The Day After Iran Gets the Bomb

By Bilal Y. Saab – I have been doing some work and proposal-writing lately on an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. And it is how Iran might look and behave differently if and when it gets the bomb. Like I said, tons of work has been done on the issue already but I felt like there were some limitations and gaps in the research. I tried to address some of these issues in two short pieces that appeared in Foreign Policy and the National Interest (guilty of self-promotion charges). Here they are again:

The Futility of Predicting Iran’s Future

Foreign Policy – February 02, 2012

When safety regulation makes automobiles safer, drivers (though obviously not all of them) are tempted to drive more recklessly, creating partially or completely offsetting effects on the overall level of safety. Economists have entertained this idea since it was first introduced by Sam Peltzman in the 1970s, some have rejected it while others, some of whom relied on data from NASCAR races, validated it. The “Peltzman effect” was also tested during the Cold War and more broadly in the realm of strategic affairs. Specifically, scholars have sought to understand the effect of the added perceived security a state acquires from nuclear weapons on its behavior in world politics.

Let us assume for a moment that Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability (which is anything but inevitable given the many technical and political unknowns), a “nuclear seat belt or air bag” so to speak, will it behave like a more reckless driver? It is no surprise that analysts have had disagreements on this issue, some strong, others more nuanced. Most analysts however believe that a nuclear Iran — whether overtly nuclear-armed or capable of producing weapons quickly — would present an even greater challenge to Western interests and regional security than it does today, more aggressively protecting its strategic interests, projecting its power, pursuing its ideological ambitions, and meddling in the politics and security of its neighbors. A nuclear Iran could look more like Pakistan, a country that, after its 1998 nuclear tests, was feeling more confident on the regional and international stage and was arguably taking more risks in its policies toward its historical rival, India.

A more optimistic view of how a nuclear Iran would look and conduct itself in world politics suggests that mere possession of the bomb does not necessarily lead to a foreign policy of aggression and bellicosity. Despite its idiosyncratic features, ideological motivations and political instability, a nuclear Iran could resemble China, a country that, in pursuit of its security and diplomatic interests, has mostly sought to deter rather than confront, cooperate rather than defy, and coexist rather than threaten (except on the issues of Taiwan’s and Tibet’s independence, which continue to be red lines for the Chinese leadership).

Some have also questioned the usefulness of nuclear weapons for Iran, arguing that the strategic value of this “narrow category of weapons” lies primarily in regime security and deterrence of military threats, not subversion and blackmail. According to this reasoning, nuclear weapons are likely to work against goals of regional hegemony because of unintended effects such as an escalation of the Middle East arms race and a powerful U.S. response. One analyst went as far as to say that nuclear gambits simply do not work. While Iran may have a freer hand in regional politics and be able to expand its influence in the Middle East, a nuclear weapons capability is more likely to tame it, given its interest in avoiding escalation with other nuclear power states such as the United States and Israel. In sum, those less worried about the global security repercussions of a nuclear Iran maintain that the threat is “overblown.”

Analysts have tried to predict the behavior of a nuclear Iran and have tailored their policy recommendations for the United States accordingly. They have relied on two approaches. The first, which borrows heavily from the logic of theories of nuclear proliferation and studies investigating the effects of nuclear weapons on a state’s foreign policy, makes inferences about the behavior of a nuclear Iran after looking at patterns of behavior by other nuclear weapons states. For example, if China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and other nuclear weapons states followed similar courses of action after they obtained the bomb, Iran is more likely to follow suit. However, there are two obvious problems with this first approach: first, these states to begin with, did not behave similarly after they got the bomb. For example, China behaved more responsibly than North Korea and India much more to reassure the world about its intentions and capabilities and to safeguard its nuclear arsenal than did Pakistan. Second, even if one can find similarities in these states’ post-nuclear behaviors, it does not mean that Iran will follow a prescribed model. In other words, Iran obviously can still decide to go in a completely different direction.

