Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.
The Pakistani-Indian conflict may be such a situation. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal may have enabled it to engage in riskier behavior in Kashmir than it otherwise would attempt, because nuclear weapons help to deter Pakistan’s ultimate nightmare: an assault by the militarily superior India, which could slice Pakistan in two and perhaps destroy it completely. But if you try to apply that logic to Iran, no one is playing the role of India. Iran has its own tensions and rivalries with its neighbors— including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, other states on the Persian Gulf, and Pakistan. But none of these pose the kind of existential threat that Pakistan sees coming from India. Moreover, none of the current disputes between Iran and its neighbors (such as the one over ownership of some small islands also claimed by the United Arab Emirates) come close to possessing the nation-defining significance that the Kashmir conflict poses for both Pakistan and India.
Nuclear weapons matter insofar as there is a credible possibility that they will be used. This credibility is hard to achieve, however, in anything short of circumstances that might involve the destruction of one’s nation. In the case of Iran, there would need to be some specific aggressive or subversive act that Tehran is holding back from performing now for fear of retaliation—from the Americans, the Israelis, the Saudis, or someone else. Further, in order for Iran to neutralize the threat of retaliation, the desired act of mischief would have to be so important to Tehran that it could credibly threaten to escalate the matter to the level of nuclear war. Proponents of a war with Iran have been unable to provide an example of a scenario that meets these criteria, however. The impact of Iran possessing a bomb is therefore far less dire than the alarmist conventional wisdom suggests.
To be sure, the world would be a better place without an Iranian nuclear weapon. An Iranian bomb would be a setback for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, for example, and the arms control community is legitimately concerned about it. It would also raise the possibility that other regional states, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, might be more inclined to try to acquire nuclear weapons as well. But that raises the question of why these states have not already done so, despite decades of facing both Israel’s nuclear force and tensions with Iran. Ever since John F. Kennedy mused that there might be fifteen to twenty-five states with nuclear weapons by the 1970s, estimates of the pace of proliferation—like estimates of the pace of Iran’s nuclear program—have usually been too high.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that any of this would cause substantial and direct damage to U.S. interests. Indeed, the alarmists offer more inconsistent arguments when discussing the dynamics of a Middle East in which rivals of Iran acquire their own nuclear weapons. If, as the alarmists project, nuclear weapons would appreciably increase Iranian influence in the region, why wouldn’t further nuclear proliferation—which the alarmists also project—negate this effect by bestowing a comparable benefit on the rivals?
In the absence of further proliferation among Iran’s rivals, there is a chance that Iran would be marginally bolder if it possessed a nuclear weapon—and that the United States and other countries in the Middle East would be correspondingly less bold. Perceptions of strength do matter. But two further observations are important. First, once concrete confrontations occur, strategic realities trump perceptions. One of the conjectures in Jain’s monograph, for instance, is that Hezbollah and Hamas might become emboldened if Iran extended a nuclear umbrella over them. But in the face of Israel’s formidable nuclear superiority, would Iranian leaders really be willing to risk Tehran to save Gaza? The Iranians could not get anyone to believe such a thing.
Second, one must ultimately ask whether the conjectured consequences of an Iranian bomb would be worse than a war with Iran. The conjectures are just that. They are not concrete, not based on nuclear doctrine or rigorous analysis, and not even likely. They are worst-case speculations, and not adequate justifications for going to war.
When the debate turns from discussing the consequences that would flow from Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon to discussing the consequences of a U.S. military attack on Iran, the mode of argument used by proponents of an attack changes entirely. Instead of the worst case, the emphasis is now on the best case. This “best-casing” often rests on the assumption that military action would take the form of a confined, surgical use of air power to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the dispersed nature of the target and the U.S. military’s operational requirements (including the suppression of Iranian air defenses) would make this a major assault. It would be the start of a war with Iran. As Richard Betts remarks in his recent book about the American use of military force, anyone who hears talk about a surgical strike should get a second opinion.
If the kind of worst-casing that war proponents apply to the implications of a nuclear Iran were applied to this question, the ramifications would be seen as catastrophic: we would be hearing about a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces far beyond the initial assault. When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.
No one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be, and that is the main problem with any proposal to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. But the negative consequences for U.S. interests are likely to be severe. In December, Secretary Panetta identified some of those consequences when he warned of the dangers of war: increased domestic support for the Iranian regime; violent Iranian retaliation against U.S. ships and military bases; “severe” economic consequences; and, perhaps, escalation that “could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”
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