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Professor Posen offers thoughts on nuclear Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency's April 28 report to the U.N. Security Council on the status, direction and potential of Iran's existing nuclear energy program was predated by months of speculation about how -- and if -- world leaders could accept the Islamic republic as a nuclear power.

In a February 2006 essay titled "We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran," Barry Posen, the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, acknowledges that each time a new nuclear weapons state emerges, "we rightly suspect the world has grown more dangerous."

"But as we contemplate the actions, including war, that the United States and its allies might take to forestall a nuclear Iran, we need to coolly assess whether and how such a specter might be deterred and contained," he writes. His essay -- the assessment of how deterrence and containment might work -- was published in The New York Times and reprinted in "Audits of the Conventional Wisdom," a publication of MIT's Center for International Studies (CIS).

The intense concern about Iran's nuclear energy program turns on fears that Iran might produce nuclear weapons, provoking a regional arms race, and that Tehran, emboldened by an arsenal, might take other "aggressive, even reckless, action," Posen explains.

But these outcomes are neither inevitable, nor are they beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to defuse, he states.

In his distilled nuclear tour of U.S. allies in the Middle East, Posen dispenses with the threat of a regional arms race there.

Among allies of the United States -- Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- Israel is already a nuclear power. Egypt, dependent on foreign assistance, would "most likely refrain from joining an arms race," due to international pressure.

Saudi Arabia "has the money to acquire nuclear weapons and technology on the black market, but possible suppliers are few and very closely watched. To develop the domestic scientific, engineering and industrial base necessary to build a self-sustaining nuclear program would take Saudi Arabia years," he writes.

As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey "relied on American nuclear guarantees against the mighty Soviet Union throughout the cold war. There's no obvious reason to presume that American guarantees would seem insufficient relative to Iran," he writes.

As for Iran's use of nuclear weapons, Posen reviews the threats of general concern -- giving the weapons to terrorists; using them to blackmail other states, or engaging in "other kinds of aggressive behavior on the assumption that no one, not even the United States, would accept the risk of trying to invade a nuclear state or to destroy it from the air. The first two threats are improbable and the third is manageable," he writes.

"To threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target," Posen notes.

"Anyone who attacks the United States with nuclear weapons will be attacked with many, many more nuclear weapons. Israel almost certainly has the same policy. If a terrorist group used one of Iran's nuclear weapons, Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon's origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran. No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity," he writes.

Posen addresses Iran's potential use of a nuclear threat to blackmail its neighbors into meeting such demands as raising oil prices, cutting oil production or ceasing cooperation with the United States.

"The United States, which holds a strategic stake in their autonomy, is unlikely to sit by idly as Iran blackmails, say, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that these states would capitulate to a nuclear Iran rather than rely on an American deterrent threat."

In addition, the "consequences of losing a gamble against a vastly superior nuclear power like the United States are grave, and they do not require much imagination to grasp," Posen writes.

As for subversion, Persian Gulf states can "counter that with domestic reforms and by improving their police and intelligence operations -- measures these states are, or should be, undertaking in any case," Posen writes.

Posen also looks back to Cold War history to address what the U.S. response would be if Iran relied on a "diffuse threat of nuclear escalation to deter others from attacking it, even in response to Iranian belligerence."

"Judging from cold war history, if the Iranians so much as appeared to be readying their nuclear forces for use, the United States might consider a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Israel might adopt a similar doctrine in the face of an Iranian nuclear arsenal."

In a note on Iran's current military capability, Posen writes, "Iran's military is large, but its conventional weapons are obsolete. Today the Iranian military could impose considerable costs on an American invasion or occupation force within Iran, but only with vast and extraordinarily expensive improvements could it defeat the American military if it were sent to defend the Gulf states from Iranian aggression."

"We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran" first appeared in the New York Times on February 27, 2006.

To read the full text of Posen's essay and other essays in the CIS "Audits" series, visit

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