Unless conditions change drastically, Iran will have the atomic bomb. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but the Iranians will have it.
It doesn't matter, say some analysts. Iran can be deterred, as was the Soviet Union. Some say it might even be easier to deter Iran as the Soviets had a vastly greater military capability. The trouble with this argument is that rests on assumptions about deterrence as old as the concept itself, assumptions that often don't hold up.
Let's assume that the Iranians are completely rational. Under the theory of deterrence, this would mean they'd never use nuclear weapons out of fear that the United States would retaliate and destroy Iran.
But would we? Consider this scenario:
The likeliest Iranian target is Israel. If Iran used nuclear weapons against Israel, the logic goes, the United States would surely retaliate on behalf of its ally. But if you were the general in charge of Iranian strategic planning, you might, with perfect rationality, assume just the opposite. Here is what that general might say to his superiors:
The United States and Israel are allies, but have no treaty. The Americans would feel honor-bound to strike back against us if we attacked Israel with our new nuclear weapons but only if the attack were only partially successful, and Israel survived as a nation.
However, if our attack is completely successful, and Israel were essentially destroyed, what incentive would the U.S. have to strike us? The president of the United States would quickly be told that Israel could not be brought back to life, and that an attack on Iran would inflame the Muslim world. It would produce only more disasters for the United States, and would be seen purely as an act of blind vengeance.
Besides, the president would also be told, the American retaliation would kill millions of us Iranians. No matter what the provocation, America would become a permanent pariah, certainly in the Islamic world, and probably in Western Europe, which is dominated by America-hating leftist intellectuals.
So our job, as Iranian soldiers, is to be sure our attack succeeds completely. We can expect denunciations, and all kinds of memorials to Israel, arranged by Zionists in the press and in the American Congress. But we reason that the Americans will do their usual dance - the president will express sorrow and grief, promise aid to survivors, and demand a UN resolution against us and it will take months for anything to be done.
By that time the shock of our successful Islamic attack will be forgotten. Far from being hated, we'd be the most feared nation on Earth, and supremely powerful.
This, it would seem, is an entirely rational argument, positing that an attack which destroys Israel would provoke no serious retaliation by the United States because retaliation would do more harm than good. So we must stop assuming that a "rational" Iranian government would conclude that it could never use nuclear weapons. We must define rationality differently.
But, its supporters claim, deterrence would certainly work in preventing an Iranian nuclear attack on the United States.
Not necessarily. Consider, for example, this second scenario:
Assume that Iran has only three nuclear weapons, and that its target isn't Israel, which couldn't be destroyed with only three, but the United States. That Iranian general might reason this way:
No, of course we couldn't destroy the United States with only three warheads, but we could do the kind of damage that would severely reduce America as a fighting force, and especially as an economic force. Two weapons sailed into the Great Satan's harbors in the holds of merchant ships, and one smuggled into Washington, and set off by martyrs, would kill more Americans in a few seconds than in all the American wars combined. The United States would be crippled, its government decapitated, its economy, already under great strain, unable to rebuild quickly. And the American entity would be humiliated, and exposed as vulnerable, the pitiful helpless giant so often described.
We judge that it would be impossible for the Americans to retaliate. We can easily hide the origin of the weapons, and we would make no claims of responsibility after the attack. Our superb intelligence services can run false-flag operations before the attack to throw off Western intelligence operatives. We could even plant clues pointing to Israel as the culprit, the idea being that the scheming Israelis would be trying to provoke an American attack on our Iran.
The Americans would naturally suspect that we were behind the attack, but could never prove it. They could not justify retaliation against a nation that could be innocent. Our brothers in the Muslim world would support us in our claim of non-involvement. All the American president could do, if he survives, is to promise a full inquiry and pledge destruction of whoever is guilty. But guilt would never be determined. And so the American government would simply mobilize still one more "war on terror."
There, again, we have a perfectly rational argument that could lead to a devastating attack on the United States.
Both scenarios assume that the Iranian nuclear forces would function at a very high level, even a near-perfect level. But months or years of practice could give the Iranians the confidence that they could do just that.
There is a third scenario to consider, but it operates in reverse. Those who speak so confidently about deterrence forget that Iranian nuclear weapons can be used to deter the United States. Deterrence, after all, is a two-way street. Even if Iran never uses its nuclear weapons, their very presence could make it impossible for the United States to carry out an effective policy in the Middle East and western Asia.
Washington decides to send the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean to defend an emerging Iraq against border attacks from a nuclear-armed Iran. A traditional show of force, the United States reasons, will convince the Iranians to pull back. But Iran sees the confrontation in much larger terms - a battle to determine who will dominate the region. That Iranian general speaks again to his superiors:
Will we back down and confirm American superiority, or will we claim our ancient place as the main power of our region? The answer is obvious: We are the new, nuclear-equipped Iran, and we can use our modern power without firing a shot. We must tell our people to prepare for martyrdom, something that will frighten the Americans.
We must tell the Americans, through private channels, that we will regard any action by their Sixth Fleet as an attack on Iran, and that we will retaliate against that fleet, using our nuclear arsenal. This is our last stand, our stand for history. We will set off one of our nukes in a desert region in the next few days to demonstrate our resolve. The test will be detected by American satellites.
The Americans will look at the issue - some border raids against Iraq, a country the American people are sick of - and the possibility that they could lose one of their precious aircraft carriers, with a crew of 5,000. They may think we have become totally irrational, but they will fear us. How would a president explain the loss of 5,000 sailors? The Americans call this the rationality of irrationality. And they will offer a settlement, essentially backing down and conceding our power. They will risk things in the face of a conventionally equipped Iran. A nuclear Iran is not something they will wish to face.
Depending on the spine of the president, and assuming we know what a weak president looks like, such an Iranian approach might just succeed in deterring the United States, and we would indeed be reduced to second-rate status in the region.
None of three potential Iranian strategies outlined above might actually work in practice. But do we really want to find out?
During the Cold War, deterrence prevented an exchange of nuclear blows. But it did not prevent smaller, draining conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, nor did it prevent confrontations over Berlin and over missiles in Cuba. Deterrence is a word. It is not a magic bullet. It is being thrown around loosely as an all-purpose solution to an Iranian bomb. In truth, it is a very risky business, full of uncertainty, and dependent on where you sit, what country you represent, and which dictionary you use.
Far, far better is an Iran without a nuclear weapon.