Fear and Learning in Tehran: What Recent Psychological Research Reveals about Nuclear Crises
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One can also argue that an Iranian bomb could unravel the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The causes of a Saudi or Turkish bomb and the impact of this on the nuclear nonproliferation regime are separate questions that I cannot fully address here. However, the literature on the causes of nuclear proliferation suggests that whether an Iranian bomb would cause regional proliferation is far from clear. Policy makers have worried about this ever since Pres. Kennedy worried about 40 nuclear powers in the 1960s, but well into the twenty-first century, the number of nuclear powers remains below 10.54 For example, while Saudi policy makers have often said they would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so, much of this is designed to pressure the United States to prevent Iran from developing the bomb.55 The United States has effectively used a combination of carrots and sticks to prevent many states from developing nuclear weapons, and it is not clear that an Iranian bomb would stop this trend.56 Finally, one can argue that an Iranian bomb would undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Again, I cannot fully address that issue here, but the effect of the nuclear nonproliferation regime on states’ decisions to develop nuclear weapons is contested.57 Moreover, it is a stretch to assume that an Iranian bomb would have much effect on distant states’ nuclear decisions. An Iranian bomb may well pose challenges to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime that are as similar and surmountable as those posed by the other nuclear powers.
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The second lesson is that the United States should not threaten to attack Iran and would do well to announce it would only use force if Tehran first attacked US forces or perhaps those of key allies. US mili- tary power is so much greater than that of Iranian forces that if the US deployed forces in the region during a nuclear crisis, the mistrust and suspicion between Washington and Tehran may cause Khamenei to believe regime change was imminent. He would seriously consider using nuclear weapons under these conditions.
The best US deterrence policy would credibly commit to leave Tehran with some control over whether conventional or nuclear war erupts. US military assets deployed to the region should be much better at defending US and allied troops from Iranian challenges than invading and occupying Tehran. Khamenei would be much more likely to believe he had control over nuclear escalation and the fate of his regime during a nuclear crisis if he believed the United States would not attack unless deliberately provoked.
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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.
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Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph echoed a widely held belief, when he claimed that nuclear weapons would “embolden the leadership in Tehran to ad- vance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports.”8 In theory, the more nuclear weapons have spread throughout the world, the more the danger of re- gional instability should have increased.
However, over the past six decades, nuclear proliferation has caused short periods of instability and conflict that have been followed by lon- ger periods of peace and tentative cooperation. Experience with nuclear weapons and the experience of fear in a nuclear crisis moderates the higher conflict propensity of new nuclear powers.9 The four years that followed the Soviet Union’s development of the ability to target the United States with nuclear missiles in 1959 were the most dangerous of the Cold War.10 Nevertheless, Soviet challenges to major US interests in Berlin and Cuba substantially declined by 1963. China killed several Soviet troops on the disputed Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River in 1969, five years after developing nuclear missiles in 1964. However, China did not challenge Soviet positions in the region again and indeed has not used force against the Soviet Union anywhere since then.11 After Pakistan developed nuclear weapons around 1990, fatalities in the Kashmir conflict increased from 30 in 1988 to nearly 2,000 in 1992 and more than 4,500 by 2001. During this period, Pakistan fought the 1999 Kargil War with India and engaged in a 10-month mobilized cri- sis in 2001–02.12 However, fatalities in Kashmir have steadily declined since then, and by 2012 were almost at pre-1990 levels.13 Indo-Pakistani relations have slowly but steadily improved as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh authorized secret back-channel diplomacy that may have come close to concluding a final Kashmir settlement.14
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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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If Tehran develops nuclear weapons, the first lesson is, the United States should not attack Iran. Imposing a nuclear crisis on new nuclear powers hoping to quickly cause the desired effects of fear through US threats or uses of force would be a dangerous mistake, because the desired effect of fear depends on beliefs about control. If Khamenei believes regime change is imminent, he will likely believe he has little control over nuclear escalation and the fate of his regime. He would be most likely to use nuclear weapons under these conditions. If Tehran developed nuclear weapons and attempted to revise the status quo through a combination of threats and smaller uses of force, the United States would not have to do much to cause Khamenei to learn of the limits of nuclear weapons to transform the Persian Gulf. Superior US military power can easily prevent Tehran from sustaining revisions to the status quo. Policy makers should reconsider any intelligence assessments that do not explicitly account for the impact of fear of imminent nuclear war on Tehran’s behavior. Assessment after assessment has suggested that nuclear weapons would embolden Tehran to harass Persian Gulf tanker traffic, threaten or attack Saudi oil infrastructure, and increase sponsorship of attacks against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Khamenei and his associates may try to do this, but the historical record shows that the workings of the human mind will prevent them from getting very far.