Nuclear Terrorism: An Iranian Perspective
Nuclear terrorism was first identified by the United States as a unique concern at the Washington "Nuclear Security Summit" of April 12-13, 2010. At that meeting, President Obama maintained that access to nuclear weapons by terrorist groups was "the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term."1 This issue was highlighted again at the Seoul "Nuclear Security Summit," March 26-27, 2012. The U.S. view of this threat as critical and imminent will affect international politics, especially Iran-U.S. relations, from now on. For instance, here is the way the United States views Iran in the context of nuclear terrorism in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR): "The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear-non-proliferation obligations"2 — except the states that the United States deems to be in violation of the NPT: Iran and North Korea. The United States explicitly threatens non-nuclear-weapons states in its official doctrine, emphasizing the deterrent and weaponization aspects of Iran's nuclear program, on the one hand, and refuting Iran's potential to counter nuclear terrorism by excluding Iran from nuclear-security summits, on the other.
From an Iranian perspective, the issue of nuclear terrorism can incorporate both challenges and opportunities in interstate affairs, including Iran's relations with the West. The challenges can be discussed from three perspectives. The first is the probability and imminence of nuclear terrorism to the international community and individual states like Iran. Will the United States adopt a broader interpretation of the use of force in the form of preemptive war under the pretext of a new threat to international security? Some analysts believe that the United States is exaggerating this issue. Second, one might argue here that the main objectives behind raising this issue include the world powers' monopoly over nuclear arsenals, maximizing their control over global nuclear subjects dominating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), controlling nuclear fuel and crushing the resistance of independent nations. Third is the emphasis on the issue of deterrence and the relationship between nuclear terrorism and comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Some analysts in the West argue that the issue of nuclear terrorism is raised mainly to divert public attention away from comprehensive nuclear disarmament. From an Iranian perspective, however, the main U.S. goal in raising this issue at the regional level is essentially to maintain a balance of power and deterrence in the region in order to ensure Israel's nuclear monopoly. Such challenges have made Iran pessimistic about the issue of nuclear terrorism, particularly when the country, despite possessing nuclear materials, has so far not been invited to any nuclear-security summits. These meetings impose commitments on Iran without offering it any privileges.
However, the threat of nuclear terrorism could bring about opportunities to advance cooperation and confidence building between Iran and the United States. Iran's nuclear reactor — the Bushehr nuclear plant — is operating with nuclear materials, and the Russians are to hand over control of the facilities to the Iranians shortly. Therefore, the cooperation of the West in ensuring the safety of Iran's nuclear materials could prepare the ground for further collaboration between Iran and the West. With the pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani now increasing hope for further cooperation, a positive gesture from the Western side could build confidence in Iran's domestic politics among Iranians and consensus among the political elites.
It is also important to have a realistic view towards the issue of battling terrorism. Linking nuclear and conventional terrorism, on the one hand, and deterrence and Iran's nuclear program, on the other, has distorted these threats. This situation has subsequently put undue pressure on countries such as Iran. In addition, nuclear terrorism can be a good starting point for regional cooperation. In this respect, the West's recognition of Iran as a nuclear state would encourage Tehran to offer comprehensive cooperation in tackling the threat of nuclear terrorism, especially at the regional level. Iran is situated at the center of the region in which most of the nuclear terrorist activities by groups such as al-Qaeda would presumably take place. Such an approach would undoubtedly lead to trust building, marking a turning point in regional and global cooperation.
Dr. Barzegar is chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University and the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.