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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As with China in the 1960s, if Iran does cross the nuclear threshold, there will be a massive asymmetry between Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and those of Washington. Both the United States and Israel have the capability to inflict what can only be described as unacceptable damage against Iran in retaliation for its first use of nuclear weapons. However, when a new state enters the nuclear club, it is essential that deterrent relation ships are quickly established. In 1964 President Johnson communicated to the Chinese a credible threat that the United States had an “enormously greater” nuclear capability and that he was willing, if necessary, to use force to respond to Chinese aggression. This threat set the parameters for a deterrent relationship that has now been successful for more than four decades and ought to provide valuable guidance for the current US gov ernment. President Obama is clearly attempting to establish a relationship with the Iranians and dissuade them from pursuing their nuclear weapons ambitions. If these measures to halt the nuclear program fail, then at least they will have laid the framework through which deterrent threats can be communicated. President Obama would be wise to draw on some of the more assertive rhetoric of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He should make clear that the United States is committed to responding to Iranian aggression, be it direct or indirect, and ensure the United States maintains the capabilities to make deterrent threats credible. In the long term, a nuclear-armed Iran may even encourage a more cautious foreign policy from Tehran and pave the way for a more balanced and constructive engagement with the West.
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There has also been a good deal of international media reports related to the fear that Iran might provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations. Ironically, the very use by Iran of surrogate terrorist organizations, rather than more overt attacks, is evidence that Tehran is sensitive to the calculations associated with the strategy of deterrence. It is also an affirmation that the Iranian leadership is attempting to minimize the risks to its foreign policy objectives. Such acts argue strongly against any possibility that Iran might provide terrorist organizations with nuclear weapons. Any move of this nature carries with it a great amount of risk; Iranians would lose control over the employment of the weapons while still having to worry that they might be blamed and targeted for response.
Throughout history, it has always been worrisome when a revolutionary regime with ruthless and lethal internal practices moves to acquire a nuclear weapon. But it is worth remembering that we have contended with far more troubling examples of this phenomenon than Iran. Millions died from forced famine and purges in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and tens of millions perished during the Great Leap Forward in Mao Tse-tung’s China. China’s development of a nuclear weapon (it tested its first one in 1964) seemed all the more alarming at the time because of Mao’s openly professed belief that his country could lose half its population in a nuclear war and still come out victorious over capitalism. But deterrence with China has endured for half a century, even during the chaos and fanaticism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A few years after China got the bomb, Richard Nixon built his global strategy around engagement with Beijing.
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The United States today―unlike its European allies―does not lack the conventional means to project power in the Gulf as demonstrated in the wars of 1991 and 2003 against Iraq. And the United States would be wise strategically to tap that reputation for power to reassure partners in the region―in order to dampen incentives for exploring the nuclear weapons option―with ballistic missile defenses and conventional military means. The United States, with its preponderance of conventional forces, could threaten to remove the regime in Iran should nuclear weapons be used against American forces and regional partners. The reliance on conventional deterrence will underscore internationally the lack of usability of nuclear weapons, a mindset that, in turn, would dampen regional interest and prestige linked to nuclear weapons acquisition. Conversely, the American threat of nuclear weapons response in kind would heighten the importance and prestige of nuclear weapons and contribute to incentive for nuclear weapons proliferation. In the event that nuclear deterrence fails, the United States would have to make good on its nuclear threat and retaliate with nuclear weapons to cause most likely the end of the regime in Tehran, but at the unacceptable moral cost of thousands to millions of innocent Iranian civilian lives. Massive and tightly targeted conventional force retaliation offers a profoundly more moral and strategically effective deterrent because the threat is more credible than nuclear weapons response in light of the American restraint in inflicting civilian casualties in numerous conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
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In 1991, the historical rivals India and Pakistan signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other’s nuclear facilities. They realized that far more worrisome than their adversary’s nuclear deterrent was the instability produced by challenges to it. Since then, even in the face of high tensions and risky provocations, the two countries have kept the peace. Israel and Iran would do well to consider this precedent. If Iran goes nuclear, Israel and Iran will deter each other, as nuclear powers always have. There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states. Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply, even if the Iranian arsenal is relatively small. No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability, and the current crisis will finally dissipate, leading to a Middle East that is more stable than it is today.
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Other veteran Iran watchers agree: Judith Yaphe and Charles Lutes of the National Defense University argueReassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran . Institute for National Strategic Studies: Washington, D.C., August 2005 (104p). [ More (9 quotes) ] that although Iran and the United States have long been adversaries, Iran has not acted 'carelessly or irrationally,' and they conclude that 'in the final analysis, it is likely that the Iranian regime could be deterred from overt nuclear use.' Cordesman and al-Rodhan concede similarly that the deterrence option 'is one that many commentators need to consider in more depth.' Reuven Pedatzur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University and Israeli air force veteran, puts things still more bluntly: Past experience shows that the radical Iranian regime, headed by the most extreme of them all, Ayatollah Khomeini, behaved with absolute rationality at the moment of truth.
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The United States should continue to pursue efforts to prevent Iran from weaponizing. At the same time, the United States should start to put into place the elements of an effective containment strategy.
A prudent policy course for the United States would be to con- tinue to focus its primary efforts on preventing Iran from acquiring weapons, while simultaneously putting into place the requisite capabilities to effectively contain a nuclear Iran. A key challenge to achieving this will be to avoid any commitment of forces to the region that Iran would interpret as a threat to the regime. Such a threat could make weaponization more likely by convincing the regime that it needs nuclear weapons to deter the United States. A strategy that is built on drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued weapons transfers to the GCC centered on missile and air defenses, economic sanctions aimed at starving the Iranian nuclear program, and continued offers of positive inducements through negotiations is most likely to accomplish these goals.
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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.