Nuclear weapons won't necessarily make Iran more aggressive
Historical record is mixed on whether new nuclear nations become more aggressive or not, with nuclear weapons in some cases making aggressive nations less bellicose.
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In the first case, Iran’s conventional military capabilities are limited. Iran’s military was weakened in the 1980s and has not greatly improved since. Huge investments are needed, though none seem forthcoming. And because a nuclear Iran is likely to have triggered a more robust, multilateral sanctions regime on its way to successful proliferation, it is conceivable that even if it had the economic means to rebuild and rearm it would have trouble doing so. Nuclear Iran, as a result, is unlikely to be able to effectively mount a conventional military campaign against any regional state, except perhaps the smallest Gulf sheikdoms. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and maybe even Kuwait are likely to be able to fend off a conventional Iranian invasion with some timely assistance from the U.S. And weaker Arab states, with a promise of rapid deployment of U.S. reinforcements, might be able to sufficiently forestall a conventional Iranian engagement and deny Tehran its immediate objects. Furthermore, the United States is likely to retain a presence in the Gulf, both on land and at sea, for the foreseeable future. As Posen explains, “even if Iran’s leaders somehow feel safe at home, the forces they dispatch abroad would surely be destroyed.”69 Evidently, allaying the threat of an emboldened nuclear Iran can be accomplished by relying on the threat of superior conventional force. A resurgent Iran sans the conventional tools of war is not a great threat. Security guarantees coupled with the tactful placement of U.S. military personnel in likely hotspots will send a signal that, first, nuclear Iran cannot easily acquire what it wants by conventional force, and second, even if it tries, it risks killing Americans in the process and triggering greater U.S. engagement. American soldiers have already been used as tripwires to dissuade Soviet aggression. The same principle can be applied to nuclear Iran.70 The upshot is that even under a nuclear shield, Iran faces few good options for launching a conventional attack, is likely to be denied its goals if it tries, and risks having to bear substantial costs.
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One might argue these findings are not applicable to Iran, due to that country’s unique culture and religion and its distinct geopolitical and economic motives to develop nuclear weapons. However, the fact is that almost all states that have developed nuclear weapons have stumbled into a crisis out of inexperience and then authorized more moderate nuclear strategies and foreign policies after a few years’ experience. This “experience effect” in the cases of the United States (in Korea), the Soviet Union (in Hungary), the United Kingdom (in Egypt) and France (in Algeria), cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are likely attributable to the early Cold War as well as nuclear weapons. It is not clear that fear played a role here, because the uncertainty associated with the early Cold War drove the conflict propensity of the new nuclear powers. However, all inexperienced nuclear powers since the late 1950s have found themselves in conflicts and wars either trying to revise a status quo (Soviet Union and Pakistan) or preventing and/or coercing a revisionist nuclear power from doing so (India). In China’s case, nuclear weapons seem to have emboldened the Chinese to respond more forcefully to aggressive Soviet patrolling of disputed territory. In some cases whether the new nuclear power is revising or defending the status quo is unclear, because many other factors are also changing in a particular region, for example Israel and South Africa. Nevertheless, the fact that countries as different as the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, China in the late 1960s, and Pakistan in the early 2000s exhibited strikingly similar variation in their fundamental choices of coercive or moderate nuclear strategies shows that the great nuclear learning phenomenon knows no cultural or geographic bounds even though these countries exhibit important dif- ferences. The effect of experience with nuclear weapons on the central elements of their nuclear strategies over time is striking.
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WALTZ: Second, it doesn't matter who has nuclear weapons. Conversely, the spread of conventional weapons makes a great deal of difference. For instance, if a Hitlertype begins to establish conventional superiority, it becomes very difficult to contain and deter him. But, with nuclear weapons, it's been proven without exception that whoever gets nuclear weapons behaves with caution and moderation. Every country-whether they are countries we trust and think of as being highly responsible, like Britain, or countries that we distrust greatly, and for very good reasons, like China during the Cultural Revolution-behaves with such caution.It is now fashionable for political scientists to test hypotheses. Well, I have one: If a country has nuclear weapons, it will not be attacked militarily in ways that threaten its manifestly vital interests. That is 100 percent true, without exception, over a period of more than fifty years. Pretty impressive.
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Nevertheless, one can overstate both the probability and the effectiveness of blackmail. It is again useful to recall that analysts expressed similar fears about China when it acquired nuclear weapons, yet Beijing's behavior for the most part did not validate those fears. Although China did attack Vietnam in 1979, the PRC's conduct since the late 1960s has generally been less, rather than more, bellicose than it was when China lacked a nuclear capability. That episode illustrates the larger point that nuclear weapons are much more useful as a deterrent against possible adversaries than they are as a mechanism for intimidating those adversaries, much less for war-fighting purposes. There are indications over the past several years that the two newest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, have reached that conclusion. As in the case of China after the 1960s, New Delhi and Islamabad appear to have become more cautious and restrained since they built nuclear arsenals. One cannot guarantee that Tehran would follow that pattern, but by the same token it is unwarranted to assume that the Iranian regime would engage in rampant blackmail.
