Iran & The Bomb – Two Causes for Concern

Iran and the P5 + 1 are currently in the midst of negotiations over the status of the country’s nuclear program and the sanctions regime which its continued operation has incurred. So it seems like a propitious time to examine some of the arguments addressing the issue of a nuclear Iran. The United States and Israel are perhaps, in public at least, the states most vehemently opposed to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, but preventing Iran from doing so is also a policy goal widely shared by U.S. allies.*

But, unsurprisingly, there is a school of thought which runs counter to stated U.S. policy regarding a nuclear Iran and advances an alternative to the argument that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Full stop. In its strongest form, the argument maintains a nuclear-capable Iran would increase regional and international stability, and Iran should therefore be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Kenneth Waltz’s 2012 essay in Foreign Affairs is a fine example.** In its weaker form, the argument states a preference for a non-nuclear Iran, but suggests we should be fairly sanguine in the event Iran cannot be prevented from getting the bomb. Stephen Walt’s writing here serves as a good example of this argument.

Both forms of the argument rely heavily on the iron logic of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction to arrive at the conclusion that an Iranian nuclear bomb would either enhance stability or, at the very least, not significantly detract from it. But the presumed efficacy of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction relies on two crucial conditions being met, and it is far from clear that either would obtain in the Iranian case.

First, the logic of mutually assured destruction assumes that a nuclear war cannot be won, and that there is nothing to be gained by using one’s nuclear weapons first. For this to be true, it must be the case that both nuclear combatants have nuclear weapons capabilities that could survive a first strike and inflict enough damage in return to make the prospect of a nuclear exchange untenable. This typically has required possession of more than a handful of warheads, and also the ability to deploy them from multiple platforms. The United States meets these requirements many times over. But Iran does not. A nuclear weapons program which succeeds in producing a handful of missile-deployed warheads would still take years to develop a feasible second-strike capability. And an Iran with a small number of nuclear weapons and no second strike capability could then, in certain scenarios, feel pressure to “use it or lose it”.*** Absent an Iranian second-strike capability, the logic of deterrence is severely weakened.

Second, nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction assumes nuclear powers have unerring control over their arsenals, and that they would only be deployed rationally and in response to actual instances of nuclear attack. Eric Schlosser’s Command  and Control (which I have not yet read, but would like to) suggests this is hardly a safe assumption. Given the trouble the United States (the state with the longest experience in running a nuclear arsenal) appears to have maintaining the security of its nuclear weapons, it is, I would suggest, somewhere between optimistic and naive to think that an opaquely-run Iranian regime with competitive and distinct power centers (The IRG vs. the regular armed forces, for example) will master this challenge without a potentially catastrophic learning process.****

Given the enormous challenges inherent to safely managing any nuclear weapons program, and the potentially precarious nature of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, we should be more worried than Ken Waltz would like, and hopeful that these negotiaions successfully advance Iran towards a safe, peaceful, and civilian nuclear program.

*The Gulf states don’t like to talk about it out loud, but they profoundly fear, some with Israel-like intensity, an Iranian nuclear bomb
**Dare I call it the argument’s ur-text? I suppose by asking that question in the footnotes, I do not
***For example: Hezbollah attacks Israeli targets, Israel attacks Lebanon in response, Iran threatens to close the Straight of Hormuz, the United States moves a carrier group into the eastern Mediterranean, Iran does close the Straight of Hormuz, the United States buzzes Iranian airspace with B-1 Lancers, and Iran, fearing an attack which eliminates their nuclear deterrent, panics and fires off a missile or ten. Improbable? Absolutely. But not unimaginable
****To be sure, they could also be fantastically successful at managing a nuclear weapons arsenal. But it seems like a test not worth running