The Looming Middle East Security Crisis
The immediacy of Iranian nuclear and missile proliferation allows little room for delay.


An international-security train wreck appears imminent. The outlines of this emerging crisis have been visible for almost a decade. The George W. Bush administration found no solution to it. And the Obama administration has made matters worse with its arms-control, defense, and deterrence policies.

What is this looming crisis? A November 2011 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program underway and is working on a nuclear warhead for its Shahab-3 ballistic missile — a missile with a reported range of 2,000 kilometers. Nuclear weapons and missiles are a potentially deadly combination. If deployed, they will provide the Iranian leadership with the capability to make severe coercive threats against its neighbors, and eventually against the United States. If actually employed, the combination could destroy undefended nations in a matter of hours. Everyone hopes, but nobody knows, that Iran, a state-sponsor of terrorism, will behave prudently if it acquires these deadly capabilities. Numerous statements by Iranian leaders suggest otherwise.

The November IAEA report concluded that Iran is developing “an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.” Just how close Iran is to having nuclear weapons is not precisely clear from available public information. But in early 2011, then–U.K. defense minister Liam Fox said Iran could acquire nuclear weapons in 2012. The IAEA report suggests that Iran may be only months away from nuclear weapons. If so, this crisis will emerge in full form under President Obama’s watch. This situation is alarming for the United States and may pose an immediate and existential threat to Israel and some moderate Arab states.

Nuclear weapons aren’t the only concern. Iran is capable of producing chemical weapons of mass destruction, and also of weaponizing them via delivery systems, according to a report from the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for analysis. Also according to the report, “Iran probably has the capability to produce some biological warfare (BW) agents for offensive purposes. . . . Iran continues to seek dual-use technologies that could be used for BW.” A 2005 report by the U.S. State Department concluded that “Iran is in violation of its CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] obligations because Iran is acting to retain and modernize key elements of its CW [chemical weapon] infrastructure to include an offensive CW R&D capability and dispersed mobilization facilities”; it also found that “Iran has an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].” Even the Obama administration, typically eager to promote and praise multilateral arms-control agreements, does not conclude that Iran is in compliance with either of these treaties.

Equally important, there is no doubt that Iran today is able to attack its neighbors and parts of Europe with ballistic missiles. Iran’s missile arsenal is growing both in numbers and sophistication. By 2008, according to the official public estimate of the U.S. government, Iran had several hundred short- and medium-range missiles. While the official count has not been updated publicly since then, some unofficial estimates now put the number of Iranian missiles at twice that level. Commenting on a possible missile strike against Israel, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, recently said, “There is no point out of range of and no limit on the number of our missiles.” More disturbing still, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper recently warned that Iran’s “ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD.”