The Vastly Exaggerated Threat of a Nuclear Iran


Paul Pillar, an intelligence analyst with the CIA for 28 years and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asisa from 2000 to 2005 who now teaches at Georgetown, has a long article in the Washington Monthly that points out the vastly inflated rhetoric about the dangers of Iran with a nuclear weapon.

Given the momentousness of such an endeavor and how much prominence the Iranian nuclear issue has been given, one might think that talk about exercising the military option would be backed up by extensive analysis of the threat in question and the different ways of responding to it. But it isn’t. Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.

What difference would it make to Iran’s behavior and influence if the country had a bomb? Even among those who believe that war with the Islamic Republic would be a bad idea, this question has been subjected to precious little careful analysis. The notion that a nuclear weapon would turn Iran into a significantly more dangerous actor that would imperil U.S. interests has become conventional wisdom, and it gets repeated so often by so many diverse commentators that it seldom, if ever, is questioned. Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous. What passes for an answer to that question takes two forms: one simple, and another that sounds more sophisticated.

The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred. On the campaign trail Rick Santorum has been among the most vocal in propounding this notion, asserting that Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that it believes “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom. Newt Gingrich speaks in a similar vein about how Iranian leaders are suicidal jihadists, and says “it’s impossible to deter them.”

The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one. They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife. Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival. The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, because it saw them as a counterrevolutionary threat. The assassinations ended when they started inflicting too much damage on Iran’s relations with European governments. Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests. The principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.

If the stereotyped image of Iranian leaders had real basis in fact, we would see more aggressive and brash Iranian behavior in the Middle East than we have. Some have pointed to the Iranian willingness to incur heavy losses in continuing the Iran-Iraq War. But that was a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the Iranian homeland, not some bellicose venture beyond Iran’s borders. And even that war ended with Ayatollah Khomeini deciding that the “poison” of agreeing to a cease-fire was better than the alternative. (He even described the cease- fire as “God’s will”—so much for the notion that the Iranians’ God always pushes them toward violence and martyrdom.)

Throughout history, it has always been worrisome when a revolutionary regime with ruthless and lethal internal practices moves to acquire a nuclear weapon. But it is worth remembering that we have contended with far more troubling examples of this phenomenon than Iran. Millions died from forced famine and purges in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and tens of millions perished during the Great Leap Forward in Mao Tse-tung’s China. China’s development of a nuclear weapon (it tested its first one in 1964) seemed all the more alarming at the time because of Mao’s openly professed belief that his country could lose half its population in a nuclear war and still come out victorious over capitalism. But deterrence with China has endured for half a century, even during the chaos and fanaticism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A few years after China got the bomb, Richard Nixon built his global strategy around engagement with Beijing.

The more sophisticated-sounding argument about the supposed dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon—one heard less from politicians than from policy-debating
intelligentsia—accepts that Iranian leaders are not suicidal but contends that the mere possession of such a weapon would make Tehran more aggressive in its region. A dominant feature of this mode of argument is “worst-casing,” as exemplified by a pro-war article by Matthew Kroenig in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Kroenig’s case rests on speculation after speculation about what mischief Iran “could” commit in the Middle East, with almost no attention to whether Iran has any reason to do those things, and thus to whether it ever would be likely to do them.

Kroenig includes among his “coulds” a scary possibility that also served as a selling point of the Iraq War: the thought of a regime giving nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group. Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous? And how would it achieve deniability regarding its role in what the group subsequently did with the stuff? No regime in the history of the nuclear age has ever been known to transfer nuclear material to a nonstate group. That history includes the Cold War, when the USSR had both a huge nuclear arsenal and patronage relationships with a long list of radical and revolutionary clients. As for deniability, Iranian leaders have only to listen to rhetoric coming out of the United States to know that their regime would immediately be a suspect in any terrorist incidents involving a nuclear weapon.

The more sophisticated-sounding argument links Iran with sundry forms of objectionable behavior, either real or hypothetical, without explaining what difference the possession of a nuclear weapon would make. Perhaps the most extensive effort to catalog what a nuclear-armed Iran might do outside its borders is a monograph published last year by Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jain’s inventory of possible Iranian nastiness is comprehensive, ranging from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But nowhere is there an explanation of how Iran’s calculations—or anyone else’s— would change with the introduction of a nuclear weapon. The most that Jain can offer is to assert repeatedly that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability,” it might do some of these things. We never get an explanation of how, exactly, such a shield would work. Instead there is only a vague sense that a nuclear weapon would lead Iran to feel its oats.

