Thursday, October 13, 2005

World May Have to Live with Nuclear Iran

Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and the United States may find it less costly to deter a nuclear-armed Iran than to dismantle its weapons program, according to two U.S.-funded researchers who advise the Pentagon.

"Can the United States live with a nuclear-armed Iran? Despite its rhetoric, it may have no choice," concluded the report by Judith Yaphe and Air Force Col. Charles Lutes, which was released on Thursday.

The potential for rolling back Iran's program, once it produces a nuclear weapon, "is lower than preventing it in the first place and the costs of rollback may be higher than the costs of deterring and containing a nuclear Iran," they said. READ MORE

The two analysts are senior fellows at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies, which does policy research for the Defense Department.

European powers Britain, France and Germany, with U.S. support, have pursued so-far failed negotiations aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear activities.

U.S. intelligence says Iran could produce a weapon in about a decade. Tehran insist its aim is peaceful nuclear energy.

European and American officials have long acknowledged privately that thwarting Iran's ambitions is a long shot and the new report reinforces that view.

In a 2001 report, Yaphe, a Mideast expert and former CIA analyst, judged Iran as determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

Nothing in the intervening four years has diverted Tehran from the "systematic pursuit of nuclear technology that could contribute to a weapons program," the new report concluded.


The report says most Iran experts believe the Islamic republic would choose to become a "virtual nuclear power," meaning it would not test but would be able to assemble a weapon quickly from prefabricated components.

To U.S. ally Israel, "a nuclear-armed Iran is a clear and present danger" and most Israeli strategists "do not question if Israel should seek to remove Iranian nuclear facilities," only how or when it should be done, the report said.

However, the U.S. researchers warned that a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive military strike likely would rally Iranians around a religious fundamentalist government in Tehran that they might otherwise want to replace, spur new attacks by Iran-allied groups like Hizbollah.

They also warned that if Washington sought to change the government in Tehran -- as it did in Iraq -- there is an "extremely high risk that the Iranian regime would use its nuclear weapon in a last-ditch effort to save itself."

On living with a nuclear-armed Iran, the analysts said Tehran was unlikely to use its nuclear capability unless facing an overwhelming threat and while it might become more assertive in the region, superior U.S. capabilities could probably deter significant mischief.

But they said the lack of direct communications between Iran and the United States, Israel and its own neighbors makes Tehran's inability to recognize "red lines" -- behavior which the other countries will not tolerate -- a great danger.

"Successful deterrence depends on the ability to understand the other's thinking and accurately anticipate its behavior," the researchers said.

Despite U.S. concerns that Iran might share nuclear capabilities with "terrorist" groups, Yaphe and Lutes concluded "Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up control of such weapons to terrorist organizations."

But they acknowledged doubts about whether Tehran could control all elements of the Iranian system with access to that technology.