Nuclear Iran unlikely to try and use its nuclear arsenal for blackmail
Nuclear Iran will be unlikely to try and use its arsenal to threaten blackmail with states with arsenals larger than its own, and it will find as all nuclear states have before, that nuclear weapons are not useful to coerce other states.
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A nuclear Iran might also be tempted to challenge its neighbors in the Persian Gulf to reduce their oil production and limit the presence of U.S. troops on their territories. However, obtaining nuclear weapons is unlikely to help Iran achieve these aims, because nuclear weapons, by definition, are such a narrow category of arms that they can accomplish only a limited set of objectives. They do offer a deterrent capability: unlike Saddam’s Iraq, a nuclear Iran would not be invaded, and its leaders would not be deposed. But regime security and power projection are two very diaerent propositions. It is dificult to imagine Sunni regimes yielding to a resurgent Shiite state, nuclear or not; more likely, the Persian Gulf states would take even more refuge under the U.S. security umbrella. Paradoxically, a weapon that was designed to ensure Iran’s regional preeminence could further alienate it from its neighbors and prolong indefinitely the presence of U.S. troops on its periphery. In other words, nuclear empowerment could well thwart Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. Like other nuclear aspirants before them, the guardians of the theocracy might discover that nuclear bombs are simply not good for diplomatic leverage or strategic aggrandizement.
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The result is that Iran can probably be expected to continue furthering its regional agenda in an attempt to increase its stature and diminish that of the United States. At least initially, any increased nuclear capability will likely embolden rather than induce caution on the part of Iran's leadership. Having gone to great lengths and paid significant costs to develop its nuclear capabilities, Iran is likely to continue testing the regional and international waters. Such efforts are bound to create challenges for the United States and its allies. The good news is that nuclear weapons have proven to be poor tools for coercive diplomacy, especially against states that already possess nuclear weapons or who may be allied with a nuclear power. Nuclear weapons have proven to be extraordinarily effective at two tasks: deterring the use of such weapons against other nuclear powers or their allies, and deterring states from directly challenging the vital interests of a nuclear power. Beyond these two critical tasks, however, nuclear weapons have not proven particularly useful as diplomatic tools of intimidation. For the United States and its allies, a policy of containment against Iranian attempts to expand its influence in the region is the correct foreign policy strategy. Certainly, such a strategy far outweighs any policy based on preventive war.
Other fears about a nuclear Iran are less convincing. It is often said, for example, that Iran's neighbors will be held hostage to Tehran's atomic tyranny. Undoubtedly, a nuclear Iran will gain regional prestige and power, and the country would be able to exert increased pressure on other nations. But the offensive utility of nuclear weapons is questionable; they have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All other nuclear powers have relied on their nuclear capabilities for deterrence, and there is no reason to believe that Iran would act differently. Any Iranian threats to use nuclear weapons would simply not be credible. And without credibility, Iran -- like any country -- would not be able to hold another country hostage.
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Using nuclear weapons to realize offensive, rather than defensive, strategic objectives has rarely been accomplished. As James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh write, “regime security and power projection are two very different propositions.”64 Nuclear extortion is difficult to do. Threatening the U.S. or NATO with a nuclear strike in order to compel them to curtail their current efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya or to deter future regional operations is fanciful at best. The same holds for Israel. Why should any of these nuclear powers believe Iran’s bluster? By ignoring Iran’s coercive efforts, they force Tehran to either back down or carry out its deterrent/compellent threat. If the latter, Iran suffers devastating nuclear retaliation. Iran knows this; as do the others. Former French President Jacques Chirac, in a 2007 New York Times interview he thought was “off the record,” asked candidly: “Where will [Iran] drop it, this bomb? On Israel?” Answering his own question, he suggested that the bomb “would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”65 Given the stakes, it is difficult to imagine the coercive goals Iran might consider worthy of risking annihilation at the hands of a nuclear rival. Herein, thwarting Iran’s nuclear blackmail rests on the logic of traditional nuclear deterrence.
But even small, non-nuclear Arab states would have reason to question Iran’s resolve to carry out a coercive nuclear threat against them. Again, the risks are high and any nuclear threat may well backfire, alienating Sunni Arabs, driving them together under a collective security arrangement, and further isolating Iran. There may also be ideological, cultural, and theological reasons for why Sunni Arab states would be vociferously against ingratiating themselves with an assertive Shia state, whether or not it held nuclear weapons. And if they do acquiesce to Iran and prove its coercive strategy effective, what guarantee would they have that Iran would not demand further, costlier concessions in the future? In sum, Sunni Arab states may inherently have greater resolve to defy Iran’s coercive demands than it does to see them through. Finally, in anticipation of Iranian blackmail, the United States can take measures to frustrate its coercive attempts. It can bolster ties with threatened Gulf States, for instance, through a deepening of NATO’s Istanbul Cooperative Initiative, and if called upon, it could even offer security guarantees.66 Given the likely asymmetry that will mark U.S. and Iranian nuclear forces, explains Barry Posen, Washington would run fewer risks in establishing regional security assurances in the Middle East than it did during the Cold War in Europe and Asia.67 In exploring the intricacies involved in carrying out offensive nuclear coercion, Iran’s gambit to blackmail others seems increasing incredible.
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A more reasonable apprehension is not that nuclear deterrence would not work, but rather that it would. A nuclear- armed Iran would be able to deter the United States from reacting forcefully to Iranian misbehaviour. With the threat of American (and Israeli) retaliation effectively removed, Iran could employ its non- military instruments of influence even more aggressively than in the past. This fear too seems overblown. It is most unlikely that Iran would actu- ally employ nuclear weapons for any reason short of regime preservation, particularly since Iran will remain inferior to all the other nuclear powers more or less indefinitely. Given crushing American superiority across the entire military (and economic and political) spectrum, there are any number of potential responses available to the United States short of forced regime change with which to deter or punish Iranian transgressions.
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However, there is another possibility. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh recently arguedAfter Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its Complications ." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 89, No. 2 (March/April 2010): 33-49. [ More (11 quotes) ] that while a nuclear Iran would be most dangerous “at first, when it would likely be at its most reckless, like other nuclear aspirants before them, the guardians of the theocracy might discover that nuclear bombs are simply not good for diplomatic leverage or strategic aggrandizement.” " The waxing and waning of the Iranian nuclear crisis over recent decades suggests that the country’s supreme leader, Ali Hos- seini Khamenei, and his associates are still learning about what nuclear weapons might offer Iran. Indeed, global trends in the conflict propensity of nuclear powers strongly suggest that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, such a learning process described by Lindsay and Takeyh is much more likely than long-term brazen regional behavior. "4 Tehran may try to brandish its newly found nuclear weight around the region, but Khamenei and his associates will quickly learn that nuclear threats do more harm than good. Despite regular warnings that an Iranian bomb would undermine an already fragile Middle East, the fact is since the 1950s, states that have harbored intentions to revise major parts of their status quo—a desire termed revisionist—and have developed secure second-strike nuclear forces have quickly learned that nuclear weapons are not useful for changing their environments. Such states have then accepted their regional order.