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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Still, other experts believe that an Iranian bomb could spark a regional arms race – or make Iran more bold in exerting its authority. In January, an analysis of the implications of a nuclear Iran published by the NATO Defense College in Rome warned of a "regional chain reaction" that "could endanger the Middle East's strategic stability."Skip to next paragraph
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Nuclear war or a "full-scale confrontation under the nuclear threshold are probably not driving Iranian strategic thinking," the NATO report said.
But new capabilities "could well prove to be an effective security umbrella for offensive non-nuclear activities" – as some argue they proved to be for Pakistan in stepping up violence against India after both sides tested nuclear devices in 1998.
The Pakistan-India example is, in fact, far less reassuring than that of China. The ability of nuclear weapons "to shield Pakistan against all-out Indian retaliation, and to attract international attention" actually encouraged aggressive Pakistani behavior, S. Paul Kapur of the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., wrote in International Security in 2008. This, in turn, provoked forceful Indian responses – including a more aggressive conventional military posture. The tension did not lead to a nuclear or large-scale war, but "such fortunate outcomes were not guaranteed and did not result primarily from nuclear deterrence," he wrote.
This "stability-instability paradox" is one of the dangers experts worry about in the Middle East with a nuclear-armed Iran. The NATO analysis notes that while the region might be strategically stable because a conventional war is unlikely to escalate to a nuclear level, the very knowledge that there is a cap on how far conventional hostilities could go might unleash more military adventurism and foster instability.
The NATO report cites a Strait of Hormuz incident in January 2008, when a number of small, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats closed in on three US Navy ships, coming within seconds of a firefight. The report asserted that a "much worse end result" may have been averted because a nuclear-armed Iran would have felt it could push further the limits of conventional war.
Other analysts doubt whether a nuclear Iran could successfully leverage its new power. A late January analysis by INSS argues that, other than preventing Israel from completely destroying Iran, the usefulness of a nuclear capability in advancing regular military and diplomatic goals is "not great." The INSS notes, for example, that Israeli forces would not refrain from responding against Hezbollah or Hamas if an Israeli soldier were kidnapped. Still, a nuclear Iran would "symbolize the end of an era in which the reigning image of Israel was as having a monopoly on deterrent capabilities."
NATO says it is "unlikely" that Iran would pledge nuclear protection of its proxies like Hezbollah – and makes no mention of sharing such hard-won nuclear technology with them, which is a frequent refrain of hawks and doomsday politicians.