June 12

Unthinkable: The Nuclearization of Iran

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Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas War, Iran has used the distraction to significantly expand their nuclear capabilities, which when breakout occurs will fundamentally alter geopolitical risks. Recent events have accelerated Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and security analysts need to take seriously that this will occur as the likelihood increases every day. The failures of the past four administrations have made this issue acute when, and the West now has little time to respond to this crisis. The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash disrupted the plans of hardliners who saw him as a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi was a 63-year-old protégé of Khamenei and considered a leading candidate to succeed the 85-year-old Supreme Leader, although this was not certain in Iran’s opaque political landscape. Raisi’s rise to the presidency was part of a broader consolidation of power by hardliners. His death now leaves a vacuum, potentially opening the field for other factions or figures. While Khamenei has not endorsed a successor, Raisi and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba were frequently mentioned as potential candidates. Raisi’s death has led the regime, essentially Khamenei, to consider the desperate need for Iran to have nuclear weapons so it can survive and spread the revolution.

In addition, the tit-for-tat that occurred between Israel and Iran has led the latter to reconsider the speed in acquiring a nuclear weapon. According Kamal Kharrazi, an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Iran may “consider building” a nuclear weapon if its existence is threatened by Israel. Despite Khamenei’s early 2000s fatwa banning nuclear weapons as “haram” (an obvious lie by the Supreme Leader), ongoing regional conflicts and threats could alter Iran’s public stance. Iran has enriched uranium up to 60% purity, close to the 90% needed for weapons-grade material, and the country has sufficient material for two nuclear weapons. Iran has also purchased 300 tons of uranium from Niger. The shadow war between Iran and Israel intensified in April 2024 when confrontations occurred, including missile and drone attacks following strikes on Iranian targets by Israel, leading to further escalation in the region. On June 5, the member states of the 35-nation Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to censureIran’s violations. Of those, twenty states voted in favor of the censure while two states China and Russia opposed and 12 abstained.

Failures to Contain Iran

The failure to contain Iran starts with a failure to understand Iranian foreign policy. Americans tend to have an idealistic foreign policy rooted in their particular Manicheanism stemming from both Puritan theology and its secular Wilsonian version. On the other hand, Europeans either devoted to the national interest (France, Italy) or modern left-wing ideological frameworks (Britain, Germany, Nordic countries). Iran is juxtaposed to these in that it is focused on exporting the revolution, not just regional hegemony. Because they want to export the revolution, they often work with extremist proxy groups to push their agenda. That “octopus” approach is difficult for Western governments to handle due to their lack of strategic vision based on their myopic foreign policies.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), particularly its Quds Force, has played a significant role in Iran’s foreign policy by sponsoring non-state armed groups across the region. Originally deployed abroad during the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC developed ties with militant groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, providing them with training, weapons, money, and military advice. These groups form part of an “axis of resistance” against the West and Israel, aligning with Tehran’s strategic interests of protecting and exporting the revolution. The Quds Force, as the IRGC’s external operations branch, has been implicated in numerous historical attacks and interventions:

Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has been involved in attacks on US and French forces in Beirut and is linked to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina.
In Iraq, the Quds Force supported Shiite militias against US forces post-2003 invasion, and in Syria, it aided President Bashar al-Assad during the civil war (2011-present).
The IRGC also supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen against a Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis regularly disrupt supply chains by attacking maritime vessels in the area.
Following the rise of the Islamic State, the IRGC expanded its presence in Iraq and Syria to combat the group, cooperating indirectly with US forces. However, tensions resurfaced, leading to the U.S. killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in 2020.

In recent conflicts, the IRGC has supported Palestinian groups like Hamas in their attacks on Israel. In 2024, the IRGC directly attacked Israel with drones and missiles, claiming retaliation for an alleged Israeli strike on its embassy in Syria. This escalation has heightened fears of broader conflict in the Middle East and shown that the West will respond with limited action to deter their attacks.

