Weapons of Mass Deterrence: Assessing the Impacts of a Nuclear Iran

At the dawn of what many hope will turn out to be a 2009 version of “Morning in America,” we are confronted with a litany of challenges that are making even our strongest of willed nation buckle at the knees. While discussions of credit default swaps, subprime mortgage foreclosures, and economic stimulus dominate both the airwaves and the front pages of our republic’s ever-dwindling newspaper circulation, it is the possibility of another foreign entanglement that weighs most heavily on those of us with an enduring aversion to international conflict. The new Commander in Chief certainly brings renewed hope in this particular policy arena, but will his brand of change be accompanied by the desperately needed paradigm shift that is required to avoid another debacle in the Middle East? This fundamental question must be answered in order to properly assess any foreign policy successes or failures that this administration or its critics may claim.

President Obama rode into office on a wave of promises and expectations regarding the United State’s policies of war and peace. The criticism that he drew from the opposition regarding his vision of engaging the much dreaded and loathed Persian government was fierce and unending. The ideologues screamed that sitting down with the Iranian leadership and allowing both sides to effectively air their grievances over issues of nuclear proliferation, the Iraq War, and regional stability would equate to nothing less than Neville Chamberlain appeasing Adolph Hitler in 1938. Those on the other side of the spectrum recognized that embarking on a journey towards meaningful dialogue with our bitter enemy of thirty years could possibly bear fruit and cool the simmering tension. Considering the uneven results, someone less kind might call them failures, of the previous administration’s “Do as I say” approach in this area, engagement appears to be the proper path towards reconciliation. The new president should be applauded for having the courage to bring such pragmatism to the forefront of this exceedingly important situation, but will it be enough to bring some form of stability to a region where ever-changing power dynamics are the norm?

Perhaps a new approach must be tried alongside President Obama’s logical step of negotiation. Realist theorists from Hans Morgenthau to George F. Kennan have long described the international order as one that places interests over ideals. In other words, even the most stringent true believers will abandon ideology in order to serve the interests at hand. In the realm of governance, this often means sacrificing quintessential beliefs in the interest of political expediency. So why would a nuclear armed Iran be so unacceptable? Are the Iranian authorities so wedded to their disdain of a Jewish state in their neighborhood that they would risk the total annihilation of their own civilization? Would they be so bold as to send a nuclear weapon in the direction of these United States? While these scenarios surely leave many a neoconservative lying in a pool of cold sweat night after night, they are simply not realistic.

Short of a nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of an Al-Qaeda like extremist organization, the chances of the Iranians launching a nuclear-armed missile in the direction of Jerusalem or setting off a suitcase nuke in Washington D.C. are just about nil. Still, this is a threat that merits observation and cooperation, so a hands-off approach by the Obama camp is clearly not the way forward. Instead, the risk must be managed and contained through practical means.

Nuclear weaponry is a simple fact of modern day life that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. With this harsh reality staring us directly in the face, we had better learn how to deal with the issue pragmatically, as more and more nations cast an eye towards developing nuclear energy with every passing year. The best solution to this situation may have been illustrated in the writings of John Mearsheimer. A structural realist or neorealist, such as Mearsheimer, takes the focus of the classical realist’s belief that human nature and personal interest lie at the heart of every decision, and expands it to encompass the international system structure. This approach dovetails nicely with the current global reality of an increasingly shrinking and interconnected world.

Mearsheimer analyzes the international community and hypothesizes nuclear armaments may not be the doomsday weapons that many critics counter. In fact, nukes may be the ultimate peacemaking tool, if proliferation is well managed. Mearsheimer points to what he labels as the pacifying effects of nuclear weaponry when imagining the prospect of a nuclear free Europe. Without atomic weapons, “the caution they generate, the security they provide, the rough equality they impose, and the clarity of the relative power they create–would be lost.”* Although he was writing specifically about the post-Cold War order in Europe, his ideas can be used to examine other areas of the world, i.e. the Middle East and its problematic history of dealing with proliferation issues.

Allowing Iran to develop these advanced weapons would provide a counterbalance to the Israeli nuclear arsenal that, although unstated, everyone knows exists in the region. It is a fundamental return to the idea of deterrence that pervaded throughout the Cold War…and worked.

