May 10, 2022

New CNAS Report: "Risk and Responsibility: Managing Future Iran Weapons of Mass Destruction Threats"

Washington, May 10, 2022—The United States is reimagining its global role, leading the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to make difficult choices about priorities, resources, and risk to better address the long-term “pacing challenge” posed by China and the "acute threat" posed by Russia. To do so, the U.S. plans to accept risks in the Middle East and against future Iran threats. Iran’s possession and potential use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) pose the greatest threat to U.S. interests and Washington’s ability to accept risk in the region. As talks with Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are faltering, Washington must develop plans to manage future threats emanating from Iran’s possession or use of WMDs, to include nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Today, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a new report, Risk and Responsibility: Managing Future Iran Weapons of Mass Destruction Threats, from authors Becca Wasser, a fellow in the Defense Program, and Jennie Matuschak, a former research assistant in the Defense Program. The report aims to identify how the United States can better accept and mitigate risk against future Iran WMD threats.

The report draws from a series of tabletop exercises conducted by the CNAS Gaming Lab exploring future Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons use.The report draws from a series of tabletop exercises conducted by the CNAS Gaming Lab exploring future Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons use.

Key findings from the report are as follows:

  • Iran’s nuclear doctrine is likely to preserve nuclear use for existential threats while its nuclear stockpile remains small.
  • Chemical and biological weapons are an asymmetric escalatory step on Iran's escalation ladder.
  • Divergent escalation patterns and risk tolerance by Iran and the United States increase the risk of misperception and inadvertent escalation during a crisis.
  • De-escalating a crisis between the United States and Iran may be difficult due to asymmetries in timelines, stakes, and credibility.
  • Israel's threat perceptions of risk and aversion to an Iranian nuclear weapon may complicate U.S. de-escalation efforts.

Accepting greater risk against Iran and in the Middle East more broadly means shifting U.S. strategic priorities in the region. This shift has the potential to unsettle allies and partners, and may possibly embolden Iran in the near term, but such tough choices must be made if the United States wishes to prioritize other long-term challenges that may be of greater impact to U.S. security, such as China. Read the report for the full breakdown of findings and policy recommendations.

For more information or to schedule an interview with the report authors, please contact Cameron Edinburgh at cedinburgh@cnas.org