There will perhaps be no hotter international political issue this summer than that of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has persisted with uranium enrichment to a near weapons grade level despite several rounds of increasingly costly economic sanctions, probably tested a warhead that is required to detonate a nuclear weapon and then scrambled to hide the evidence from IAEA inspectors, and has missiles capable of targetting its regional adversaries with nuclear payloads. A new round of negotiations in the coming weeks with the EU and United States have been heralded by some as likely to yield Iranian concessions given the building strain on Iran’s economy. Nonetheless, Iran may, sometime in the next few years, have or be capable of constructing nuclear weapons. (1) Many in the United States and elsewhere believe that very high costs should be sustained to prevent an Iranian bomb. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seems intent on preventing an Iranian bomb through the use of force, and Barack Obama has explicitly kept all options – including force – on the table. The flagship journal of the United States Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, recently published an article in its January-February 2012 issue titled “Time to Attack Iran.” What makes this worry about an Iranian bomb so odd is that we know very little about what the consequences of an Iranian nuclear bomb will actually be.
Khamenei and the senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, the individuals most likely to have control over any Iranian nuclear weapons, could be emboldened to challenge the status quo after developing the bomb. But they could also be deterred from doing so. Without knowing which of these outcomes will occur we cannot formulate effective policies to engage a new nuclear Iran. I shall argue that both of them will occur, but in a counterintuitive way that presents significant challenges to policymakers.
The costs of an Iranian nuclear weapon can be grouped into three categories: nuclear war, conventional and/or sub-conventional aggression, and nuclear proliferation cascades (which I will address in a subsequent post). The first sixty-seven years of the nuclear age show that nuclear war, whilst unimaginably destructive, is tremendously unlikely. Khamenei and his colleagues may be revisionist but they are not suicidal: a bolt out of the blue attack on Israel or other American allies would be suicidal and unlikely. Even Mao Zedong, who in the 1960s was believed to be much more radical than many believe Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard are today, did not engage in such suicidal behaviour. Nor would Iran provide Hezbollah or Hamas with nuclear weapons. Khamenei and his associates would have enough trouble restraining these groups after Iran develops a nuclear capability. He could not control what the groups would do with the weapons, and would know that nuclear forensics allow any weapon detonated in the region to be traced back to its original owner. If risking nuclear war with a nuclear Iran is like playing Russian roulette, the probability of destruction is extraordinarily low. Not only have the few crises that have occurred in the Cold War and South Asia not escalated to nuclear war, but fear of nuclear war has also caused countless other possible nuclear crises to not even occur.
The most dangerous consequence of an Iranian bomb is conventional or, more likely, sub-conventional aggression. Iran is dissatisfied with American influence in the Persian Gulf and wants to revise it. Although it is too militarily weak to do so, Khamenei and/or the Senior Revolutionary Guard commanders might believe that nuclear weapons could constitute a shield behind which they can pursue their revisionist agenda. Before developing nuclear weapons, any regional challenges could be responded to with conventional retaliation that the Iranian army could not sustain. However after developing nuclear weapons, Iran can slowly but steadily increase the cost of U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf and threaten to respond to American or Israeli retaliation with nuclear escalation. Such Iranian challenges would take the form of harassing Persian Gulf tanker traffic, sponsoring the insurgency against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and disrupting any progress in the Israel-Palestine peace process. The danger here is not that such a strategy would work; it would not realise Iran’s regional agenda. Rather, the danger is that Khamenei and/or the senior Revolutionary Guard commanders might learn that it would, challenge the regional status quo and cause a nuclear crisis.
The probability that Khamenei and his associates learn these lessons is high, and the international community needs to establish clear red lines regarding Iranian behaviour that it will not tolerate and a deterrence posture to achieve this. But the high possibility that Iran would challenge the status quo in the short term is not the same as these challenges continuing into the indefinite future. Indeed, some similar historical cases suggest that such experienced nuclear powers behave differently from the same inexperienced ones. Pakistan challenged the Kashmir status quo at Kargil in 1999 and then engaged in a ten month long militarised crisis on the border in 2001-02. But Indo-Pakistani relations, despite several terrorist attacks, have substantially improved since then. Nikita Khrushchev challenged Eisenhower at Berlin and Cuba, but the Cold War became much safer after October 1962. Many have argued that the Cuban Missile crisis itself was necessary for the improvement in relations that gave rise to detente. If Iran develops nuclear weapons and challenges the status quo, policymakers need to establish what moderated Pakistani behaviour in 2002 and Soviet behaviour forty years earlier and adopt policies that ensure that a nuclear Iran is similarly moderated.
James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh recently argued that a nuclear Iran would be most dangerous “at first, when it would likely be at its most reckless” but that “like other nuclear aspirants before them, the guardians of the theocracy might discover that nuclear bombs are simply not good for diplomatic leverage or strategic aggrandizement.” (2) This raises deeply challenging policy demands. If the experience of challenging the status quo, causing a nuclear crisis and experiencing fear of imminent nuclear war moderates new nuclear powers, we need to ensure that any Iranian challenges – if they do occur – cause fear of imminent nuclear escalation. Management of an Iranian nuclear crisis might cause Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard commanders to learn that regional revisionism after nuclear proliferation is safe because the international community, led by the United States, will bail them out of any trouble. But if the international community can refrain from managing such an Iranian nuclear crisis, a new nuclear Iran might very quickly moderate its behaviour and be much easier to deal with. If Khamenei or his associates developed the bomb, challenged the status quo and subsequently experienced fear of imminent nuclear war, a nuclear Iran would be much easier to deal with than is usually assumed.
(1) I will not address here whether Iran will actually develop nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce them at short notice. Rather, I shall address what will happen if Iran gets the bomb.
(2) James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, “After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and its Complications,” Foreign Affairs , March-April 2010, pp. 33-50, pp. 37-38.