August 18, 2022

IntelBrief: Regional Implications of a Nuclear Iran

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line up Front

  • Advances in Iran’s nuclear program have heightened concerns that it could develop a nuclear bomb in a matter of weeks.
  • Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and has signaled it would take aggressive military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program if it passes the nuclear threshold.
  • If Iran successfully develops the bomb, Saudi Arabia may follow through on its threat to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, potentially sparking a regional arms race.
  • Regional tensions could increase if a nuclear Iran were to embolden its allies, and the United States deployed additional combat power to the region.

As of mid-August, international diplomats and proliferation experts have begun to consider Iran a “threshold nuclear state,” based on the significant advances its nuclear program has made since President Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. On July 17, Kamal Kharrazi, Iran’s former Foreign Minister and now an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Al Jazeera: “In a few days we were able to enrich uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium … Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build it." Multilateral talks to restore full U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed on August 4 and have made unexpected progress. Exchanges in recent days between European Union and Iranian negotiators have given some cause for optimism that a deal could be reached. Still, nothing has been finalized and, without an agreement in place, Iran’s nuclear program could reportedly break out towards a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks if its leadership gives the authorization.

Iran’s nuclear progress has raised alarm bells in Israel which considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Israeli officials have asserted the right to unilaterally prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state and will almost certainly escalate military operations if Tehran moves to assemble a weapon. In recent years, Israeli officials have orchestrated covert operations inside Iran to disrupt its program, including assassinating the “father” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November 2020. Although the conflict between Iran and Israel has been largely covert and low intensity to date, escalated Israeli attacks against Iranian facilities could trigger a regional war, as Iran would undoubtedly retaliate in response to a major Israeli operation targeting its nuclear program.

Israel has strengthened its position by eliciting U.S. pledges of support. During his July trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint declaration, in which the U.S. affirmed “that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure” Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. The U.S.-Israel "Jerusalem Declaration" came a day after President Biden told an Israeli journalist that he was open to "last resort" use of force against Iran if it breaks out toward a nuclear weapon. The U.S. signature to the pledge represented a move toward accommodating Israel's calls for a "credible military threat" by world powers against a nuclear Iran.

The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, have consistently urged the United States to take a hard line against Iran. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would likely spark an effort by the well-funded Gulf states to acquire an equivalent capability as a deterrent. In March 2018, Saudi de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) told U.S. journalists that: “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” The Gulf and other regional states likely have the capacity to acquire a countervailing capability. U.S. laws prevent the transfer to Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf state of nuclear technology unless the recipient agrees to strict limitations that ensure the technology can only be used for peaceful purposes. The United States has signed an agreement with the UAE under which Abu Dhabi pledged not to enrich uranium, and the UAE has put several nuclear reactors into operation that are producing electricity for the domestic market.

The Saudi civilian nuclear program is believed to be at a relatively early stage of development. However, Saudi Arabia reportedly has provided substantial funding for Pakistan’s nuclear program over the past several decades, perhaps with an implicit understanding that if called upon, Pakistan would supply the Kingdom with the technology needed to develop its own nuclear weapon. While some scholars argue that nuclear parity between adversaries actually promotes stability as a result of mutual deterrence, this claim is predicated on the assumption that nuclear states will behave rationally. Other regional powers, including Turkey and Egypt, whose relations with Iran are less fraught than those of the Gulf states and Israel, could also be compelled to pursue nuclear weapons programs to bolster their deterrent threats.

The repercussions of a nuclear-armed Iran go well beyond triggering a regional nuclear arms race. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would likely be emboldened to increase its activities and influence in the region, based on the assumption that its nuclear status would deter conventional retaliation, particularly if there were doubts about its willingness to commit to a first strike. Although Iranian leaders would not likely transfer nuclear technology to allies and proxies, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran could step up deliveries of weapons and non-nuclear technologies, which its allies would employ against its regional adversaries. Israel would likely respond to any increase in Iranian regional aggression with military and covert action. The Gulf states, by contrast, would more likely respond by welcoming expanded dialogue with the Islamic Republic to calm tensions.

Extensive U.S. interest and involvement in the region implies that American policy toward Iran would have to adapt in the event of its acquisition of a nuclear weapon, likely precipitating a shift from denial to deterrence. To reassure the Gulf states and other U.S. allies, the United States would undoubtedly augment its military presence in and around the Gulf as an additional deterrent to Iran. In accordance with the Jerusalem Declaration, the Biden administration would have to consider direct military action against Iranian nuclear facilities if doing so were assessed as likely to deny Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon without provoking a protracted full-spectrum conflict. Whether the United States and a nuclear Iran are drawn into kinetic conflict, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change the balance of power in the region and interrupt the U.S. pivot to address a rising China and a revanchist Russia.