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 argue that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, or even remain within “sprinting” distance of acquiring one. They argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, would be increasingly belligerent on the international stage, likely provoking an arms-race in the Middle East. In worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed Iran may even precipitate WWIII and cast the world into nuclear winter. Given these dire projected risks, hawks generally oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran which allows the country to continue enriching uranium—which is tantamount to saying they oppose negotiations altogether.
For the sake of argument (and simply for the sake of argument), let’s assume these fears are well-founded, and not only does Iran want a nuclear weapon, but they actually succeed in obtaining one. Moreover, let’s assume that the Islamic Republic may even be willing to use weapons of mass destruction against their adversaries. The brute fact remains that Iran would not actually be able to carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the U.S.; even the threat of a so-called “dirty bomb” is negligible.
Can Iran Hit the U.S. or Israel?
Iran’s biggest challenge in targeting the U.S. or Israel would be geographic. There are roughly 1,800 km separating the Islamic Republic from Israel’s borders. In the intervening space are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—with whom Israel has entered into joint missile-defense pacts to contain Iran. There is a good chance that a missile from Iran would be intercepted by one of these allies before it even reached Israel’s borders.
But even in the event that this first line of defense failed, Israel has three complementary missile defense systems, which are among the most sophisticated on planet earth. They also have the strongest military in the region, bar none—having recently quadrupled their air force’s already-unparalleled striking power. These would allow Israel to quickly intercept any incoming projectile launched from such a long distance.
Moreover, carrying out a surprise attack would be extraordinarily difficult, given that Israel also has one of the best intelligence agencies in the world, focused nearly entirely on Iran—not to mention its “unprecedented” levels of intelligence and security cooperation with the United States.
Israel also has geographical hostages which would deter a strike: even if Iran had the capability to actually hit Israel with nuclear weapons, it would be nearly impossible to do so without killing massive numbers of Palestinians in the process. Given that Iran has been one of the most vocal, consistent, and substantial supporters of the Palestinian cause, it seems unthinkable that they would carry out a nuclear strike that would decimate Palestine. 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 al-Asad regime.
A strike on America would be even less plausible:
To reach the U.S., an Iranian missile would have to be able to deliver a nuclear payload more than 9,000 km; Iran’s ICBM capacity is nowhere near this range, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. But even then, in order to actually hit U.S. targets, said missile would first have to make it through the network which protects Israel; then it would have to cross the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean without getting detected or intercepted by NATO, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, U.S. satellites, and ultimately, America’s own robust missile defense systems.
But not only would an attempted nuclear strike on Israel or the U.S. be virtually certain to fail, it would amount to suicide for the government in Tehran. The regional and international response would be immediate, more-or-less unanimous, and overwhelming in scale: the Islamic Republic would not survive.
What About a Dirty Bomb?
Even if Iran lacks the capacity to attack the United States or Israel directly, hawks allege that Iran could provide highly-enriched nuclear material to terrorists, to be incorporated into a “dirty bomb.”
Such a scenario would be unlikely for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Iran’s sub-state and non-state allies (the Houthi, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.) are primarily nationalistic, rarely operating outside their home country or their perceived national interests. None of these proxies have a demonstrated intent or capability to attack the U.S. mainland. This is in part why the U.S. intelligence community removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats.
But even in the implausible event that Iran armed some proxy with nuclear material, and they successfully carried out an attack on a major metropolitan center in Israel or the United States, the effect of such a strike would hardly be catastrophic:
Dirty bombs are not weapons of mass destruction: a radiological dispersion device (RDD) would not have much more explosive power than a conventional weapon, and the nuclear material emitted in the process would be unlikely to pose a severe health risk to the public in the immediate or long-term.
Not Even a Deterrent
The logic behind nuclear deterrence is that, in virtue of a country possessing nuclear weapons, adversaries will be hesitant to carry out an attack against them, for fear that weapons of mass destruction will be used in reprisal against said aggressors. However, given that Iran could not carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the United States under any conceivable circumstances, nuclear weapons would do little to deter them from attacking the Islamic Republic at will.
On the contrary, in the event that, in violation of its international commitments, Iran seemed to be making concrete steps to quickly develop and test a nuclear weapon, or if they actually did obtain a nuclear weapon, this would likely prove sufficient justification for major military intervention to disarm, and possibly dismantle, the Islamic Republic. It would help mobilize a public which would be otherwise wary of such an invasion to endorse kinetic action.
At the very least, Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon would result in its becoming a North Korea pariah state, with radically increased isolation on all fronts. This is in stark contrast to the military, economic, geopolitical and even ideological superpower it is poised to become in the event the Islamic Republic is fully integrated into the international community. Accordingly, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is not lying when he declares that nuclear weapons hold no strategic value for Tehran.
Those presenting apocalyptic visions are not independent experts on ballistics, etc. Instead, ideologues who want to contain any manifestation of political Islam, or else parties aligned with one of Iran’s geopolitical adversaries, or just cynical politicians exploiting the Iranian boogeyman in pursuit of their own domestic political agenda.
Most experts on nuclear non-proliferation or foreign policy, along with most of the American public, supports the deal as the best means of preventing, rather than enabling, Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. But even in the highly-unlikely scenario where all of these people are wrong, and the Islamic Republic not only pursued, but acquired, nuclear weapons–it would hardly be the end of the world.