Analysis on this subject need not be so vague. A rich body of doctrine was developed during the Cold War to outline the strategic differences that nuclear weapons do and do not make, and what they can and cannot achieve for those who possess them. Such weapons are most useful in deterring aggression against one’s own country, which is probably the main reason the Iranian regime is interested in developing them. They are much less useful in “shielding” aggressive behavior outside one’s borders, except in certain geopolitical situations in which their use becomes plausible.

The Pakistani-Indian conflict may be such a situation. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal may have enabled it to engage in riskier behavior in Kashmir than it otherwise would attempt, because nuclear weapons help to deter Pakistan’s ultimate nightmare: an assault by the militarily superior India, which could slice Pakistan in two and perhaps destroy it completely. But if you try to apply that logic to Iran, no one is playing the role of India. Iran has its own tensions and rivalries with its neighbors— including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, other states on the Persian Gulf, and Pakistan. But none of these pose the kind of existential threat that Pakistan sees coming from India. Moreover, none of the current disputes between Iran and its neighbors (such as the one over ownership of some small islands also claimed by the United Arab Emirates) come close to possessing the nation-defining significance that the Kashmir conflict poses for both Pakistan and India.

Nuclear weapons matter insofar as there is a credible possibility that they will be used. This credibility is hard to achieve, however, in anything short of circumstances that might involve the destruction of one’s nation. In the case of Iran, there would need to be some specific aggressive or subversive act that Tehran is holding back from performing now for fear of retaliation—from the Americans, the Israelis, the Saudis, or someone else. Further, in order for Iran to neutralize the threat of retaliation, the desired act of mischief would have to be so important to Tehran that it could credibly threaten to escalate the matter to the level of nuclear war. Proponents of a war with Iran have been unable to provide an example of a scenario that meets these criteria, however. The impact of Iran possessing a bomb is therefore far less dire than the alarmist conventional wisdom suggests.

The truly silly claim we hear is that Iran will destroy Israel with a nuclear bomb if they acquire one. They could not do so without also killing off most, if not all, of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as a hell of a lot of Lebanese and Jordanians as well. And they know full well that to even attempt to do that would result in a massive counter-attack from the United States that would destroy them.

Yes, we should be concerned about a nuclear Iran. Yes, we should be working diplomatically to prevent that if possible. But launching a war to stop it is madness. The results would be catastrophic in nearly every imaginable way. And it simply isn’t necessary.

Comments

  1. says

    The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred.

    Like Rick Santorum, in other words?

  2. Chiroptera says

    You’re forgetting two important points.

    1) It is better for people to be dead than to be alive in a dictatorship.

    2) Especially if those people aren’t me.

  3. dingojack says

    “[The US is threatened by Presidential hopefuls who aspire to be] … the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that… [their]… “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that… [they]… believe… “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that… [the]… “principal virtue” is martyrdom”.

    Anyone spot the difference?
    Dingo

  4. says

    StupidLoonyChickenhawk1 wrote:

    Apparently, Dr. Krauthammer is singularly unimpressed by articles like Mr. Piller’s or former Mossad head, Meir Dagan’s.

    Krauthammer? That’s the best source you have? He’s one of the most blatant right-wing idiots ever to write for a reputable newspaper. HE only sounds credible when compared to Michael Gerson or R. Emmet Tyrell Jr.

    Seriously, Ed quotes a laborious and extensive discussion of the situation, and all you can do is mention one deeply sullied name? You might as well just give up and admit you have no argument.

  5. says

    Instead there is only a vague sense that a nuclear weapon would lead Iran to feel its oats.

    News flash: Iran’s been “feeling its oats” — and being a royal dangerous pain in nearly every one’s ass — ever since they dumped the Shah. All this manufactured hysteria about nukes only diverts our attention from the very complex minefield of dealing with an already troublesome country.

  6. Tualha says

    The results [of launching a war against Iran] would be catastrophic in nearly every imaginable way.

