Nuclear Iran can be deterred and managed
Although unconventional, we should consider the option of not trying to stop Iran's inevitable rise to become a nuclear power and focus instead on managing the eventual fallout through deterrence and proliferation assistance.
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Nor is there any convincing reason to believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would be exempt from the grim logic of nuclear deterrence. The presumption of suicidal irrationality prompted calls in the United States for preventive war against the Soviet Union and Communist China before they acquired nuclear weapons. Preventive war proponents claimed that the Soviet Union and Mao's China could not be "trusted" with nuclear weapons that they would not hesitate to use them against the United States even at the risk of their own destruction. Luckily for the world, Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson refused to panic. As it turned out, both Moscow and Beijing were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons for the same reasons that other states have sought them since then: to enhance their national security and prestige, not to threaten or commit aggression. The case for Saddam Hussein as a crazed dictator who would eagerly supply weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to al Qaeda was never convincing and has been thoroughly discredited in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Iraq had destroyed itsWMD following the Gulf War and had no program to acquire nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration mistook Saddam's intentions for capabilities (in very much the same way that Cold War administrations conversely tended to read Soviet capabilities into intentions).
If deterrence doesn’t work, then why are we not preparing preventive war against Russia, which still has a fearsome arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles? Or against Pakistan, home to a military-intelligence regime that has been implicated in more major acts of terrorism in the past 10 years than Iran has in the past hundred? The argument that Iran would be deterred does not rest on its reasonableness but on the regime’s desire to survive. “Rulers want to have a country that they can continue to rule,” says Kenneth Waltz, one of the most distinguished theorists of international relations. To gain credibility with his conservative critics and with the current Israeli government, President Obama has gone along with them, ruled out containment, insisted that he does not bluff and spoken of a “window” of opportunity for negotiations. This might prove a serious error: It boxes in the United States, limits Obama’s options and forces him on a path that could push him into an unnecessary, preventive war. Anguish over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon is understandable. It would be better for Israel, the Middle East and the world if Tehran does not acquire such weapons. The U.S. effort, in collaboration with almost the entire international community, to prevent this from happening and to put tremendous pressure on Tehran, is the right policy. But were Tehran to persist, were its regime to accept the global isolation and crippling costs that would come from its decision, a robust policy of containment and deterrence would work toward Iran as it did against Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and the Pakistani military.
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On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for Iran to achieve a first-strike capability versus the United States. Any risks that Iran took in its basing mode and alert posture to get ready for a first strike against Israel could easily make it more vulnerable to a first strike from the United States. Spending its nuclear forces on Israel would leave Iran politically and militarily vulnerable to a huge U.S. retaliation. By striking first, it would have legitimated a U.S. nuclear attack, while simultaneously weakening its own deterrent with the weapons it had expended. The United States is the greater threat to Iran because it is much more powerful than Israel, and has actual strategic objectives in the Gulf. It is strategically reasonable for Iran to focus its deterrent energies on the United States, which it can only influence with a secure retaliatory force, capable of threatening U.S. forces and interests in the region.
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The United States should not disregard the relevance of the Chinese proliferation experience in the 1960s in dealing with the contemporary challenge posed by Iran. China’s nuclear capabilities did not translate into the intolerable military problems foreseen by President Kennedy but may actually have facilitated rapprochement between the two countries.49 Mao Zedong was also a much more ruthless and revolutionary figure than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mao actively supported anti- Western insurgencies all over the world, allowed millions of his own countrymen to perish in his mismanaged attempts at reform, and even spoke openly about his willingness to destroy half of the world for com munism to triumph. Despite this track record, the desire for self-preservation and national survival has seen China armed with nuclear weapons success fully deterred from using them for more than 40 years.
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A policy of acceptance and deterrence is also an unattractive prospect. Iran would likely be emboldened by the acquisition of a bomb and could destabilize the region and inject more problems into an already bleak prospect for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Still, given the costs of the military option, the only compelling rationale for starting a war with Iran would be if there were good reason to believe that the Iranian leadership is fundamentally undeterrable. But available evidence indicates that Iran is deterrable and would be particularly so if faced with the devastating repercussions that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon. Therefore, the United States should begin taking steps immediately to prepare for a policy of deterrence should an Iranian bomb come online in the future. As undesirable as such a situation would be, it appears less costly than striking Iran.