The second approach, which is Iran-specific and somewhat more promising than the first, looks at trends in past Iranian behavior in regional and international crises and militarized disputes and attempts to make inferences about future behavior. For example, if evidence is found suggesting that Iran refrained more often than not from escalating during past crises and showed restraint when confronted with overwhelming force, the assumption is that it is more likely to do the same in the future. Indeed, if Iran acted “rationally” and was deterred from crossing red lines in the past, then it is possible that deterrence against Iran, even if armed with nuclear weapons, will work in the future. Several examples of past Iranian experiences and policies show that Tehran can be a “rational” and pragmatic state when it wants to, including its secret purchase of weapons from the United States in the mid-1980s (part of the Iran-Contra affair), its political and military conduct during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, its behavior in the 1980s “Tankers War,” its intelligence cooperation with the United States on al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11, its strategy toward U.S. forces operating in post-Saddam Iraq, and its response to Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. These examples and others indicate that Iran is perfectly capable of calculating its every move, of exercising political pragmatism, of understanding the dictates of deterrence, and of keeping its ideological ambitions in check when the costs are too high.

However, the reliability of this second approach is also questionable. The specific constellation of political, security, psychological, and geographic factors surrounding a certain crisis in the past may not be the same in a future one. In other words, every crisis is unique, and the decision to retreat or escalate depends not just on the nature of the external security threat, but also on how it is perceived and by whom. For example, if the balance of political forces inside the Iranian political system may have tilted in favor of those seeking foreign policy restraint during crises in the past, things might change for the worse in the future, and the odds are that they will, given that the hardliners in Tehran are currently dominant and the less than flexible Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is solidifying its grip on national security policy.

Also, it matters greatly whether a nuclear Iran finds itself, by default or design, locked in a crisis with Israel and the United States, two nuclear weapons states, or with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two non-nuclear weapons states. Iran will obviously feel more confident in disputes with states that do not have the bomb. But at the same time, this does not necessarily mean that Iran will be less assertive or extra prudent when facing states that are armed with nuclear weapons. The case of India and Pakistan illustrates how militarized disputes between nuclear weapons states can be less than stable. The military engagement of May-July 1999 between the two countries, the military stand-off of December 2001 to June 2002 after the terrorist operation on the Indian Parliament, and the most recent crisis following the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed over 160 people mirrored the conflict escalation pattern for nuclear-armed states. Specifically, the leaders of both sides initiated troop mobilizations, put their militaries on alert, and proceeded to evacuate civilians from border-area villages. Perhaps the presence of a contiguous border and the territorial dispute over Kashmir makes the India-Pakistan case more escalation-prone than that of Iran and Israel who do not share a border or have disputes over territory. Yet there are factors in the Iran-Israel relationship that also make it especially unstable and at (high) risk of escalation. For a start, the Islamic republic denies Israel’s right to exist and its leaders have issued threats to exterminate the Jewish state (that such threats lack credibility does not make them any less scary, especially to Israeli national leaders). Since its creation in 1979, the Islamic republic has also sponsored terrorist attacks against Israeli interests and engaged in proxy wars with Israel through sub-state actors in the region, which it continues to arm and support politically. Such factors and a mere history of past conflict increase the likelihood that a future Iran-Israel confrontation will rapidly escalate to war irrespective of the presence of nuclear weapons.

In sum, theories and studies of nuclear proliferation, past policies and behaviors of other nuclear weapons states, and Iran’s own past behavior during crises and conflicts are not reliable predictors of future Iranian behavior. The arguments of the “nuclear optimists” and “nuclear pessimists” with regard to a nuclear Iran can be proven neither wrong nor right at present, they remain hypothetical forecasts. Indeed, it is impossible to know in advance how Iran will behave if it acquires a nuclear weapons capability. It is also illogical to try to demonstrate that Iranian leaders will not act in a given way at some point in the future, especially if and when they obtain the absolute weapon, the ultimate deterrent. Iran can act rationally at one given time, and irrationally at another. Different situations require different behaviors and sets of policies. Equally important, what is rational for Iran’s regime may still be unacceptable for the United States, thus rendering the whole concept of rationality less than relevant when it comes to formulating a U.S. strategic response. Therefore, analysts should stop asking themselves if a nuclear Iran would act according to a “rational actor model.

From a U.S. policy standpoint, the far more pertinent and perhaps challenging question that should be answered is not how a nuclear Iran is likely to behave but what strategies and contingency plans the United States should formulate in advance to effectively deal with every possible Iranian scenario. The United States cannot afford to make educated guesses about a country that may be armed with the most destructive weapons on earth, has consistently manipulated the rules of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and concealed its nuclear capabilities, and has a long history of engaging in international terrorism and fomenting instability in neighboring countries.


