Nuclear Iran can be deterred and managed
Although unconventional, we should consider the option of not trying to stop Iran's inevitable rise to become a nuclear power and focus instead on managing the eventual fallout through deterrence and proliferation assistance.
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Of course, it is impossible to prove that the Iranians will not act in a given way at some point in the future. But we can examine the track record of the Islamic republic in search of evidence that its leadership is irrational. Looking at the decisions Iran has made since the Iranian revolution, its leadership looks more than rational --it appears to be quite savvy and pragmatic, even willing to change course when confronted with overwhelming force. Take, for one example, Iran's behavior during the Iran-Iraq war. Early rhetoric from Iran was uncompromising, including clear indications in November 1981 that the newly minted Islamic government in Tehran had no intention of stopping the war as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. Eerie propaganda later in the conflict included a fountain of fake blood the Islamic government built in Tehran. However, over time, the Iraqis began to make clear and decisive advances, in part due to Western governments' support for and arms sales to Saddam Hussein during the conflict. The Iranians were taking grave losses. When by 1988 a long string of devastating tactical routs made clear that outright strategic defeat was possible, the Iranian leadership changed course. They sued for peace, jettisoning their original objective of deposing Saddam Hussein, and taking a deal that left Iran on the light side of the postwar balance of power. Hussein had emerged from the war relatively stronger with respect to Iran than he was before the war. Yet the Iranians agreed to end the fighting.
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Deterrence. The United States successfully deterred a much more power- ful Soviet Union for over 40 years. Some argue that Iran is different, that its leaders are irrational, and that the threat of devastating retaliation would not dissuade it from employing or threatening to employ nuclear weapons. While this fear is understandable, given occasionally heated Iranian rhetoric, there is nothing in the Islamic Republic’s actual behaviour throughout its existence to substantiate the charge of irrationality, let alone suicidal lunacy. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whatever their other flaws, are models of mental health and restrained behaviour compared to Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong.
Still, a policy of bombing now could avoid the uncertainties and dangers of a deterrence policy, at least for a few years. We could delay having to face up to the difficulty of shaping the responses of Iran's neighbors to Iran's acquisition of a bomb, and we could keep the option of forcible regime change on the table. Bombing would not, however, prevent the prospect of Iranian escalation against Israel; rather, it would increase that prospect in the short run. But the ultimate question that must be asked about bombing is whether one believes that the mullahs are fundamentally undeterrable. If they are, all of the other assumptions about various policy options become irrelevant. Given available evidence and the track record of the Iranian leadership since the Islamic revolution, however, it is unwise to assume that the clerical government in Tehran is undeterrable. Iran has shown that it will take risks where it perceives benefits but back down where the potential costs become too high. Moreover, delaying Iran's nuclear program is the only conceivable benefit that could likely be derived from a policy of preventive war. Juxtaposed against that benefit are an array of negative consequences, varying from merely undesirable to deeply dangerous. The assessment of the merits and demerits of deterrence necessarily presents a mirror image of the above analysis. The dangers of war would be avoided, but a host of other challenges and new concerns would emerge. Still, it is worth examining the benefits of not bombing. Embracing a posture of deterrence would, in the first instance, prevent the inevitable loss of American life that would result from a war. Moreover, billions, if not hundreds of billions, of dollars would be left in the productive economy rather than being allocated to attempting to set back Iran's nuclear program. The mullahs in Iran would remain unpopular, unable to use the American bogeyman to consolidate support internally. We could also avoid the range of Iranian countermeasures: further chaos in Iraq, attacks against U.S. troops in that country or against Israel, and the prospect of sky-high oil prices and volatility in the Strait of Hormuz. The problems of chaos in post-regime-change Iran, should a conflict escalate to that level, could also be avoided. In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, absent some very shaky assumptions about the Iranian leadership's rationality, deterrence is a preferable policy to preventive war. The preventive war option unleashes so many forces that are beyond the control of the American government that it should be looked on as a supremely undesirable policy. And given the historical record of the revolutionary Iranian leadership and the history of deterrence in the international system, deterrence appears to be highly preferable.
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Retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command, put it as follows: “We need to make it very clear to the Iranians, the same way we made it clear to the Soviet Union and China that their first use of nuclear weapons would result in the devastation of their nation. I don’t believe Iran is a suicide state. Deterrence will work with Iran.”
Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek Interna- tional, a Washington Post columnist, and a frequent TV commentator, is a leading advocate of deterrence. In his article “Don’t Scramble the Jets,” he argues that Iran’s religious leaders comprise a “canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite,” and that military dictatorships like the one that is now forming in Iran “are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves alive and in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work.” Among academics, Columbia University professor Kenneth Waltz has written that “It would be strange if Iran did not strive to get nuclear weapons, and I don’t think we have to worry if they do. Because deterrence has worked 100 percent of the time. After all, we have deterred big nuclear powers like the Soviet Union and China. So sleep well.”
