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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All this week we've been examining the conundrum of Iran's nuclear program. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran doesn't have the bomb now but it could acquire nuclear weapons within a few years. If Iran decides it wants the bomb, the U.S. may not be able to stop it. And what policies, then, are available to the U.S. if Iran does get the bomb?

Not long ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested one: the extension of the U.S. defense umbrella to friends and allies in the Middle East. NPR's Mike Shuster has more on that.

MIKE SHUSTER: It was something of a surprising when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Southeast Asia, candidly discussed what might happen if Iran gets the bomb.

Usually, American leaders don't want to admit the U.S. may not be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Clinton implicitly acknowledged it's a possibility.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): 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 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.

SHUSTER: So what's a defense umbrella? Well, the United States already maintains such a relationship 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 in the conventional sense. That is, with conventional weapons. But the defense umbrella also has a nuclear component — what some called the nuclear umbrella, and other calls extended deterrence.

The nuclear umbrella has one obvious and one not-so-obvious goal: the obvious 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: Ironies of Living with the Bomb."

Mr. MICHAEL KREPON (Author): Extended deterrence remains very important. It is a key element to preventing cascades of proliferation.

SHUSTER: Cascades of proliferation is a way to describe 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.

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

Mr. JOSHUA POLLACK (Writer, 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. 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.

SHUSTER: 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, says Michael Krepon.

Mr. KREPON: It's up to the Obama administration, now, to shore up the credibility of that guarantee.

SHUSTER: What does a defense umbrella mean in practical terms? It means building even closer military ties to allies in the Gulf. It would require a continued large naval presence in the Gulf, and the readiness for the U.S. to use air, land and naval forces against Iran should a crisis develop.

And what about nuclear weapons?

Mr. KREPON: There's no need for the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in the Middle East for this extended deterrence to be there.

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

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

Mr. POLLACK: 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.

SHUSTER: So, for these reasons, some experts and analysts believe Secretary of State Clinton might have been better off avoiding talk of a defense umbrella.

Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

Mr. GARY MILHOLLIN (Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control): If she's going to talk about the Iranian nuclear program, she should've 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.

SHUSTER: Clinton's remarks suggest at least some inside the Obama administration fear that ultimately the U.S. may not be able to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And as you're checking news throughout the day on our Web site, check out the interactive map of Iran's nuclear sites and the potential range of its ballistic missiles. That's at the new NPR.org.

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