    For those of us who haven’t been keeping up with the details of this issue, could you expand on this? Clearly it would be very expensive, in lives and dollars, and would further destabilize the region, but that falls somewhat short of “catastrophic in nearly every imaginable way”.

  7. d cwilson says

    Iran has been “six months to a year from acquiring a nuclear bomb” for about 20 years now. Yawn.

    Of course, today’s Washington Post had a column by Charles Krauthammer accusing Obama of appeasement. Apparently, Dr. Krauthammer is singularly unimpressed by articles like Mr. Piller’s or former Mossad head, Meir Dagan’s.

    Yes, because who is most likely to have a greater understanding of Iran’s politics and capabilities?

    1. A former CIA analyst with nearly thirty years experience.
    2. The former head of Israel’s Mossad, which is regarded as one of the finest intelligence agencies in the world.
    3. A guy who makes his living writing opinion pieces.

    Whatever.

  8. says

    One aspect of the Iran nuke story that amazes me is how credulously the press reports stories of Iranian nuclear materials enrichment. Currently they are enriching uranium to 20% – suitable for reactor fuel – you need to enrich to about 85% or higher to make a bomb. (The “or higher” if it’s a simple gun-type device rather than the more complex implosion-style devices, which are generally plutonium-based) Unless IAEA is completely wrong, Iran is not trying to build a bomb, or even getting ready to try to build a bomb.

  9. Ichthyic says

    “catastrophic in nearly every imaginable way”.

    as you mention:

    -lives, on both sides
    -costs

    as you failed to notice:

    -would NOT be successful in the end in stopping Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, unless you mean full out war, like in Iraq, and you can see how well that turned out. Do you think the Arab States will really want another Western invasion in the ME after Iraq? No, they won’t, so:

    -you would be inflaming an already hugely tense ME; expect endless and serious resistance from even Saudi Arabia, let along Egypt, Syria, Pakistan…

    -It was stated by many American polticians and analysts in the 2000s that terrorism was the biggest threat to democracy. Attacking Iran will enable countless generations of terrorism

    -if you meant a partial attack; like air raids or missile strikes, these would be entirely ineffective in even significantly SLOWING, let alone stopping, Iran from gaining nuke capability.

    so, bottom line is: A half-assed strike like that currently proposed by Israel would only serve to aggravate an already tense situation, and not in any way limit Iran’s ability to produce a nuke (most of their labs and production facilities are heavily bunkered underground now). A full invasion would complete the destabilization of the ME, and you would have open war on all sides.

    so, that enough for ya? I’m sure there are even more points I missed.

  10. yoav says

    @Dingo
    Dagan was interviewed for this Sunday’s 60 minutes (summary of the interview here) he basically say what the this article say, a nuclear Iran is a concern but not an immediate treat and it’s leaders are not crazy, therefore there is still time for diplomacy to try and avoid anyone being bombed by anyone. He been saying the same thing as far back as last May (can’t find an English version of this one).

  11. says

    Notice how all this rhetoric is being ramped up during an election year, when a liberal President is running for reelection? I seriously doubt that’s a coincidence. We used to say that partisanship should stop at the water’s edge, but today’s US-Israel relationship is entirely driven by Republican and Likudnik hyperpartisanship, with practically zero regard for the legitimate interests of either nation. And now we see both simpleminded extremist Republicans and simpleminded extremist Likudniks drumming up a campaign of hysteria to hound a liberal they both hate and shout down any real discussion of how deeply wrong both extremist parties have been.

  12. slc1 says

    Re Raging Bee @ #6

    How come Mr. Bee isn’t commenting on the thread about the CATO Institute and the Koch brothers?

  13. Ichthyic says

    Notice how all this rhetoric is being ramped up during an election year

    kinda hard not to.

    The people want blood.

  14. gesres says

    I don’t really buy into any argument about what a group of crazy people might or might not do. It goes with the territory of being crazy that their behavior is unpredictable.

    One thing that’s been well-demonstrated in political science research is that “experts” are no better predictors of the future than decently informed amateurs, so this CIA analyst’s opinion isn’t worth a whole lot.

  15. Ichthyic says

    One thing that’s been well-demonstrated in political science research is that “experts” are no better predictors of the future than decently informed amateurs

    citation desperately needed.