Prior to the United States decision to invade Iraq and reshape the structure of the state based on the incorrect premise that Iraq was actively seeking a nuclear arsenal along with other weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East showed more signs of stability then at current. Despite the horrendous crimes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq provided a check on the power of the Iranian Mullahs. With this counterbalance now missing, Iran is exerting greater influence throughout Iraq and the entire Middle Eastern world. The effect of this somehow unforeseen consequence has been an increasing fear of Iranian aggression and influence by the Israelis who sit within striking distance of Iran’s Shahab missiles, and their American benefactors. This anxiety and uncertainty is increasing the likelihood that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and plunge the region into all-out war. This outcome is far less desirable than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The many failures of the United States and the IAEA should serve as ample evidence of how ineffectively the current international atomic regime operates. One need look no further than what transpired in North Korea to better understand this point. The message that the United States sent to Kim Jong Il and the rest of the world after invading Iraq was simple: if you are trying to acquire nuclear capabilities we may invade you, but if you hurry up and develop them before we get the chance to invade, we will negotiate instead. While no one can be positive of this point, it is a safe bet to assume that Iran ratcheted up its nuclear ambitions after witnessing this bungled policy and realizing that the United States Armed Forces stood at full attention with numerous brigades stationed on its western border in Iraq and its eastern border in Afghanistan. Add to this the fleet of American warships patrolling the Persian Gulf waters off the southern coast of the country and one begins to see why the Iranians might have been spooked. Whatever the intention of the United States, we are now witnessing the blowback of a failed non-proliferation policy.

Allowing Iran the ability to develop nuclear capabilities under the watchful eye of the international community would help guard against a great number of devastating scenarios that much of the world fears. By taking an active role in an Iranian nuclear program, the United States and other vital players would be able to monitor and assess Iranian progress; this essential information currently lies outside of our grasp and accounts for the numerous conflicting reports of exactly how close the country is to actually assembling a usable weapon. A new approach of managed proliferation could give us an insider’s view of exactly what is going on and why. This kind of information would prove invaluable in spotting and stopping the less than desirable outcomes which provoke angst in so many worldwide. The example of the nuclear weapon falling into the hands of the evil, terrorist mastermind provides a fitting example. With proper oversight and cooperation, it is much less likely that this scenario would ever come to fruition. This particular sequence of events gains more plausibility when one considers the specter of the Iranians conducting their work in secrecy away from the prying eyes of the West.

The argument presented here does beg one essential question: where does it end? With Iran entering the realm of nuclear powers, it is quite possible other countries in the region will want to go forward with their own nuclear programs. The Saudis, Egyptians, or both may wish to enter this highly exclusive club in order to counteract any perceived Iranian threat. With this in mind, it is important to note that this is not a blanket approval of all proliferation scenarios. It is important to judge each instance individually and assess the potential costs and benefits accordingly. If the United States and the international community deem it too risky to allow Saudi Arabia or Egypt to follow the same path as Iran, they are in a much stronger position to convince the countries to abandon their programs by virtue of the relationships the United States has with both states. United States ties to Saudi kingdom are well chronicled and would provide leverage in dealing with the issue through political or economic means. The same can be said for an Egyptian state that receives billions in military and economic aid from the United States every year. These relationships provide a negotiating tool that is virtually nonexistent in the Iranian case due to the tenuous relationship that has existed between the United States and the Islamic republic over the past three decades.

Ultimately, the idea laid out here is utterly unlikely to unfold. Regardless of whether a person lies on the left or right of the political spectrum, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that a nuclear-armed Iran equals disaster for all parties. This dogmatic approach to international relations is no longer useful in realistically dealing with the problems presented in today’s global village. If anything, the current approach breeds more bitterness towards the United States by virtue of the implied inferiority we assign to nations such as Iran. It is time to relegate our current policies to the dustbin of history and embark on a new, forward-thinking path towards peaceful coexistence. Delusions of American hegemony or empire are misguided at best and malevolent at worst. With the population of this planet ticking upwards towards seven billion souls, it is foolish to believe we can impose a system of authority that is to our liking. Instead, we must learn to accept that our world is changing and much will be out of our control. We can either adapt to this evolutionary reality or perish amongst the long list of great civilizations past.


* The Atlantic Monthly, August 1990
Erik Tucker currently resides in Michigan where he teaches history and government.