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Is Iran a Martyr State?

There is no question that Iranís nuclear program could fundamentally reshape the strategic landscape of the Middle East. A nuclear arsenal would enable Iranís leadership to deter conventional military threats, thereby reducing the ability of its main military rivals, Israel and the United States, to project conventional military power over it. This could give Iran greater room to initiate and prosecute limited regional conflicts against Israel, the Arab Gulf states, and U.S. forces deployed in the region. Iranís program also creates incentives for its neighbors to hedge against an Iranian weapons capability, and there is growing evidence that some are beginning to do so. The emergence of additional nuclear-capable states in the Middle East presents more possibilities for miscalculation and mistake, which raises the chances of a nuclear conflagration.

These are grave contingencies, especially for countries like Israel that would bear a disproportionate share of the risks. But they are not novel either. Regional arms races, limited war, and deterrence failure are the archetypical problems posed by the spread of nuclear weapons, and there is a well-established body of scholarly literature and practical policy experience on how to manage these problems. More countries have given up nuclear weapons programs than have gone on to successfully develop them, thanks in significant part to successful conflict resolution, effective security assurances, and credible diplomatic and economic pressures by the United States and like-minded countries.


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