Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

Iran’s nuclear threat is a myth

Tehran won’t be able to strike Israel or the US even if it acquires nuclear weapons

May 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 21, Iran and six world powers resumed the final phase of nuclear talks after a preliminary framework deal reached earlier this month. Iran and the P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — are expected to reach a final accord by the end of June.

Yet hawks in Washington and Israel continue to oppose the negotiations. They argue that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon or even remain within sprinting distance of acquiring one. A nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, they claim, and would likely provoke a nuclear arms race in the troubled Middle East. Others have suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran may even precipitate World War III, pushing the world closer to a nuclear winter.

Most of these fears are simply unfounded. In fact, even if Iran wanted a nuclear weapon and managed to obtain one, it would not be able to carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the United States.

No ballistic missile option

Iran’s primary challenge in targeting the U.S. or Israel would be geographic. Roughly 1,100 miles separate the Islamic Republic from Israel’s borders. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which maintain joint missile-defense pacts with Israel, occupy much of the intervening space. This means that a missile from Iran could easily be intercepted by one of these countries before it reaches Israel.

Even if this first line of defense failed, Israel has three complementary missile defense systems that are among the most sophisticated in the world. Israel has the strongest military in the region and has recently quadrupled its air force’s striking power, which would allow the country to quickly intercept incoming projectiles.   

Moreover, launching a surprise attack would be extraordinarily difficult, given Israel’s superior intelligence capabilities, which are focused almost entirely on Iran — not to mention its unprecedented cooperation with the United States.

Israel also has other geographical advantages: It would be nearly impossible for Iran to strike Israel without killing large numbers of Palestinians in the process. Iran has been one of the most vocal and consistent supporters of the Palestinian cause. Thus it is unthinkable that Tehran would carry out a nuclear strike, which could annihilate the Palestinian territories. Nuclear fallout from such a strike could prove devastating to southern Lebanon and western Syria, causing immense harm to two of Iran’s key regional allies, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

A strike on the United States would be even less plausible. To reach the U.S., an Iranian missile would have to deliver a nuclear payload more than 6,000 miles. The capacity of Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missiles is nowhere near this range, and it won’t be for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the missile would have to make it through the network that protects Israel, cross the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic, all without being detected or intercepted by NATO, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, U.S. satellites and Washington’s robust missile defense systems.

Clearly, any attempted nuclear strike on Israel or the U.S. is certain to fail. In fact, it would amount to suicide for Tehran. The regional and international response would be immediate, more or less unanimous and overwhelming in scale: The Islamic Republic would not survive.

The majority of the American public supports a nuclear deal as the best alternative to preventing – rather than enabling – Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Hawks contend that, even if it lacked the capacity to attack Israel or the U.S., Iran could provide highly enriched nuclear material to terrorist groups to be incorporated into a devastating dirty bomb that could be deployed against the U.S. or Israel. But this scenario is unlikely for a number of reasons.

For one, Iran’s regional allies — including Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis —are primarily nationalistic and rarely operate outside their home countries or their perceived national interests. Moreover, none of these groups have a demonstrated intent or capability to attack the U.S. mainland. This is in part why U.S. intelligence recently removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats.

Moreover, dirty bombs are not weapons of mass destruction. A radiological dispersion device does not have much more explosive power than a conventional weapon. Moreover, the relatively small amounts of nuclear material emitted in the process are unlikely to pose a severe immediate or long-term health risk to the public.

Therefore, even if Iran’s proxies obtained nuclear material and decided to carry out a radiological attack in Israel or the United States, the effect would hardly be catastrophic. The consequences for Iran, on the other hand, would be.

No deterrence

The logic behind nuclear deterrence is that a country will be hesitant to carry out an attack against an adversary that possesses nuclear weapons, lest it use weapons of mass destruction in reprisal. However, given that Iran cannot carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the United States under any conceivable circumstances, nuclear weapons would do little to deter Israel or the U.S. from attacking Tehran.

On the contrary, if in violation of its international commitments, Iran makes concrete steps toward developing and testing a nuclear weapon or manages to obtain one, that could be used as sufficient justification for a military intervention to disarm and possibly dismantle the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s procurement of a nuclear weapon would result in its becoming a pariah state like North Korea, with increased isolation. This is in stark contrast to the military, economic, geopolitical and ideological superpower it is poised to become if fully integrated into the international community. Hence Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is right to suggest that nuclear weapons hold no strategic value for Tehran.

Most nuclear nonproliferation and foreign policy experts, as well as the majority of the American public, support a nuclear deal as the best alternative to preventing — rather than enabling, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those presenting apocalyptic visions of nuclear-armed Iran are not independent ballistics experts. Instead, they are ideologues or parties who are aligned with one of Iran’s geopolitical adversaries or cynical politicians who want to exploit the Iranian bogeyman in the service of their domestic political agendas. In fact, even in the unlikely event that Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would hardly be the end of the world.

Musa al-Gharbi is a senior fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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