Iran’s Nuclear Threat to NATO

As NATO prepares a new Strategic Concept, the Alliance must address the dangerous prospect of a new and direct security threat:  Iran, under the grip of a hostile and authoritarian leadership, armed with and emboldened by nuclear weapons.

Iran is reaching the threshold where it can build nuclear weapons.  It has mastered the basic technology to enrich uranium, despite the absence of any obvious civil requirement. Moreover UN investigators have reported troubling indications that Iran has conducted detailed studies and engineering work on assembling a nuclear warhead for Iran’s Shahab 3 missile – an existing system that can reach NATO.

The allies have supported diplomatic efforts to remove this danger.  Yet offer after offer has been refused by Tehran.  Multilateral diplomacy backed by sanctions has not succeeded in dissuading an autocratic regime from nuclear pursuits that it sees as essential to prestige, power, influence, and — and perhaps increasingly – its own survival.  

Once armed with nuclear weapons, Iran’s leaders may not be so suicidal as to detonate them on NATO territory.  However Iran’s leaders may engage in nuclear brinksmanship to try to intimidate neighbors, deter outside intervention, or impress their own public.  They may feel emboldened to use surrogates, asymmetric means, or conventional force to seize territory, extend influence, or attack neighbors.  And whether Tehran intends it or not, groups like Hezbollah may see Iran’s atomic arsenal as a “nuclear umbrella” for more aggressive action against Israel and others.  

Mishandled brinksmanship or nuclear-emboldened aggression may escalate, deliberately or not, to nuclear use.  Others in the region may decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals.  Candidate proliferants include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even Turkey, the NATO ally most exposed.  A nuclear arms race is not inevitable, nor would it necessarily be fast.  But it would magnify the risk of accident, miscalculation, or nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.  

NATO must prepare to contain the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.  It should do so in several ways.  

First, NATO should reinforce its ability to protect its territory, population, and regional interests.  This requires military capabilities to project force, ensure the security of energy supplies, and conduct operations despite the threat or use of nuclear weapons.  This requires missile defenses that can protect Alliance territory and deployed forces.  This requires command and control and logistical arrangements, perhaps taking advantage of existing U.S. and French bases in the Gulf countries.

Second, NATO should strengthen security relations with countries in its Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, particularly Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Consultations on the security risks of Iran’s nuclear activities would be a first step.  Subsequent steps could include exercises, combined contingency planning, and deploying missile defenses that can extend protection to regional partners and interoperate with their own defenses.  Cooperation will need to be expanded carefully and quietly, as some countries may not want to be seen as too close to NATO — or to Israel as one of NATO’s partners.

Third, NATO should act to discourage further proliferation.  Strong security relations with the countries most exposed can reduce their incentives to proliferate.  Iran must also be denied any benefit from its nuclear arms.  Other would-be proliferants should see that treaty violations bring penalties instead of prestige, sanctions instead of security, and isolation instead of influence.  A concerted effort to deny Iran any nuclear benefit can also create conditions to “rollback” its weapons program under a future leadership that seeks more positive relations with NATO countries.

Finally, NATO should consider the impact on its own nuclear policy.   NATO allies have already dramatically reduced their nuclear forces, particularly in Europe, and most are attracted by the vision of a nuclear free world.  However, the Alliance cannot rush to become nuclear free when nuclear dangers mount in the range of the Shahab 3 or future Iranian missiles.  NATO’s nuclear forces may still have an important contribution to make in deterring Iran’s leaders from trying to exploit new nuclear arms and in reassuring allies and partners who might otherwise seek their own atom bombs.  NATO’s nuclear weapons helped prevent nuclear proliferation during the Cold War; they may play a similar role now, in a very different context and at much reduced levels.

Confronting the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran will not be easy for the 28 allies.  Not all are equally concerned, and none want to signal that diplomacy will fail.  NATO is consumed by Afghanistan, where success is important for the region and the Alliance.  Yet a nuclear-armed Iran will pose a direct threat, one that NATO cannot ignore.
Gregory L. Schulte was U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2005 to 2009 and worked at NATO Headquarters on crisis management and nuclear planning from 1992 to 1998.  These are his personal views and not those of the U.S. government or National Defense University, where he is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction.