To Deter or not to Deter: Applying Historical Lessons to the Iranian Nuclear Challenge
[ Page 54 ]
Clearly, there are similarities between today’s concerns regarding Ira nian nuclear intentions and those circulating about the prospect of a nuclear-armed China in the 1960s. Problems associated with preventive military action to curb Tehran’s nuclear endeavors also closely resemble those identified vis-à-vis China. First, such efforts are extremely unlikely to permanently remove the nuclear threat. The general consensus is that while preventive attacks are likely to set back the Iranian program, they would not prevent its recovery. In December 2008, The Atlantic magazine collaborated with retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner in a series of war games focused on Iran. After close consideration of the location and physical features of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and a range of possible military options, Gardiner concluded that there was no permanent mili tary solution for the issues of Iran.18 It is also highly likely that preventive action would serve as a catalyst for increased Persian nationalism and pro vide impetus for the regime to resume nuclear efforts with increased vigor. From this perspective, military action would enforce the perception of a perpetually hostile West and the belief that a nuclear weapons capability is essential to deter Western aggression.19
[ Page 55 ]
In light of the predicted costs and questionable benefits of preventive military options, it must be said that the only persuasive justification for starting another war in the Middle East would be if there were good reason to believe that the leadership in Tehran is fundamentally undeterrable. Fortunately, pessimistic predictions that the ayatollahs will be inclined to initiate a nuclear Armageddon are unlikely to manifest themselves. Al though Ahmadinejad’s statements about wiping Israel off the map are in excusable, they do not indicate a proclivity toward nuclear suicide. Claims to the contrary ignore the fact that such provocations have been part of Iranian political rhetoric since the 1979 revolution and are not symp tomatic of any broader nuclear ambitions.22 Ahmadinejad’s confronta tional discourse also reaps political benefits in the sense that it undermines his reformist opposition who he can accuse of seeking rapprochement with a hostile and threatening West.23 It is also interesting to note that such rhetoric is not unique to Iran. During the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev once infamously promised to “bury America,” whereas Ronald Reagan declared that the Soviet Union would end up on the “ash heap of history.”
[ Page 55-56 ]
Future Iranian nuclear attacks against Israel are not strategically impos sible, but there are a number of reasons to be confident that Iran will be deterred from taking such action. Bernard Lewis maintains that the Iranian regime will not be deterred by the fact that a nuclear attack against Israel would also kill a staggeringly high number of Palestinians and Muslim citizens in neighboring states. However, what Lewis fails to recognize is that the portrayal of itself as the foremost defender of Palestinians is an image that Iran has pursued with vigor since the 1979 revolution. The acceptance by any Iranian leadership of a large number of Muslim deaths is simply not consistent with this long-standing expression of concern for the Palestinians.24 The relevance of his comparison between a potential Iranian nuclear attack against Israel and the 1998 al-Qaeda African embassy bombings is also questionable. Al-Qaeda ideology has exploited Islamic concepts such as takfir and jihad to justify the killing of other Muslims. The Iranian leadership does not ascribe to this militant extremist vision and is therefore unlikely to view collateral Muslim casualties as acceptable on the grounds that they have been granted “a quick pass to heaven.” The prospect of damage to the holy city of Jerusalem (the third holiest location in Islam) is also likely to deter Iran from initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel.
[ Page 56 ]
Even if the Iranians were sufficiently confident in their ability to initiate nuclear attacks against Israel without damaging Jerusalem or harming dis proportionate numbers of Muslim civilians, there is still reason to be opti mistic about the prospects of deterrence. A November 2007 study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimated the Israeli nuclear arsenal at more than 200 boosted and fusion weapons, most with a yield of between 20 and 100 kilotons and some reaching one megaton.25 In a hypothetical nuclear exchange, these high-yield weapons, combined with accurate delivery systems, would give the Israelis the option of strik ing all major Iranian cities while maintaining a reserve strike capability to ensure that no other Arab states could capitalize on the military distraction caused by an Iranian nuclear strike.26 Israel’s fleet of at least three Dolphin- class submarines armed with nuclear missiles also provides the Jewish state with a second-strike capability that nullifies any effort on the part of Tehran to conduct a decapitation strike and remove Israel’s capacity for retaliation. Finally, aside from the credibility of Israeli deterrent capabilities, the Iranians must also consider the implications of US security guarantees to Israel. In her 2008 presidential campaign, then senator and now secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that if Iran were to “consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”27 Al though the credibility of such a threat is questionable, US defense com mitments to Israel are nevertheless a factor the Iranian leadership will have to take seriously.
[ Page 56-7 ]
Although the Iranian regime theoretically should be deterred by credible deterrent threats supported by sufficient second-strike capabilities, Lewis has warned that Iran’s mainstream Shia religious ideology will encourage the leadership to welcome punitive retaliation and destruction as a means of hastening the return of the hidden Mahdi. While such arguments have a certain headline-grabbing quality, they do not reflect the true character of Iran’s international conduct. Regardless of the frequent examples of ideologically inspired rhetorical bombast, the Iranian regime has behaved in a strategically calculating and rational manner since the 1979 revolution. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the Islamic regime issued a series of bloodcurdling promises to embrace martyrdom and, if necessary, fight to the last man. However, when various strands of the war came together to indicate that Iran stood no chance of emerging victorious, Ayatollah Khomeini ended the conflict. In a public address on 20 July 1988, Khomeini stated that while he would have found it “more bearable to accept death and martyrdom,” his decision was “based only on the interests of the Islamic Republic.”28 This statement ended Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq and provides reas surance about the likely future of Iranian decision making. The fact that Khomeini, who has been described as the most extreme of them all, bowed to reality and pragmatic national interest rather than embrace martyrdom indicates that the Iranian leadership is capable of making rational and strategic calculations.
