Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy December 2010–November 2011
01 December 2010
The Iranian nuclear crisis has entered its seventh year. While the international community continues to search for ways to stop Iran’s drive for a military nuclear option, it is reasonable to start thinking about the possible strategic consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran should prevention efforts fail.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation territory borders Iran and includes some of the key players in this crisis: France, the United Kingdom and the United States. While NATO is already taking into account the putative Iranian threat through its missile-defence programme, few if any comprehensive assessments have been made of what it would mean to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. In many NATO meetings the Iranian question is the proverbial elephant in the room: it looms large, but political sensitivities and differing perceptions among member states generally preclude any serious and explicit discussions of what it would mean for the Alliance.
A nuclear-armed Iran would in fact have profound, lasting and far-reaching consequences for key NATO roles and missions. NATO’s Article V may be invoked to deter and defend against an Iranian threat or blackmail attempts. Security partnerships in the Near and Middle East would have to be adapted, if not transformed. NATO’s relationship with Russia would be also be affected. Operations in Iran’s neighbourhood would have to take into account Iran’s new ability to project influence. But a nuclear-armed Iran might also make it more problematic for European countries to embark on new NATO operations in the Middle East or Central Asia.
While few analysts believe that even the current regime would consider nuclear arms as just another military instrument, a fierce intellectual battle exists over the question of whether Iran can be deterred. What is less contentious is the proposition that a nuclear Iran would feel emboldened to project its power and influence in the region and beyond. Post-1998 Pakistan may be a precedent: less than a year after it conducted nuclear tests and openly declared itself a nuclear power, Islamabad sought to alter the regional balance of power by launching attacks in the Kargil region of Kashmir. The crisis almost led to a full-blown war between India and Pakistan, which could have turned nuclear.
The exact scope of the consequences of a nuclear Iran is scenario-dependent. At one end of the spectrum is a scenario where Tehran is widely assumed to have unassembled nuclear weapons, but has not admitted it (except perhaps through vague references to a ‘strategic deterrence capability’), has refrained from testing and has not withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In such a scenario, it is unlikely that all NATO members would be prepared to consider that there was a serious Iranian nuclear threat to the Alliance and to take concrete measures to deal with it. At the other end of the spectrum is a scenario where Iran has crossed the Rubicon: it has tested a nuclear device and announced its withdrawal from the NPT. Such a dramatic development would likely have much more profound political and strategic consequences for NATO, among them new external demands for security guarantees. Unless otherwise stated this essay posits a middle-of-the-road scenario where Iran is assumed to have deliverable nuclear weapons but has not declared or tested them.