No Hotline to Tehran

The National InterestFebruary 10, 2012

It is neither premature nor defeatist for the United States to start preparing for the possibility that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. It is not inevitable. But the longer Americans wait to engage in an honest and calm debate about a nuclear-armed Iran, the less prepared they will be should that fateful day arrive.

Should the world be faced with the fait accompli of a nuclear Iran, the immediate reaction of the international community will be massive outrage and condemnation. The United States will be confronted with some familiar options: launch a preventive strike or accept the reality of a nuclear-armed Iran and move to a policy of Cold War–like containment and robust deterrence. This scenario prompts several questions: How would the U.S. stance toward a nuclear Iran differ from Washington’s present policy? Would the costs of containment and deterrence be significantly higher? Would a military option be completely ruled out?

The Conventional Attack

Let’s start with prevention. Launching a comprehensive attack against a nuclear Iran that seeks to physically destroy its nuclear program in full, crush its military and decapitate its political leadership is not unthinkable. But it should be obvious to all that the risks are immensely high and the costs could be intolerable for both the United States and Israel.

Iran would possess a relatively small nuclear arsenal in the beginning (anywhere between four and thirty-seven nukes) and no assured second-strike capability for years, making it vulnerable to a disarming raid by the United States. Yet Iran’s vulnerability could also complicate U.S. military plans. Iran may be compelled to strike first for fear of losing its few nukes, especially if it perceives that an attack is imminent. Further, Iran’s limited capabilities in command, control, communications and intelligence could also cause a hair-trigger reaction during a crisis.

Attacking a nuclear-armed Iran is a viable option only if Washington knows the exact number of Iran’s nuclear warheads and their locations and can ensure they will not be moved or fired before a strike. The chances that U.S. intelligence agencies will gather solid intelligence on all these variables are slim. And because nuclear weapons are relatively easy to hide and move, Iran will make sure to create operational uncertainty and strategic ambiguity, causing Washington to think twice before launching an attack. All Iran needs is the survival of one or two nukes to use against U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf or to fire at Israel. In sum, it is far from clear that a conventional attack by the United States, no matter how massive and well executed, would physically eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear weapons.

The Challenges of Containment

The elements of an alternative policy—containment and deterrence—are well-known by now. (The American Enterprise Institute’s December 2011 report, “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran,” did a superb job of detailing them.) These include but are not limited to boosting defense ties with Gulf Cooperation Council states, providing them with a nuclear umbrella and deploying missile defenses on their territories, bolstering the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, and solidifying diplomatic relations with U.S. allies in the region and within NATO.

The costs of this policy are also clear: An Iranian bomb would deal a huge blow to (or even totally collapse) the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, aspirations of global disarmament and the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. The United States, whose armed forces are already stretched thin, would need to allocate significant military resources to the Persian Gulf and spend a lot of political capital convincing its Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and possibly Qatar and the UAE) not to seek their own nuclear weapons. This would be extremely difficult.

But if the United States was able to protect its allies during the Cold War from nuclear blackmail by the Soviets, it can do so with a much less powerful adversary—even an Iran in possession of the bomb. But just as with the Soviet Union, the United States would need a genuinely credible deterrent posture. A nuclear Iran must believe that Washington is both able and willing to inflict massive pain on Tehran, should it misbehave.

What Iran’s leaders say and do immediately after they get the bomb could make a difference in how the United States reacts. Clear signaling of intentions by Iran’s leaders could tip the balance in favor of a particular U.S. response. To be sure, there may not be much difference in what Iran says and does once it acquires a nuclear-weapons capability. The United States might have already decided in favor of a military strike and the domestic, regional and international pressures might be too strong—but Iran will still have a choice to make.

A Cooperative Iran?

Consider an admittedly theoretical scenario for just a moment. A nuclear Iran could reduce the chances of an American attack if it chose to take tangible and verifiable steps to convince the United States and the rest of the world that it would be a responsible and peaceful nuclear-weapons state. It would have to convey quickly and clearly that its nuclear weapons would only serve deterrent purposes and never be used as war-fighting instruments on the battlefield or as tools for blackmail and subversion.