Except for the brilliant utilization of the Stuxnet cyberattack, the primary Western tool for containing the nuclearization of Iran has been sanctions. However, sanctions are essentially useless in preventing nuclearization. The academic literature has found that sanctions only work between 30-40% of the time, but they always fail to prevent war. When looking at 170 cases of sanctions from World War I to the early 2000s in one study, the researchers found that overall success was 30%, with success going up to 50% when sanctions were designed to achieve modest goals. A Center for New American Security report looked at 24 cases of post-9/11 sanctions, and there was only a success rate of 38%. That CNAS report argues that sanctions on Iran did have some positive effects by bringing them to the negotiating table for the JCPOA, but Iran was able to ignore provisions of that treaty whenever they wanted. Also, the treaty essentially allowed Iran to gain access to nuclear weapons, it only slightly delayed them.

Geopolitical Implications of Iran’s Nuclearization

Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have profound security implications, potentially leading to regional arms races, heightened instability, threats to Israel, undermining of the global non-proliferation regime, increased support for non-state actors, and broader geopolitical and economic consequences.

Middle East Volatility: The Middle East is already a volatile region with ongoing conflicts and geopolitical rivalries. The introduction of nuclear weapons could exacerbate these tensions and lead to increased instability, with a higher risk of nuclear confrontations or accidents.
Nonproliferation Failures: Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, might seek to develop or acquire their own nuclear arsenals in response, increasing regional instability. Relatedly, this would undermine the global non-proliferation regime, particularly the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which would weaken international norms against nuclear proliferation and embolden other countries to pursue nuclear weapons outside the Middle East as well.
Destruction of Israel: Iran has a contentious relationship with Israel, and its leaders have made hostile statements towards the country. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, which could lead to preemptive military actions to prevent Iran from developing or using such weapons. As part of Iran’s foreign policy, the revolutionary country support for various non-state actors, terrorist, and militant groups in the region, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and others. There is a legitimate concern that a nuclear-armed Iran might provide these groups with greater support or even nuclear materials, significantly increasing the threat posed by these groups.
Disruptions to Oil and Supply Chains: Heightened tensions and potential conflict in the Middle East could disrupt global oil supplies, leading to economic repercussions worldwide. Additionally, Iran could threaten supply chains more easily as countries like the United States would have fewer retaliatory capabilities unless they are willing to risk nuclear war. International sanctions and countermeasures against Iran could have broad economic repercussions, affecting global markets and trade.
Deterrence and Increased Likelihood of War: Iran’s nuclear weapons would affect global security dynamics is significant ways as the US and its allies might respond with increased military presence in the region, heightened surveillance, and more robust defense systems, raising the risk of military clashes. Western government would need to alter their defense postures, and countries would need to invest more in missile defense systems, conventional military capabilities, and strategic alliances to counterbalance Iran’s nuclear threat. All of this would significantly increase the likelihood of more direct confrontation.

Why This Matters

Nothing in this description should be new to security professionals and intelligence analysts as it is basic geopolitical analysis, but there are two major reasons as to why this issue matters. First, few analysts are really focusing on the increased likelihood of Iran gaining nuclear capabilities over the short term. There are a myriad of major geopolitical issues occurring, and most analysts (public and private) have started overlooking Iran’s nuclear program. For example, almost all Israeli analysts are focusing on the war and the country’s intelligence agencies have put Iran on the backburner. The same goes with private intelligence groups that are focusing on issues like China’s potential invasion of Taiwan, Russia’s war in Ukraine, Israel’s war against Hamas, elections happening globally, etc. Second, drawing the direct and relevant impacts to one’s clients will require significant analytic work, and therefore, analytic groups should already start preparing for this eventuality. They need to ask how even more volatility in the Middle East will harm their companies, how increased terrorism will pose incidental (or direct) risks, how proliferation will change markets, etc. This will include the need to look at primary, secondary, and tertiary impacts and implications.

Iran is on the precipice of being a nuclear power. Is your client, principal, or corporation prepared for that inevitability?

Source: Linkedin.com

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