[ Page 57-8 ]
Iran’s approach to the US-led coalition effort to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan provides yet another example of the regime’s willingness to yield to realist principles as opposed to ideological inclinations. The Ira nian government and the Taliban shared an antagonistic relationship long before the events of 11 September 2001 precipitated Operation Enduring Freedom. Animosity toward the Afghan regime stemmed from the move ment’s radical Sunni origins and close associations with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Influenced by their unique Persian pride and stature as an Islamic state, Iran also viewed the Taliban as “reactionary peasants” tainting the image of Islam. Hostility was further exacerbated by the persecution of Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim minority and the spillover of drugs and instability across Iran’s borders.29 This history of enmity led to a remarkable congruence of post–September 11 interests between the United States and Iran. Despite long-standing hostility toward the United States, the Iranian government, in true “an enemy of my enemy is my friend” fashion, was extremely helpful with the US-led military effort in Afghanistan. It played an active and constructive role in the Bonn process, which created the new central government in Kabul and was one of the first countries to officially recognize the postconflict leadership of Pres. Hamid Karzai.
[ Page 58 ]
Although it is possible that Iran could transfer nuclear weapons to one of its many terrorist proxies, this is exceedingly unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, it is incredibly unlikely that any state, regardless of its ideological inclinations, would knowingly allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of actors it did not directly control, simply out of fear that the weapons might then be used against it. It is also worth noting that Iran is known to be affiliated with a mixture of Islamist factions and radical secular groups.32 Although these ties are inexcusable, links with groups of varying ideological and political inclinations indicate that Iranian involve ment is motivated by secular and national interests rather than radical preferences. The 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism also identifies Iran’s use of terrorist proxies as a means of advancing “its key national security and foreign policy interests” and makes no mention of religious or ideological loyalties (emphasis added).33
[ Page 59 ]
Other nuclear terrorism scaremongers highlight the concern that Iran may be tempted to use one of its many terrorist proxies to carry out an anonymous nuclear attack against one of its enemies.34 Proponents of this argument, however, neglect the fact that almost all of the nuclear material left behind after an explosion is suitable for forensic investigation to at tribute nuclear weapons to their origin. Since weapons-grade materials do not occur naturally, material analyzed in the aftermath of an explosion will contain certain physical, chemical, elemental, and isotopic signatures which in turn provide clues about the origin of the weapon, making ano nymity impossible.35 Attribution capabilities have been complemented by well-articulated deterrence threats from Western governments. In October 2006, following North Korea’s nuclear test, President Bush declared that the “transfer of nuclear weapons or material” to terrorists “would be considered a grave threat” and that North Korea would be held “fully accountable” for such action.36 In a February 2008 speech at Stanford University, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley expanded this threat to a universal scope, stating that “the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor fully accountable for sup porting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass de struction, whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts.”37 Even though President Obama has yet to make any similar reference to Iran, in May 2007 then senator Joseph Biden, wrote, “We must make clear in advance that we will hold accountable any country that contributes to a terrorist nuclear attack, whether by directly aiding would-be nuclear terrorists or wilfully neglecting its responsibility to secure the nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear material within its borders.”38 Barring a complete reversal of strategic thinking, it is likely the United States will continue with this posture of expanded deterrence, regardless of Obama’s gestures of reconciliation towards Iran.
[ Page 60 ]
Like China in the 1960s, it is likely that the Iranian regime also views the military muscle of the United States with acute trepidation. The United States currently has military forces stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, a large number of Gulf States, South Asia, and Turkey. Although the oust ing of Saddam Hussein improved Iran’s actual security situation, it also confirmed mounting Iranian fears of strategic encirclement. Officials in Tehran became concerned that not only might Iran be sandwiched between two US client states, but also that regime change in Iraq might encourage similar American ambitions for Iran. The Iranian leadership is also likely to have drawn important lessons from the way the United States dealt with the respective proliferation challenges from North Korea and Iraq. Their view is likely to be that the United States is averse to challenging states militarily once they have a nuclear capability but is more aggres sive and favors regime change in states that have demonstrated nuclear intent. Viewed from this perspective, the notion that nuclear weapons are strategically necessary to ensure regime survival and territorial integrity is understandable.41
[ Page 60-61 ]
As noted, the Policy Planning Committee report submitted in October 1963 identified Chinese nuclear weapons as a vehicle for gaining pres tige rather than a means of facilitating aggression. Indeed, Mao is known to have viewed China’s independent ability to mobilize and commit its armies in an equal if not greater manner than other states as an inherent part of Chinese sovereign independence. In 1958 he reportedly informed senior colleagues that without nuclear capabilities, “others don’t think what we say carries weight.”42 There is evidence that the desire for prestige and international respect is also driving Iranian nuclear endeavors. The general consensus among Iran’s clerical leaders is that the Islamic Republic is the representative of revolutionary Islam and the guardian of oppressed Muslims everywhere. They therefore believe that the fate of the world wide Islamic community depends on the ability of Iran to develop the military capabilities to protect and advance that community’s interests. In an April 2006 speech before the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, its secretary Hassan Rohani emphasized this point. “This is good for our international reputation and shows that we have made good technological progress and have been successful in the area of technology,” he stated. “It is going to be a very effective and important statement.”43 His speech also indicated that the Iranians may view nuclear weapons acquisition as a means of forcing dialogue from other states. Rohani pointed out that: “The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil had its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”44