Nuclear Fear Factor


Even as the International Atomic Energy Agency is meeting with Iranian officials to discuss increasing the openness of Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant about Tehran’s right to pursue such a program — including uranium enrichment, which would give Iran de facto nuclear weapon capability.

This raises the specter of one of the greatest fears in the post-Sept. 11 world: nuclear terrorism.

Indeed, this was the prospect brandished by President Bush to help gain public support for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year," he said. "And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists."

But how likely is it that a regime with ties to terrorist groups would give them a nuclear weapon?

The conventional wisdom is that if a regime such as Iran acquired a nuclear weapon it could give that weapon to a terrorist group it supports (such as Hezbollah) and that the group would use the weapon against a common foe of the group and the regime (presumably the United States.)

This is the logic of the enemy of my friend is my enemy, which is emotionally appealing and based on the assumption that regimes and terrorist groups hate us for who we are.

But it is deeply flawed.

First and foremost, there is no history of hostile regimes supplying terrorist groups with chemical or biological weapons they have access to, let alone a nuclear weapon.

Saddam was known to support anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups (including Hamas) for years, but he never gave chemical or biological weapons to those groups to use against Israel, a country he hated as much as he hated the United States. The same is true for the mullahs in Tehran.

It is also important to understand that terrorist groups aided by hostile regimes are not completely controlled by those regimes. There is an assumption that a terrorist group would use a nuclear weapon to attack the United States — and that this is the only plausible scenario.

But a nuclear weapon would also give the terrorist group the ability to topple the regime that supplied it, and the regime would have no way to prevent that from happening once the weapon was out of its control.

Moreover, it would be logistically easier for the terrorists to attack the regime that supplied it — rather than trying to clandestinely transfer the weapon to a foreign target like the United States.

Two other factors would affect a regime’s decision to transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists. First, the cost to develop such weapons is significant — several billions of dollars. One has to question whether any regime would make that kind of investment simply to give a weapon away.

Second, once a weapon is in the hands of terrorists, they could use it against any target of their choosing. If that target is not the one approved by the regime, nuclear forensics could be used to trace the weapon back to its source (even without nuclear forensics, the list of suspects will be relatively short).

As a result, the regime would have to worry that a terrorist group would commit an act that would endanger its own survival — especially if U.S. policy is to reserve the right to retaliate against the suspect regime using its vastly superior nuclear arsenal.

Indeed, if deterring U.S.-imposed regime change is one of the primary incentives for certain countries to pursue nuclear weapons, giving them away to terrorists would be counter-productive and more likely to invite the very action the regime seeks to avert.

Overall, a regime would have to have suicidal tendencies to engage in such risky behavior — yet while individual fanatics may sometimes be willing to commit suicide for a cause, prominent political leaders rarely display that characteristic.

So while the logic of the enemy of my friend is my enemy has popular appeal, the reality is that there are clear and significant disincentives for any regime to simply give away a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group.

Thus, although we must be concerned about the prospect of nuclear terrorism, we should also not be mesmerized by rhetoric of smoking guns in the form of mushroom clouds and live in dire fear of it.

CHARLES PEÑA is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, a senior fellow with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books).

November 26, 2015
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