivability of the arsenal. While the more established nuclear powers are able to use multiple launch platforms on land, sea, and air, a nation that possesses only a handful of nuclear weapons is at a distinct disadvantage. The handful of nuclear weapons that Iran is likely to have in the next five years could be destroyed in a conventional strike if the locations of the weapons are known. To counter this possibility Iran will likely continue its threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz via conventional means, but Tehran could decide to up the ante and threaten to use their nuclear weapons against other regional targets as a means of prevention. Possible target sets such as the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, the Saudi oil fields, and of course, Israel are attractive targets, but they come with significant risks of massive retaliation. From Iran’s perspective the threat to world oil supplies and regional devastation may give their adversaries pause – much as they do now from Iran’s conventional threat. As we can see, Iran will continue to levy threats against the same targets albeit with a nascent nuclear arsenal. Thus the threat from Iran will become magnified and the attention paid to Tehran will become more focused.
Although Iran has the ability to target these sensitive areas conventionally it takes time to do so. Iran may have the element of surprise, but conventional attacks take time to develop and can be countered by US assets in the region; however the results would still be disastrous. A nuclear first strike would negate the time issue, but whether the attack is conventional or nuclear Iran would be the subject of retaliatory strikes. Then again, that’s the idea. Tehran’s position may seem irrational; on the contrary Iran is creating a situation where any strike against it will be equally disastrous for the attacker. This is similar to the idea of mutually assured destruction, but on a scale that is within reach of the Iranian state. In sum, Iran’s short term nuclear doctrine will be constrained by the small size of its arsenal and its target set will be rather rigid.