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As with China in the 1960s, if Iran does cross the nuclear threshold, there will be a massive asymmetry between Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and those of Washington. Both the United States and Israel have the capability to inflict what can only be described as unacceptable damage against Iran in retaliation for its first use of nuclear weapons. However, when a new state enters the nuclear club, it is essential that deterrent relation ships are quickly established. In 1964 President Johnson communicated to the Chinese a credible threat that the United States had an “enormously greater” nuclear capability and that he was willing, if necessary, to use force to respond to Chinese aggression. This threat set the parameters for a deterrent relationship that has now been successful for more than four decades and ought to provide valuable guidance for the current US gov ernment. President Obama is clearly attempting to establish a relationship with the Iranians and dissuade them from pursuing their nuclear weapons ambitions. If these measures to halt the nuclear program fail, then at least they will have laid the framework through which deterrent threats can be communicated. President Obama would be wise to draw on some of the more assertive rhetoric of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He should make clear that the United States is committed to responding to Iranian aggression, be it direct or indirect, and ensure the United States maintains the capabilities to make deterrent threats credible. In the long term, a nuclear-armed Iran may even encourage a more cautious foreign policy from Tehran and pave the way for a more balanced and constructive engagement with the West.
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There has also been a good deal of international media reports related to the fear that Iran might provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations. Ironically, the very use by Iran of surrogate terrorist organizations, rather than more overt attacks, is evidence that Tehran is sensitive to the calculations associated with the strategy of deterrence. It is also an affirmation that the Iranian leadership is attempting to minimize the risks to its foreign policy objectives. Such acts argue strongly against any possibility that Iran might provide terrorist organizations with nuclear weapons. Any move of this nature carries with it a great amount of risk; Iranians would lose control over the employment of the weapons while still having to worry that they might be blamed and targeted for response.
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.
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The United States today―unlike its European allies―does not lack the conventional means to project power in the Gulf as demonstrated in the wars of 1991 and 2003 against Iraq. And the United States would be wise strategically to tap that reputation for power to reassure partners in the region―in order to dampen incentives for exploring the nuclear weapons option―with ballistic missile defenses and conventional military means. The United States, with its preponderance of conventional forces, could threaten to remove the regime in Iran should nuclear weapons be used against American forces and regional partners. The reliance on conventional deterrence will underscore internationally the lack of usability of nuclear weapons, a mindset that, in turn, would dampen regional interest and prestige linked to nuclear weapons acquisition. Conversely, the American threat of nuclear weapons response in kind would heighten the importance and prestige of nuclear weapons and contribute to incentive for nuclear weapons proliferation. In the event that nuclear deterrence fails, the United States would have to make good on its nuclear threat and retaliate with nuclear weapons to cause most likely the end of the regime in Tehran, but at the unacceptable moral cost of thousands to millions of innocent Iranian civilian lives. Massive and tightly targeted conventional force retaliation offers a profoundly more moral and strategically effective deterrent because the threat is more credible than nuclear weapons response in light of the American restraint in inflicting civilian casualties in numerous conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
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In 1991, the historical rivals India and Pakistan signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other’s nuclear facilities. They realized that far more worrisome than their adversary’s nuclear deterrent was the instability produced by challenges to it. Since then, even in the face of high tensions and risky provocations, the two countries have kept the peace. Israel and Iran would do well to consider this precedent. If Iran goes nuclear, Israel and Iran will deter each other, as nuclear powers always have. There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states. Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply, even if the Iranian arsenal is relatively small. No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability, and the current crisis will finally dissipate, leading to a Middle East that is more stable than it is today.
The top U.S. military commander for strategic combat on Thursday said that Washington’s atomic weapons could serve as the ultimate tool for deterring a nuclear-armed Iran.
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