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A Nuclear Iran Would Spur Proliferation, Expert Says

(Washington, DC--April 10, 2006) A nuclear-armed Iran would lead to rapid proliferation of such weapons in the Middle East and around the world, according to an expert on nuclear policy. Speaking at a recent RFE/RL briefing, Joseph Cirincione, Senior Associate and Director for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reviewed a series of "worse-case scenarios" for the current Iranian nuclear crisis.

Were Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cirincione said, it is unlikely to use such weapons against Israel or the U.S., because of the deterrence factor. However, there is a great danger, he said, that Iran's neighbors -- particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and a future stabilized Iraq -- would "recalculate" their security needs and seek nuclear weapons in response to Iran's development of a nuclear arsenal. This would lead to a possible "collapse" of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime across the globe. The introduction of nuclear weapons into a region with unresolved political and ethnic tensions, such as the Middle East, is a "recipe for nuclear war," said Cirincione.

Another scenario, said Cirincione, would be a pre-emptive American military strike on Iran. He described three possible types of military intervention as an alternative to a full-scale invasion: a major air-strike, a limited air-strike against "choke points," and a sabotage operation. Cirincione dismissed an invasion as unfeasible, because of Iran's size and population and the lack of international support for such an operation. The Iranian government, Cirincione said, has a number of options with which to counter any U.S. attack: a direct counter-strike at Israel or the U.S. military in Iraq; closing the Straits of Hormuz; using its Hezbollah contacts to launch terrorist attacks; launching an oil embargo; or mobilizing the Iraqi Shia, which could include pressuring the Shia-led government to expel American troops. Cirincione was more optimistic about the possibility of sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities -- "What Iran is trying to do is very difficult," he said, commenting on the challenge faced by a country of Iran's level of industrialization to create and maintain a nuclear weapons program and the resulting potential for disrupting that process.

Cirincione urged a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. He said the best intelligence estimates put Iran five to ten years away from developing a nuclear weapon, citing U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte's recent congressional testimony that the Iranians will not have a nuclear weapon until 2015.