Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.
The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred. On the campaign trail Rick Santorum has been among the most vocal in propounding this notion, asserting that Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that it believes “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom. Newt Gingrich speaks in a similar vein about how Iranian leaders are suicidal jihadists, and says “it’s impossible to deter them.”
The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one. They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife. Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival. The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, because it saw them as a counterrevolutionary threat. The assassinations ended when they started inflicting too much damage on Iran’s relations with European governments. Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests. The principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.
If the stereotyped image of Iranian leaders had real basis in fact, we would see more aggressive and brash Iranian behavior in the Middle East than we have. Some have pointed to the Iranian willingness to incur heavy losses in continuing the Iran-Iraq War. But that was a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the Iranian homeland, not some bellicose venture beyond Iran’s borders. And even that war ended with Ayatollah Khomeini deciding that the “poison” of agreeing to a cease-fire was better than the alternative. (He even described the cease- fire as “God’s will”—so much for the notion that the Iranians’ God always pushes them toward violence and martyrdom.)
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.
The more sophisticated-sounding argument about the supposed dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon—one heard less from politicians than from policy-debating
intelligentsia—accepts that Iranian leaders are not suicidal but contends that the mere possession of such a weapon would make Tehran more aggressive in its region. A dominant feature of this mode of argument is “worst-casing,” as exemplified by a pro-war article by Matthew Kroenig in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Kroenig’s case rests on speculation after speculation about what mischief Iran “could” commit in the Middle East, with almost no attention to whether Iran has any reason to do those things, and thus to whether it ever would be likely to do them.
Kroenig includes among his “coulds” a scary possibility that also served as a selling point of the Iraq War: the thought of a regime giving nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group. Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous? And how would it achieve deniability regarding its role in what the group subsequently did with the stuff? No regime in the history of the nuclear age has ever been known to transfer nuclear material to a nonstate group. That history includes the Cold War, when the USSR had both a huge nuclear arsenal and patronage relationships with a long list of radical and revolutionary clients. As for deniability, Iranian leaders have only to listen to rhetoric coming out of the United States to know that their regime would immediately be a suspect in any terrorist incidents involving a nuclear weapon.
The more sophisticated-sounding argument links Iran with sundry forms of objectionable behavior, either real or hypothetical, without explaining what difference the possession of a nuclear weapon would make. Perhaps the most extensive effort to catalog what a nuclear-armed Iran might do outside its borders is a monograph published last year by Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jain’s inventory of possible Iranian nastiness is comprehensive, ranging from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But nowhere is there an explanation of how Iran’s calculations—or anyone else’s— would change with the introduction of a nuclear weapon. The most that Jain can offer is to assert repeatedly that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability,” it might do some of these things. We never get an explanation of how, exactly, such a shield would work. Instead there is only a vague sense that a nuclear weapon would lead Iran to feel its oats.
Analysis on this subject need not be so vague. A rich body of doctrine was developed during the Cold War to outline the strategic differences that nuclear weapons do and do not make, and what they can and cannot achieve for those who possess them. Such weapons are most useful in deterring aggression against one’s own country, which is probably the main reason the Iranian regime is interested in developing them. They are much less useful in “shielding” aggressive behavior outside one’s borders, except in certain geopolitical situations in which their use becomes plausible.
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