Cautious Iran

Tehran may want to 'wipe Israel off the map,' but it won't do it with nukes.

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In an effort to deter the international community from imposing sanctions against Iran, the mullahs are trying to instill fear in the Western capitals that if pushed to the wall, they will resort to extreme measures. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the lead in stressing, "The Islamic Republic is prepared to transfer the experience, knowledge, and technology of its scientists." However, such statements have to be viewed in the context of Iran's maladroit attempts to fend off international pressure, as opposed to an actual willingness to share its nuclear know-how with its many terrorist allies.

There are a host of reasons to worry about a theocratic Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Secure in the knowledge that they could inflict horrific pain on adversaries that might dare to oppose their regional designs by force, Iran's mullahs would feel free to bully their Sunni neighbors, co-opt a weak Iraqi state, confront Israel, and severely complicate American military options. A nuclear Iran might also trigger a round of proliferation that would end with a volatile, economically vital region bristling with weapons of truly mass destruction. There is one reason, however, why we shouldn't worry about a nuclear Iran. The mullahs are not about to give their nukes away to terrorist groups.

Despite its routine designation by the State Department as the most active state sponsor of terrorism, Iran's terrorist activities today are largely confined to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Gone are the heady days of the revolution when Iran subsidized militant groups plotting against the Gulf monarchies and dispatched assassination squads to murder dissidents abroad. Nonetheless, Tehran remains attached to the lethal Hizbullah, dubbed by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage the "A-Team" of terrorism, and has done much to sustain both Hamas and Palestine's Islamic Jihad. Would Iran be tempted to offer its potential nuclear arsenal to such forces as they wage their campaigns against Israel?

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The answer to such questions requires a better understanding of the nature of the Iranian-Israeli conflict. For nearly three decades, Iran's reigning mullahs have castigated Israel as a usurper of sacred Islamic lands and as an instrument of American imperialism in the Middle East. Calls for "wiping Israel off the map" may be new to casual observers of Iran, but have long been the mainstay of the theocratic regime's discourse. For Tehran, it is important for groups that keep this flame alive to survive and wage their conflict against Israel. Yet, despite its incendiary rhetoric and its pernicious conduct, Iran has regulated its conflict with Israel. The regime therefore insists that the conflict take place within distinct red lines. By prodding violence, while containing it, Iran is free to burnish its Islamist credentials without necessarily exposing itself to inordinate danger.

Hence the fact that Iran has not transferred any of its more potent weapons to its fighting friends. This is especially striking in the case of Hizbullah. This powerful Shiite organization, now also a political party in Lebanon, has served faithfully as Iran's aircraft carrier, projecting Tehran's power within the region and as far away as Argentina, where Hizbullah killed hundreds of Jews in 1994. Hizbullah's operations chief, Imad Mughniya, is said to have Iranian citizenship and shuttles between Tehran and Beirut. Yet despite Hizbullah's vital role in Iran's security strategy and its vulnerability to Israeli assault, Tehran has not provided it with advanced weaponry. This is not to say that the regime has been parsimonious with its protégé. Hizbullah has received more than 10,000 Katyusha rockets, some of them newer Fajr 5s, as well as long-range mortars that can hit Haifa, and even an unmanned aerial drone. These weapons can and have drawn Israeli blood. But the blister, choking, and nerve agents in Iran's arsenal have been withheld, as have longer range, more accurate missiles. If Tehran has not transferred its deadliest wares to Hizbullah, then it is extremely unlikely it will transfer them at all.

For Iran's cautious mullahs, the critical national mission is the survival of the regime and preservation of Iran's territorial integrity. As such, transferring nuclear arms to terrorist clients that may be difficult to restrain or discipline could expose the regime to an unacceptable degree of Israeli or American retaliation. Any measure that could potentially threaten the clerical leaders' hold on power will be strongly resisted by Iran's risk-averse rulers. The mullahs may be perennially hostile to Israel, but they do appreciate that should such conflict escape its controlled parameters, they could find themselves in a confrontation that would indeed threaten their hold on power.

Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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