Iran Prompts Debate Over Mideast Defense Umbrella

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton i i

hide captionU.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok on July 21, ahead of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. During her visit, Clinton said a nuclear Iran could be contained by a U.S. "defense umbrella."

Wason Wanichakorn/AP File
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok on July 21, ahead of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. During her visit, Clinton said a nuclear Iran could be contained by a U.S. "defense umbrella."

Wason Wanichakorn/AP File

Iran's leaders say the country's nuclear program exists only for the purpose of generating electricity. Western intelligence agencies say the Islamic republic aims to produce nuclear weapons and intimidate its neighbors. How close is Iran to getting the bomb? How might it be stopped? And what are the implications for the United States and the rest of the world if Iran succeeds? This week, NPR looks at Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons programs in a series.

It was somewhat surprising when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Southeast Asia in July, candidly discussed what might happen if Iran gets the bomb.

Usually, American officials don't want to admit that the U.S. may not be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Clinton implicitly acknowledged it is a possibility, and she suggested a potential response: the extension of the U.S. defense umbrella to friends and allies in the Middle East.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support military capacity of those in the [Persian Gulf], it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon," she said.

Defense Umbrella Serves Dual Goals

The United States already maintains such defense-umbrella relationships with the nations of NATO and with American allies in Asia — Japan and South Korea.

These alliances require the U.S. to come to the defense of these nations if they are attacked with conventional weapons. The U.S. pledge also has a nuclear component — known as the nuclear umbrella, or extended deterrence.

The goal is to deter a nuclear adversary from attacking a friend or ally. The not-so-obvious goal is to dissuade those friends or allies from acquiring nuclear weapons of their own, says Michael Krepon, author of the book Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb.

"Extended deterrence remains very important. It is a key element to preventing cascades of proliferation," Krepon says, referring to how other nations might react to a neighbor acquiring nuclear weapons.

In Asia, the U.S. provides the nuclear umbrella to Japan and South Korea so that even if North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea won't.

In the case of the Middle East, the proliferation cascade could mean that Saudi Arabia and Egypt might seek nuclear weapons if Iran gets the bomb, a development the U.S. would like to prevent.

Unintended Risks

But extending the nuclear umbrella presents new dangers, says Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear proliferation who writes for the Web site ArmsControlWonk.

"Nuclear extended deterrence, if it fails, could embroil the United States, or whoever else is providing this guarantee, in a nuclear war that they otherwise could have avoided," Pollack says. "These second-hand retaliatory threats that we're talking about may not be quite as credible as the retaliatory threats one would make on behalf of one's own country."

In the case of the Middle East, greater reliance on an American defense guarantee may already be a problem, a result of the mess in Iraq. But it's now President Obama's problem, Krepon says.

"It's up to the Obama administration now to shore up the credibility of that guarantee," he says.

In practical terms in the Middle East, the policy would mean building even closer military ties to allies in the Gulf. It would require a continued large naval presence in the Gulf, and the U.S. ability to quickly deploy air, land and naval forces against Iran should a crisis develop.

U.S. long-range bombers use a base on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, and they may carry nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, "there's no need for the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in the Middle East for this extended deterrence to be there," Krepon says.

U.S. Role In Regional Defense

Still, extending a nuclear umbrella in the Middle East poses other challenges, Pollack notes.

"Our allies in the Persian Gulf tend to be very sensitive to claims that they are overly reliant on the United States for their security, and perhaps are not fully independent. So, revolutionary states like Iran and like Syria could reap a propaganda coup, a bonanza, from too-overt an American nuclear security guarantee. Even al-Qaida could be expected to try to capitalize on a declaration like that," he says.

So for these reasons, some experts and analysts believe Secretary of State Clinton might have been better off avoiding talk of a defense umbrella. Clinton's remarks suggested at least some inside the Obama administration fear that ultimately the U.S. may not be able to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

"If she's going to talk about the Iranian nuclear program, she should have talked about U.S. policies to counter the likelihood that Iran would make a bomb, rather than talking about how even if Iran did make a bomb, it wouldn't help because we would come to the aid of anyone Iran might threaten," says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a nonprofit research and advocacy group working to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

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