The size and nature of Iran’s nuclear arsenal will be important indicators of its intentions. Specifically, a small, safe and reliable arsenal could be less of a concern. A declaration that specifies the conditions under which Iran would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons is another major form of signaling and an indicator of intentions. A “no-first-use” policy, a clear and public articulation of “red lines,” and the publication of a nuclear doctrine could also help reduce regional and worldwide fears, and thus lower the chances of a U.S. preventive strike. The more transparent Iran decides to be about its nuclear arsenal, the more credible its case of nonaggression will be.

Also relevant is the manner in which Iran declares its nuclear status to the world. Test-firing a nuclear weapon like the Pakistanis and the North Koreans may be a sign of worse things to come, although the Indians and some of the other nuclear powers also test-fired their devices. Keeping the bomb in the basement, however, and never acknowledging it—as the Israelis did—would be devastating to the international nonproliferation regime, but might be better received by the United States.

In addition, feeling more confident about its security and deterrent capabilities, Iran could publicly renounce terrorism, refrain from blocking peace efforts in the Middle East and stop sending arms to Hezbollah. Iran might also adopt nuclear-export controls and other nonproliferation policies, which India embraced soon after it obtained the bomb, and state its desire to participate in international arrangements to prevent or restrict sensitive flows from its civilian nuclear program.

Should a nuclear Iran decide to follow a pacific course—an outcome that is highly doubtful—the United States might shelve, but not take off the table, the option of a preventative strike, opting instead for a policy of containment and deterrence. But there is also the far more likely scenario: Iran chooses not to take the aforementioned course, thus raising the incentives of the United States to strike.

Communication Breakdown

Early signs of hostile Iranian intentions could include the production of a large nuclear arsenal that incorporates tactical nukes and the development of new military capabilities, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile, that directly threaten the United States and its allies. A rejection of a “no-first-use” principle or an ambiguous declaratory policy that leaves world governments guessing about Iranian intentions could also precipitate U.S. preventive action.

Iran could also leverage its nuclear status for political advantage, initiating crises directly or by proxy and escalating a conventional conflict. And should Iran find itself losing a conflict with a rival or enemy nation on the conventional battlefield, it could always resort to the nuclear option. Indeed, the introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons might be a tactic pursued as a last, desperate means of ensuring survival. Other signs of bellicose intentions by a nuclear Iran that could provoke a U.S. military response are a major terrorist attack against Western interests, forward troop deployments along its borders, comprehensive and aggressive military training exercises and simulations with live ammunition, and threats directed at U.S. allies.

Even if a nuclear Iran chooses to pacify the world, it must effectively communicate its peaceful intentions. Obviously this is easier said than done. For a start, Iran’s diplomatic skills are weak and its political system is factionalized. Indeed, Tehran has a record of obscuring its intentions and concealing its capabilities, and its civilian, religious and military leaders seldom speak with one voice on foreign affairs.

There is no U.S.-Iranian hotline. Diplomatic relations between Iran and its two primary enemies, the United States and Israel, do not even exist. Sending crucial messages to the United States through the Swiss channel is not ideal and cannot be a substitute for direct interaction, especially during times of nuclear crisis. The United States and its allies will not give Iran, a country whose credibility is already very low, the benefit of the doubt. There will not be an effort to understand whether Iran is failing to communicate due to unwillingness, incapacity or both; the United States and its allies will just assume and prepare for the worst.

Despite what could be good intentions, Iran may not be technically capable of safeguarding its nuclear arsenal and keeping it under centralized command and control. Assessing the Iranian regime’s ability to secure its nuclear weapons is a trying exercise, due to its notoriously opaque nature and the lack of good intelligence on the country’s national-security apparatus. Moreover, some rogue elements within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the political elite could be tempted to supply nuclear technology to friends and allies, a remote possibility given the huge risks and high costs. Irrespective of what Iran says and does, all these objective risks may be viewed by the United States as too high—and ample reason to opt for a preventive strike.

Washington will theoretically have two distinct options should Iran go nuclear: prevention or containment and deterrence. But in reality there will be a strong connection between the two. Indeed, the feasibility of one will depend on the other. For containment to succeed, the United States would need a credible deterrent in the eyes of Iran. A credible deterrent, on the other hand, will require a real first-strike preventive option. In other words, prevention will complement containment. Whether the United States will be able to develop viable preventive and containment options is hard to predict. But preparation for a nuclear Iran should start today, not tomorrow.