There are as many reasons for a nuclear-armed Tehran to become more circumspect with its proxies as there are for such groups to be emboldened.

In the abundant recent analysis of a nuclearising Iran, scholars and other experts have identified several dangers. The Iranian regime could bully regional rivals, increase its influence in Iraq, further challenge US power in the Gulf and set off a proliferation cascade. Another oft-cited danger is that, protected from retaliation by its nuclear shield, Iran will step up its support for proxy groups in the Middle East. Even without increased backing from Tehran, Hizbullah and Hamas may be emboldened to increase their attacks on Israel, believing that they are covered by an Iranian ‘nuclear umbrella’. With a few exceptions, however, most recent analysis fails to explain how Iran would use the bomb to bring about such changes. As outlined by Paul R. Pillar, professor at Georgetown University, most commentary ‘links Iran with sundry forms of objectionable behaviour, either real or hypothetical, without explaining what difference the possession of a nuclear weapon would make’. To understand the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, therefore, and to devise policies to avert or mitigate these dangers, we must analyse the causal link between nuclearisation and its potential consequences.

Our purpose here is to examine the contention that an Iranian nuclear umbrella would permit proxy groups to increase their military activities. Acquisition of nuclear weapons could permit Iran to step up its material and ideological support for proxy groups, and embolden regional non-state actors that do not receive Iranian assistance. Although Iran has connections to several proxy groups in the Middle East, we focus on its most prominent relationship: that with Hizbullah. Specifically, we ask how nuclear weapons would change the partnership. Analysing Iran–Hizbullah relations can also shed light on Tehran’s affiliations with similar groups, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and with militant organisations operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there are only a few instances in which nuclear powers have aligned themselves with non-state proxies, we examine their interactions to shed light on how extended deterrence may work in such alliances. Our analysis indicates that while a nuclear-armed Iran may increase its support of proxies, it may also find that the costs of providing greater assistance to Hizbullah outweigh the benefits. In particular, a nuclear-armed Iran could find that its proxies are no longer as necessary to achieving its goals. An Iranian bomb could make both Iran and Hizbullah targets for US or Israeli military action, and a war between Israel and Hizbullah could drag in Iran, even if Tehran seeks to avoid direct military conflict with Israel.

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Erica D. Borghard is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. Her dissertation analyses alliances between armed groups and their state sponsors.

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Columbia and a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is completing a dissertation on signalling and extended nuclear deterrence.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2013

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