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What would happen if Iran had the bomb? (+video)

Even as Tehran signals an interest in nuclear talks, many experts have already envisioned what the world would look like if the country got nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be as dire as many fear, but it would unleash new uncertainties - and perhaps a regional arms race.

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"Look at the neighborhood that I live in: Everyone else has nuclear weapons who matters; and those who don't, don't matter, and get invaded by the United States of America," Mr. Riedel said on a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

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In other words, the reason Tehran might pursue a bomb is the same one that has propelled every nuclear state in history: self-protection. Some analysts also believe that the main US tool to discourage Iran from developing weapons – stiff economic sanctions – might have the opposite effect.

"The danger is if you keep upping the sanctions [on Iran], there may be a point at which they have nothing else to lose," says Shahram Chubin, a Geneva-based Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If [they] see sanctions as regime threatening, then what is to stop [them] from going over [the top]?"

Yet few analysts see Tehran deciding to cross the nuclear threshold easily. In his testimony, Mr. Clapper said Iran's nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a "cost-benefit approach" – that its rulers would undoubtedly take into account the impact on the country's "security, prestige, and influence." Mr. Chubin says he expects Tehran to continue to quietly put all the elements in place – from stockpiling more enriched uranium that can be pushed to weapons-grade within a few months to improving its missiles – for a future "breakout," if the Islamic regime ever calculates that only weaponization will protect it from US or Israeli threats of attack.

What will likely not happen is that Iran will just one day flip a switch and build a weapon. Ambiguity has long been a part of the country's nuclear strategy. "I don't think there's going to be a day, and then a 'day after,' " says Chubin, author of "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions." "It's going to be blurry as it has been."

There is good reason for its opacity. Once it were to declare that it was a nuclear power, Iran would face all the international wrath and condemnation that would come with it – including for having violated the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory.

"I think it's in their interest to go to the limit, bring their capabilities there, and then – when there are milestones – decide whether to go forward," says Olli Heinonen, the former head of safeguards at the IAEA, now at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Once you put it down that you have nuclear weapons, you are in a different situation. But while you have the ambiguity and people really don't know, and you have maybe not broken all the rules of the NPT, then you are much better off because you can then get some international support."

If Iran were to become a nuclear power, the most immediate question would be what it means for Israel, where warnings have reached histrionic heights.

"Absolutely nothing will happen," says Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli historian and author of some 20 books on military strategy. "Israel has what it takes to deter Iran, and the Iranians know it."

Mr. Van Creveld is implying that Israel's own nuclear arsenal of an estimated 200 warheads would prevent any Iranian first strike. Israel has the only such arsenal in the Middle East, and – unlike Iran's program – it has never been subject to UN inspection or safeguards.

"Say they build one bomb – it's not good enough. They need how many – 2, 3, 5, 10, 20? And that will take them a long time, so it's all nonsense," says Van Creveld. Iran is "not going to commit suicide by dropping the bomb – or even threatening to drop the bomb – on us."

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