Is Deterrence a Viable Option for a Nuclear Iran?

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Iran’s nuclear program has again entered the spotlight of U.S. foreign policy debates in a election cycle in which foreign policy has taken the backseat.  The current debates often result in three scenarios: 1) Iran gives up its nuclear program, 2) Israel (with or without U.S. assistance) makes a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, postponing Iran’s progress, or 3) The parties involved wait until Iran develops nuclear weapons and thus assure a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel.  Essentially, these scenarios ultimately result in either Iran ending its nuclear program or an unavoidable war between Israel (and therefore the U.S.) and Iran.  These scenarios leave no room for the possibility of a nuclear Iran without war.

In his recent “Nuclear Mullahs” opinion piece in which deterrence is heavily leaned up, Bill Keller explores the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons without the inevitable war.  But is deterrence really a viable option?

The question of whether or not deterrence policies would influence Iran’s decision-making is not simple. Both religious and political motivations significantly influence Iran’s leadership and make predictable behavior extremely difficult.   Determining the effectiveness of deterrence requires asking important questions such as these: What would the government of Iran stand to gain?  What would the Iranians’ desire for Islamic Revolution in the region stand to gain from such an attack?

Because of Israel’s nuclear and second-strike capabilities, an Iranian nuclear bombing is essentially suicide as well.  A suicidal nuclear launch against Israel fails to meet the criteria supporting suicide attacks as presented by Robert Pape in “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.”  The political message sent by a nuclear launch against Israel is not directed toward a democratic international system, would generate animosity toward the Iranian-style Islamic Revolution while winning very few to their cause, and would deprive their revolution of the its leader.  (This last reason, in particular, is why Osama bin Laden never was a suicide bomber himself.)  From this perspective, Iran, if it wants to continue spreading its revolution, cannot afford to engage in a suicidal nuclear attack on Israel. Such action would result in its own destruction and inhibit the political and religious movement it seeks to inspire.

Moreover, the proliferation of nuclear arms, while dangerously effecting the international system, is not necessarily about the use of nuclear weapons.  Nuclear warheads are seen as a weapon, to be sure, but they are also tool for power within the international system.  The capability of carrying out a nuclear attack is an important bargaining chip for a country that seeks to influence the international system.  One compelling concern is that Iran, with the support of organizations willing to engage in terrorist activity, will sneak a warhead to one of these organizations once it obtains nuclear capabilities.  Although this scenario is terrifying, it is unlikely to occur because Iran understands that any such detonation would be linked to Iran and that the state would receive the brunt of the counterstrike, as if Iran had sent the warhead itself.  Therefore, while proliferation does, in theory, increase the chances that a nuclear warhead ends up in the hands of terrorist or militaristic groups, Iran would still feel immense pressure to avoid using nuclear arms and to prevent the theft of their arms through strong nuclear deterrence and collective security policies.

Additionally, a nuclear-armed Iran creates large problems within the Middle East and the world.  Using its nuclear weapons as a symbol of power, it would have increased ability to influence the policies of many Middle Eastern countries, thus impacting the politics of the international system.

One extremely dangerous possible threat with a nuclear Iran is a “Dr. Strangelove” scenario in which extreme, passionate, and impulsive Israeli or Iranian military leaders decide an attack is imminent and opt to preempt with their own nuclear strike. However dangerous a nuclear Iran can be, the U.S. must explore the possibilities of a future in which Iran has nuclear capabilities.  Doing so allows the U.S. to open options beyond imminent war.

Remembering the cost of Iraq, the U.S. must withstand the Israeli pressure towards a preemptive strike against Iran.  This effort must include stiff pressure against Israel to avoid a unilateral strike on Iran.  The U.S. must also work through the UN and other powerful international organizations to establish strong collective security and deterrence policies aimed specifically at Iran and its puppet organizations.  Additionally, the U.S.,through international organizations, must do all it can to secure nonproliferation commitments from other countries within the Middle East to prevent a possible nuclear arms race.  These policies, unfortunately, may be politically unpopular within this U.S. election cycle, but publicized discussion of such possibilities may open options that do not necessarily lead to war or a nuclear exchange in the Middle East.

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