Foreign Policy

Can America’s Nukes Deter Iran’s?

July 13, 2008

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Deterrence was profferred as a legitimate, noninterventionist solution to the problem of Iranian and other Third World nations’ nuclear weapons in the earlier discussion. Nuclear proliferation to the Third World in general is a problem because such countries are less likely to keep a tight hold on their nukes, rocked as they are by periodic coups, a culture of endemic bribery, and infighting among personnel more loyal to their religion or tribe than they are to their state.  Iranian nukes will almost certainly lead to neighboring nations getting nukes for realist reasons in response, and, more important, Third World nukes increase the possibility of such weapons leaking to non-government organizations such as al Qaeda and ultimately being used.  This insight into the dysfunction of states is one of the more important insights of Fourth Generation Warfare theory. Such weapons can slip from state control for ideological reasons or bribes or both.  If more than one or two such nations goes nuclear, and such “leaks” happen, we won’t know whom to retaliate against in the event a nuclear weapon is used against our people.  Any conclusion about “whodunit” will be undermined by the likely gaps in evidence and our nascent conspiracy-thinking culture. It would be wrong to retaliate if we were truly in the dark about the source of a nuclear weapon or, at best, could attribute it to a rogue official.  This would be a terrible position for a great and proud nation such as ours to have placed itself in.  But this unnecessary position would be the natural result of the indifferentist culture about nuclear proliferation among a sizeable fraction of antiwar critics—paleoconserative or otherwise.

There is another important problem, though, that is particularly apposite in the case of Iran.  Nuclear weapons matter for immediate practical reasons short of nuclear war; namely, they make nuclear-armed countries essentially undeterrable within a much broader range of action.  When the USSR invaded Hungary in ‘56 or Czechoslovakia in ‘68, the USSR’s nukes were a key reason we did not intervene to help the liberal revolutionaries and roll back Soviet power in Eastern Europe.  A nuclear-armed Iran would create similar challenges in the Gulf region.  By way of analogy, Pakistan’s nuclear arms are one reason our war against al Qaeda is so hamstrung by difficulties.  Pakistan, a putative ally, is unstable and internally divided.  So al Qaeda has found refuge in Western Pakistan, and there is little we can do to force their hand.  Also, unlike our current relations with Pakistan and our likely relations with a nuclear Iran, there was a modus vivendi between the USSR and the West owing to the relative rationality of their respective foreign policies.  The USSR was notoriously centralized, unlike much of the Third World, so it was more predictable.  Iran shares few of these characteristics, as evidenced by its regime’s acquiescence to lawless hostage-taking of American embassy personnel and proliferation of parallel and competing institutions of state. 

Since so much of the world’s oil is dependent on the relative stability of sea lanes in the Middle East, Iran matters even if we don’t conceive of Israel as an ally whom we should take risks for, which is a policy of strategic disengagement I have advocated since the end of the Cold War.  I’m not so dull as the neoconservatives to suggest that Iran is akin to the next Hitler or to suggest that Iran is going to attack the US conventionally, nor do I think the deus ex machina of liberal revolution is around the corner if only we bomb the hell out of them. But critics should avoid the same kind of unrealism.  Iran, like most nations, acts for reasons other than territorial self-defense.  This quest for power is a key insight of realist international relations theory.  There is no territorial self-defense reason for Iran to fund Hezbollah, but it does.  There was no territorial self-defense reason for Cuba to support rebels in Angola, but it did. Iraq, acting rationally, should have pulled out of Kuwait in 1991.  Critics would increase their credibility if they acknowledged as much.  In this instance, I could conceive of a nuclear Iran exacting tribute over its non-nuclear neighbors thereby exacting monopoly rents from the region’s oil, the Saudis—whom I would particularly not like to see so armed—could acquire nuclear arms in response, and a nuclear Iran could easily restrict US rights in the region to travel and trade and engage in other legitimate activities.  Further, I conceive Iran, like Pakistan, to increase the risk of any nuclear weapons slipping to undeterrable, non-state actors, such as al Qaeda and similar organizations. 

Finally, the promise that deterrence will protect us from even the whole world going nuclear is unrealistic for the reasons cited above:  any such nuclear weapon use could be well concealed and plausibly blamed on another.  More important, such deterrence depends on the kind of hard-headed Machiavellian realism so often pilloried by the same critics.  Even I think it’s a great moral problem that massive nuclear retaliation against civilian cities is proffered as the deterrent promise in the case of nuclear attack.   But this technique of shielding ourselves with an arguably immoral promise is now championed by the same people who think a limited conventional strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is a great moral evil unjustified even in the (admittedly not yet proven) case where Iran is on the brink of nuclear weapons acquisition.  Critics say wars are expensive and costly to us and enemy civilians.  This is all undoubtedly true.  But will the people who consider blowing up Iranian nuclear reactors a great injustice and that $4.00 gaoline is a massive oppression have the tenacity to support nuking Iranian cities if an Iranian nuclear weapon is used somehow against the U.S.?  Because that grave promise is the key to nuclear deterrence. Between this promise—massive killing of civilians and destruction of infrastructure with nuclear weapons—and possible alternatives like sabotage and precision airstrikes on rural Iranian nuclear facilities, it does not seem like a “slam dunk” in the moral scales to risk long-term and unpredictable deterrence versus precision disarmament now.

The Bush administration has unfortunately (though understandably) created conditions for a reflexive anti-war movement in all instances.  We should not allow its mistakes to create overcorrective mistakes in our own reasoning.  Its errors of policy should be disaggregated.  Bush’s application of power was confused in Iraq by the counsel of disloyal Israeli partisans, Rumsfeld’s desire to experiment in military “transformation,” flawed public rhetoric, and commitment to the quixotic goal of promoting exemplary democracies abroad.  This is the reason we’re still in Iraq today.  A true American patriot concerned with our basic interests in trade and self-protection and the avoidance of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism could apply a policy of preemption more narrowly and sensibly for the reasons outlined above that have nothing to do with protecting Israel or the forceful imposition of democratic political regimes upon the peoples of the Middle East.

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