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First, will the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the current regime make Iran more or less aggressive within the region or beyond it? There is much debate but no consensus on this issue among specialists.Some contend that Iran will become more aggressive in pursuit of its interests in the Gulf and more intimidating in its demands for regional cooperation. An assertive Iran could demand that U.S. bases in the region be closed, or it could threaten to resume its efforts to export the revolution as it did in the early 1980s when it tried to sabotage U.S.–friendly facilities and regimes in the Gulf. It could become more assertive in oil policy, more anti-Israel, or more meddlesome in Iraqi or Israeli-Palestinian affairs. On the other hand, some Iranian scholars argue that a nuclear-secure Iran will be more moderate in its foreign and security relationships and that a more powerful Iran is actually a less dangerous Iran.Others stress that Iran has an inferiority complex, wants nuclear weapons for psychological comfort and to ensure regime survival, and therefore would base its nuclear strategy on defensive deterrence. Iranians, they say, recognize that use of nuclear weapons against Israeli or U.S. targets would be suicidal. They also point out that such use would be historically uncharacteristic; after all, Iran has not invaded or attacked another country for over 150 years. These latter observers predict that a nuclear armed Iran would not be any more aggressive than it currently is, would have better relations with the United States, and would be less likely to support terrorist organizations.
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Notwithstanding these considerations, it is important not to overestimate the utility of nuclear weapons. To date, nation-states have not found them to be useful as instruments of overt military aggression. While the possession of nuclear weapons may allow North Korea and Iran to pursue more vigorously objectives that run counter to U.S. interests, it seems likely that these adversaries will do this in a constrained fashion. In fact, we have no historical cases in which an emerging nuclear power undertook large-scale military aggression to advance revisionist claims. So we do not foresee a nuclear-armed North Korea becoming likelier to invade South Korea. Nor do we expect that Iran would use nuclear weapons, should it acquire them, as a shield to facilitate large-scale conventional aggression against Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, or adversaries further afield, including Israel.
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Given the success of "don't attack," those promoting strikes against Iran must establish why the Mullahs would act differently. Consider: not even Soviet Russia and Mao's China, two of the most odious and belligerent regimes in history, used nuclear weapons. And after World War II, neither did the defender of the West, the United States, which engaged in more atomic diplomacy than any other nuclear power. Both India and Pakistan, despite their deep animosity and the blood of multiple conventional wars, practiced nuclear abstention. And then Israel, a country that risked defeat in the 1973 war, eschewed nuclear use. History demonstrates that Cold War and regional nuclear deterrence, self-deterrence, conventional military capabilities, and diplomacy kept the world safe from nuclear war. Why wouldn't this pattern apply to Iran?
A close look at the history of the nuclear age shows that countries with nuclear weapons are neither more likely to make coercive threats nor more likely to succeed in blackmailing their adversaries. Nuclear powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union certainly made numerous threats after they acquired nuclear weapons. But so did Libya, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Venezuela, and dozens of other countries that did not possess the bomb. Nuclear weapons are not a prerequisite for engaging in military blackmail. Further, there is scant evidence that possessing the bomb makes coercive threats more successful when they are made. Nuclear weapons did not help the United States compel North Korea to release the USS Pueblo and its crew in 1968. Israeli coercive threats backed by the implicit threat of nuclear war failed against Syria prior to the 1982 Lebanon War, just as British threats against Argentina in 1982 were unable to compel the return of the Falkland Islands, despite Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons.
Would a nuclear-armed Iran have more success blackmailing its neighbors? The historical record suggests not. For example, during the 20th century, Britain made successful threats against Germany, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and others before acquiring nuclear weapons in 1952. Since acquiring the bomb, however, it has made only one successful threat, as part of a NATO coalition against the Bosnian Serbs in 1994. Many hardliners say Iran’s ideological fervor makes it unique. US officials voiced similar concerns about Mao’s China in the early 1960s. But nuclear weapons did not embolden China. Iran today is certainly different from China in the 1960s, but policymakers would do well to remember that apocalyptic fears about nuclear proliferation are not new.
The Pakistani-Indian conflict may be such a situation. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal may have enabled it to engage in riskier behavior in Kashmir than it otherwise would attempt, because nuclear weapons help to deter Pakistan’s ultimate nightmare: an assault by the militarily superior India, which could slice Pakistan in two and perhaps destroy it completely. But if you try to apply that logic to Iran, no one is playing the role of India. Iran has its own tensions and rivalries with its neighbors— including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, other states on the Persian Gulf, and Pakistan. But none of these pose the kind of existential threat that Pakistan sees coming from India. Moreover, none of the current disputes between Iran and its neighbors (such as the one over ownership of some small islands also claimed by the United Arab Emirates) come close to possessing the nation-defining significance that the Kashmir conflict poses for both Pakistan and India.
The author reviews his recent study using historical examples to predict how states will act once they have acquired nuclear weapons, finding "history suggests that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would be less universally emboldened than the pessimists fear, but nor would it find nuclear weapons to be useless."
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