We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran
The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one. They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife. Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival. The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, because it saw them as a counterrevolutionary threat. The assassinations ended when they started inflicting too much damage on Iran’s relations with European governments. Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests. The principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.
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.
The more sophisticated-sounding argument about the supposed dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon—one heard less from politicians than from policy-debating intelligentsia—accepts that Iranian leaders are not suicidal but contends that the mere possession of such a weapon would make Tehran more aggressive in its region. A dominant feature of this mode of argument is “worst-casing,” as exemplified by a pro-war articleTime to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option ." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 91, No. 1 (January/February 2012): 76-86. [ More (7 quotes) ] by "Matthew KroenigMatthew Kroenig
Matthew Kroenig is an associate professor and International Relations Field Chair in the department of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, and the author of the forthcoming book A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat.
[ More ] in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Kroenig’s case rests on speculation after speculation about what mischief Iran “could” commit in the Middle East, with almost no attention to whether Iran has any reason to do those things, and thus to whether it ever would be likely to do them. Kroenig includes among his “coulds” a scary possibility that also served as a selling point of the Iraq War: the thought of a regime giving nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group. Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous? And how would it achieve deniability regarding its role in what the group subsequently did with the stuff? No regime in the history of the nuclear age has ever been known to transfer nuclear material to a nonstate group. That history includes the Cold War, when the USSR had both a huge nuclear arsenal and patronage relationships with a long list of radical and revolutionary clients. As for deniability, Iranian leaders have only to listen to rhetoric coming out of the United States to know that their regime would immediately be a suspect in any terrorist incidents involving a nuclear weapon.
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.
Nuclear weapons matter insofar as there is a credible possibility that they will be used. This credibility is hard to achieve, however, in anything short of circumstances that might involve the destruction of one’s nation. In the case of Iran, there would need to be some specific aggressive or subversive act that Tehran is holding back from performing now for fear of retaliation—from the Americans, the Israelis, the Saudis, or someone else. Further, in order for Iran to neutralize the threat of retaliation, the desired act of mischief would have to be so important to Tehran that it could credibly threaten to escalate the matter to the level of nuclear war. Proponents of a war with Iran have been unable to provide an example of a scenario that meets these criteria, however. The impact of Iran possessing a bomb is therefore far less dire than the alarmist conventional wisdom suggests.
When the debate turns from discussing the consequences that would flow from Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon to discussing the consequences of a U.S. military attack on Iran, the mode of argument used by proponents of an attack changes entirely. Instead of the worst case, the emphasis is now on the best case. This “best-casing” often rests on the assumption that military action would take the form of a confined, surgical use of air power to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the dispersed nature of the target and the U.S. military’s operational requirements (including the suppression of Iranian air defenses) would make this a major assault. It would be the start of a war with Iran. As Richard Betts remarks in his recent book about the American use of military force, anyone who hears talk about a surgical strike should get a second opinion. If the kind of worst-casing that war proponents apply to the implications of a nuclear Iran were applied to this question, the ramifications would be seen as catastrophic: we would be hearing about a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces far beyond the initial assault. When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.
The more sophisticated-sounding argument links Iran with sundry forms of objectionable behavior, either real or hypothetical, without explaining what difference the possession of a nuclear weapon would make. Perhaps the most extensive effort to catalog what a nuclear-armed Iran might do outside its borders is a monograph published last year by Ash JainAsh Jain
Ash Jain, a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, served as a member of the State Department’s Policy Plan- ning Staff from 2004 to 2010 and provided counsel to U.S. officials on the strategic challenges posed by Iran and other actors.
[ More ] of the Washington Institute for Near East PolicyWashington Institute for Near East Policy
"Founded in 1985, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy was established to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East. Under the guidance of a distinguished and bipartisan Board of Advisors, the Institute seeks to bring scholarship to bear on the making of U.S. policy in this vital region of the world. Drawing on the research of its scholars and the experience of policy practitioners, the Institute promotes an American engagement in the Middle East committed to strengthening alliances, nurturing friendships, and promoting security, peace, prosperity, and democracy for the people of the region." [ More ]. Jain’s inventory of possible Iranian nastiness is comprehensive, ranging from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But nowhere is there an explanation of how Iran’s calculations—or anyone else’s— would change with the introduction of a nuclear weapon. The most that Jain can offer is to assert repeatedly that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability,” it might do some of these things. We never get an explanation of how, exactly, such a shield would work. Instead there is only a vague sense that a nuclear weapon would lead Iran to feel its oats.
Surely, Iran would strike back, in ways and places of its own choosing. That should not be surprising; it is what Americans would do if their own homeland were attacked. Proponents of an attack and some Israeli officials offer a more sanguine prediction of the Iranian response, and this is where their image of Iran becomes most inconsistent. According to this optimistic view, the same regime that cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon because it is recklessly aggressive and prone to cause regional havoc would suddenly become, once attacked, a model of calm and caution, easily deterred by the threat of further attacks. History and human behavior strongly suggest, however, that any change in Iranian conduct would be exactly the opposite—that as with the Iran-Iraq War, an attack on the Iranian homeland would be the one scenario that would motivate Iran to respond zealously. Iran’s specific responses would probably include terrorism through its own agents as well as proxy groups, other violent reprisals against U.S. forces in the region, and disruption of the exports of other oil producers.
An armed attack on Iran would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners, who are nourished by confrontation with the West, and with the United States in particular. Armed attack by a foreign power traditionally produces a rally-round-the-flag effect that benefits whatever regime is in power. Last year a spokesperson for the opposition Green Movement in Iran said the current regime “would really like for someone” to bomb the nuclear facilities because “this would then increase nationalism and the regime would gather everyone and all the political parties around itself.” Over the longer term, an attack would poison relations between the United States and generations of Iranians. It would become an even more prominent and lasting grievance than the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988. American war proponents who optimistically hope that an attack would somehow stir the Iranian political pot in a way that would undermine the current clerical regime are likely to be disappointed. Even if political change in Iran occurred, any new regime would be responsive to a populace that has more reason than ever to be hostile to the United States.
In return for all of these harmful effects, an attack on Iran would not even achieve the objective of ensuring a nuclear- weapons-free Iran. Only a ground invasion and occupation could hope to accomplish that, and not even the most fervent anti-Iranian hawks are talking about that kind of enormous undertaking. Panetta’s estimate that an aerial assault would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only one or two years is in line with many other assessments. Meanwhile, an attack would provide the strongest possible incentive for Iran to move forward rapidly in developing a nuclear weapon, in the hope of achieving a deterrent to future attacks sooner rather than later. That is how Iraq reacted when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981. Any prospect of keeping the bomb out of Iranian hands would require still more attacks a couple of years hence. This would mean implementing the Israeli concept of periodically “mowing the lawn”—a prescription for unending U.S. involvement in warfare in the Middle East.