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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In any case, the obnoxious nature of the Iranian regime (or other rogue regimes) does not negate the underlying realities of deterrence. The United States has an enormous nuclear arsenal and the delivery systems to launch retaliatory strikes with pinpoint accuracy. Any government in Tehran, whether headed by Ahmadinejad or some other figure, would know that an attack on America would be a regime-extinguishing event. Such an attack would be suicide, both politically and literally. And while nonstate actors that embrace terrorism may sometimes be suicidal, political leaders seldom are. We have little credible evidence that the Iranian leadership is an exception to that rule. Most people who reject a strategy of acceptance and deterrence tacitly acknowledge the improbability that Iran would launch a suicidal attack on the American homeland. Instead, a majority of the objections focus on other fears about Iranian misconduct. Those objections are based on several assumptions of varying plausibility.
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While Iran's track record with regard to its foreign policy does indicate a regime that is hostile to America, nothing would indicate that Iran is beyond the realm of nuclear deterrence. The bulk of the revolutionary fervor demonstrated by the Islamic Republic during its infancy died during the long war with Iraq. Moreover, the power of nuclear deterrence lies in the fact that precise calculations and cost and benefit analyses are not needed given the overwhelming costs associated with any nuclear exchange. Iranian leaders are rational enough to understand that any use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies would result in an overwhelming and unacceptable response.
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To counter these ominous tirades one could look to more reassuring statements, such as Supreme Leader Khameni's argument that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic.7 More enlightening, however, than comparing dueling quotes, is an examination of what Iran has done in terms of its foreign policy. Iran has shown itself to be pragmatic in its actions to protect national interests, foregoing the activities one associates with a religiously driven revolutionary state.Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, contrary to expectations, Iran did not seek to export its revolution to parts of the former Soviet Union, understanding that their national interest lay in forging a solid and profitable relationship with Russia. Iran even went so far as to dismiss the war in Chechnya as an internal Russian matter. Similar calculations of national interests led Iran to support Christian Armenia over Muslim Azerbaijan. Following the 1991 Gulf War, Iran did not push for a Shia revolution in Iraq, fearing that the outcome would probably be too dangerous and destabilizing. Following its isolation during the Iran-Iraq War Iran worked vigorously to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors.
At various times under both the Shah and the mullahs, Iran sought regional hegemony; at other times, under both regimes, it made overtures to the United States and even to Israel. Thus there is little reason to think that Iran would behave any differently than the Soviet Union or Communist China with nuclear weapons. If we could live with those rogue nuclear states, which were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people to advance an eschatological ideology, there is scant reason to think Iran poses a more serious threat.
One could go further and suggest that a nuclear Iran might even be beneficial to the United States. The nuclear stalemate played an important role in American efforts to contain the Soviet Union, and containment, in turn, had the effect of “mellowing” the regime, as George Kennan predicted in his famous Foreign Affairs article. Why should we not expect a regional stalemate involving the United States, Israel, and Iran to have a similar effect by simultaneously bolstering each nation’s territorial security without providing any of them with the means of conquest against other states?
This emphasis on the nuclear issue is disproportionate. Iran is allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The latest National Intelligence Estimate suggests that Iran doesn't have a nuclear-weapons program — although it once did, and could easily resume weaponization at any time. But let's assume the worst: say Iran is working on a bomb; say it acquires one in the next few years. Only Benjamin Netanyahu and assorted American neoconservatives believe — or pretend to believe — that Iran might actually use it, given Israel's overpowering ability to strike back. Most observers think that the Iranians would hold their weapon as a deterrent — even Rafsanjani, in his "Islamic bomb" speech, posited that the weapon would create a regional "stalemate." To be sure, an Iranian bomb would not be a good thing. It might launch a Middle Eastern arms race among Iran's Sunni rivals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But it would not be cataclysmic, either — unless Obama decided to pre-empt it militarily. In any case, the question is, Does the President really want to paint himself into this corner? Does he want to face the possibility of going to war or, more likely, retreating from his insistence on a bomb-free Iran?
The United States and its allies can "live with" a nuclear-armed Iran, but they should continue pressuring the Islamic Republic to keep it from developing an atomic bomb, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Monday.
Gen. John Abizaid, who retired from the Army in March after three years leading U.S. Central Command, told a Washington think tank that Iran's leadership is pursing "reckless" policies and seeks to dominate the Middle East.
"We need to press the international community as hard as we possibly can, and the Iranians, to cease and desist on the development of a nuclear weapon, and we should not preclude any option that we may have to deal with it," he said.
But he added, "I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran."
"Let's face it -- we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with nuclear powers as well," Abizaid told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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The containment solution may not be optimal. However, given our troubled relationship with the Iranian people over the last half century, the security challenges we still face in Iraq and Afghanistan, our hopes for making progress in the Middle East peace talks, our goal of convincing the worldÕs Muslims we are not at war with them, and the horrendous cost of a military attack, it is the least bad option. Moreover, like containment and deterrence in the Cold War, it will work in the long run if we are patient, which is why it has been supported by three former CENTCOM commanders (De Borchgrave, 2010), the men who are most knowledgeable about the nature of the threat, the character of the regime, and the downsides of a military strike.
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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.
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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