A State Department official, who asked that his name not be used, pointed out that the United States is already providing to its allies in the Middle East coun- termeasures, such as positioning batteries of Patriot missiles, that might be employed to discourage Iran from using its nukes—but not from acquiring them
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In any case, the obnoxious nature of the Iranian regime (or other rogue regimes) does not negate the underlying realities of deterrence. The United States has an enormous nuclear arsenal and the delivery systems to launch retaliatory strikes with pinpoint accuracy. Any government in Tehran, whether headed by Ahmadinejad or some other figure, would know that an attack on America would be a regime-extinguishing event. Such an attack would be suicide, both politically and literally. And while nonstate actors that embrace terrorism may sometimes be suicidal, political leaders seldom are. We have little credible evidence that the Iranian leadership is an exception to that rule. Most people who reject a strategy of acceptance and deterrence tacitly acknowledge the improbability that Iran would launch a suicidal attack on the American homeland. Instead, a majority of the objections focus on other fears about Iranian misconduct. Those objections are based on several assumptions of varying plausibility.
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While Iran's track record with regard to its foreign policy does indicate a regime that is hostile to America, nothing would indicate that Iran is beyond the realm of nuclear deterrence. The bulk of the revolutionary fervor demonstrated by the Islamic Republic during its infancy died during the long war with Iraq. Moreover, the power of nuclear deterrence lies in the fact that precise calculations and cost and benefit analyses are not needed given the overwhelming costs associated with any nuclear exchange. Iranian leaders are rational enough to understand that any use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies would result in an overwhelming and unacceptable response.
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To counter these ominous tirades one could look to more reassuring statements, such as Supreme Leader Khameni's argument that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic.7 More enlightening, however, than comparing dueling quotes, is an examination of what Iran has done in terms of its foreign policy. Iran has shown itself to be pragmatic in its actions to protect national interests, foregoing the activities one associates with a religiously driven revolutionary state.Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, contrary to expectations, Iran did not seek to export its revolution to parts of the former Soviet Union, understanding that their national interest lay in forging a solid and profitable relationship with Russia. Iran even went so far as to dismiss the war in Chechnya as an internal Russian matter. Similar calculations of national interests led Iran to support Christian Armenia over Muslim Azerbaijan. Following the 1991 Gulf War, Iran did not push for a Shia revolution in Iraq, fearing that the outcome would probably be too dangerous and destabilizing. Following its isolation during the Iran-Iraq War Iran worked vigorously to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors.
At various times under both the Shah and the mullahs, Iran sought regional hegemony; at other times, under both regimes, it made overtures to the United States and even to Israel. Thus there is little reason to think that Iran would behave any differently than the Soviet Union or Communist China with nuclear weapons. If we could live with those rogue nuclear states, which were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people to advance an eschatological ideology, there is scant reason to think Iran poses a more serious threat.
One could go further and suggest that a nuclear Iran might even be beneficial to the United States. The nuclear stalemate played an important role in American efforts to contain the Soviet Union, and containment, in turn, had the effect of “mellowing” the regime, as George Kennan predicted in his famous Foreign Affairs article. Why should we not expect a regional stalemate involving the United States, Israel, and Iran to have a similar effect by simultaneously bolstering each nation’s territorial security without providing any of them with the means of conquest against other states?
This emphasis on the nuclear issue is disproportionate. Iran is allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The latest National Intelligence Estimate suggests that Iran doesn't have a nuclear-weapons program — although it once did, and could easily resume weaponization at any time. But let's assume the worst: say Iran is working on a bomb; say it acquires one in the next few years. Only Benjamin Netanyahu and assorted American neoconservatives believe — or pretend to believe — that Iran might actually use it, given Israel's overpowering ability to strike back. Most observers think that the Iranians would hold their weapon as a deterrent — even Rafsanjani, in his "Islamic bomb" speech, posited that the weapon would create a regional "stalemate." To be sure, an Iranian bomb would not be a good thing. It might launch a Middle Eastern arms race among Iran's Sunni rivals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But it would not be cataclysmic, either — unless Obama decided to pre-empt it militarily. In any case, the question is, Does the President really want to paint himself into this corner? Does he want to face the possibility of going to war or, more likely, retreating from his insistence on a bomb-free Iran?
The United States and its allies can "live with" a nuclear-armed Iran, but they should continue pressuring the Islamic Republic to keep it from developing an atomic bomb, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Monday.
Gen. John Abizaid, who retired from the Army in March after three years leading U.S. Central Command, told a Washington think tank that Iran's leadership is pursing "reckless" policies and seeks to dominate the Middle East.
"We need to press the international community as hard as we possibly can, and the Iranians, to cease and desist on the development of a nuclear weapon, and we should not preclude any option that we may have to deal with it," he said.
But he added, "I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran."
"Let's face it -- we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with nuclear powers as well," Abizaid told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The top U.S. military commander for strategic combat on Thursday said that Washington’s atomic weapons could serve as the ultimate tool for deterring a nuclear-armed Iran.
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