CAPITOL HILL — Iran’s support for terrorists around the world will grow further if it acquires nuclear weapons, according to U.S. lawmakers and experts testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.
The United States has long regarded Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran’s backing for terrorists was highlighted by last week’s suicide bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists. Israeli officials say the attack was carried out with Iranian support, a charge Tehran denies.
Whatever Iran’s current activities, a nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to do even more, according to Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
“A nuclear Iran would feel empowered to conduct more terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets, provide more lethal assistance to Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups, and give the Quds Force greater freedom to support terrorist groups across the Middle East,” Casey said.
Washington Institute for Near East Policy counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt put it more succinctly.
“If Iran were to get a nuclear capability, that would be Iran on steroids,” Levitt said.
But would Iran go so far as to share atomic weapons with terrorists?
Middle East scholar Daniel Byman of the Washington-based Brookings Institution says he does not think so.
“The silver lining [i.e., the good news], if we can call it that, is that under current circumstances Iran would not be likely to pass a nuclear weapon to terrorist groups. One indication of Iran’s caution on this score is that it has not transferred much less-lethal weapons, such as chemical weapons, even though these have been in Iran’s arsenal for over 25 years,” Byman said.
International sanctions on Iran have focused on deterring Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, not its backing for international terrorism. And although the economic pressure felt by Iran as a result of the sanctions might constrain Tehran on several fronts, including its support of terrorists, it will not force any severing of terrorist ties, says Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
“I do not think they are going to let go of these groups because of the nuclear sanctions. And even if we come to some agreement [on Iran’s nuclear program], there seems to be reason for them to abandon their support for terrorist groups, because they have never done so before, and because they have never really paid a high price for supporting those groups,” Pletka said.
The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed separate bills to further tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran. It is not clear whether the two chambers will pass a unified version of a bill that President Barack Obama could sign into law.