  16. Chiroptera says

    gesres, #18: I don’t really buy into any argument about what a group of crazy people might or might not do. It goes with the territory of being crazy that their behavior is unpredictable.

    Huh. Have the leaders of Iran been acting unpredictably? At least in their foreign and military policy? ‘Cause that hasn’t been my impression. But then I may not have been paying close enough attention.

  17. dingojack says

    Yoav, SLC – Thanks. I have freinds who are buying into this whole ‘Iran is a great big threat’ story and it’s good to have links to the opinions of actual experts (on both sides of the argument).
    Dingo

  18. gesres says

    Chiroptera wrote:

    Huh. Have the leaders of Iran been acting unpredictably? At least in their foreign and military policy? ‘Cause that hasn’t been my impression. But then I may not have been paying close enough attention.

    I guess it depends on how you define “unpredictable”. If you predict that people will act rationally after assuming the truth of the crazy religious beliefs, then I guess you can say the behavior is predictable. ;-)

    But I would consider that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism world-wide is enough evidence that they’re crazy and not that concerned about consequences. When you have religious views which devalue physical existence and exalts the afterlife, who can say what they may or may not do?

  19. philipp says

    It’s almost perfect that you posted this today. For a couple months now I’ve been maintaining a Tumblr devoted to shitty editorial cartoons, and in that time I’ve seen so many cartoons along the lines of “Iran has nukes and they’re about to kill us all D:” or “Obama won’t stand with Israel to take out Iran, which is so totally a real threat!” that I’ve decided to create a separate Tumblr just for those cartoons.

    You can see just how deeply conservatives buy into this idea when you look at how often conservative cartoonists like Chuck Asay and Bob Gorrell go back to this well. (Hell, Asay did the same thing twice within the space of a week)

  20. says

    But I would consider that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism world-wide is enough evidence that they’re crazy and not that concerned about consequences.

    Really? What consequences have they suffered from their sponsorship of terrorism? These people’s sponsorship of terrorism is so rational it’s downright boring. Even Karl Rove couldn’t find a link between Teheran and 9/11, so they got a free pass for their support of Hezbollah and Hamas. That’s about as non-crazy as support for terrorism gets.

  21. Ichthyic says

    gesres, the book you link to does not support the idea that experts are equally qualified as novices to comment on public policy.

    instead it says this:

    The intelligence failures surrounding the invasion of Iraq dramatically illustrate the necessity of developing standards for evaluating expert opinion

    this is not the same thing.

  22. sundoga says

    #11 Marcus Ranum: You are right about what Iran is currently doing. However, my understanding (and if I am wrong about this, correct me please) is that the enrichment system for 20% U235 and for 85+% U235 is effectively identical. What can make one is perfectly capable of making the other.

  23. KG says

    A point the linked article doesn’t make, but IIRC Obama has done recently, is that regionally, events are moving against Iran. It is facing the likely loss of its most important and reliable ally, the Assad regime in Syria – although thanks to an earlier US intervention, again supposedly about WMDs – they will still have their pals ruling in Baghdad. Hamas leaders have already stated they will not attack Israel if it gets into a war with Iran, and are realignig themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere – Hamas is a Sunni movement (unlike Hezbollah), and the link with Iran and Syria was one of convenience. If Assad falls, Hezbollah will be greatly weakened. The Iranian regime is also badly split internally, between partisans of President Ahmedinejad and of Supreme Leader Khamenei. We know there is widespread internal discontent, as shown in 2009. What foolishness it would be, at such a point, to provide an external enemy for the regime to rally support against.

    We shouldn’t be misled by the enormous costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation: a lot of private interests did very well out of it indeed, and are still doing so. I’m sure there are plenty of people in powerful positions in the USA who can see a lot of profit, monetary andor political, in an attack on Iran. Probably with Israel as a stalking horse in this sort of scenario:

    1. Israel attacks Iran without informing the US administration in advance.
    2. Iran retaliates against US interestes in Iraq and Afghanistan, andor blocks the Straits of Hormuz andor attacks Gulf States andor kills many Israelis.
    3. US administration forced into (or leaps into) full-scale war with Iran.
    4. Profit!

    This seems only too likely in early autumn, when it would be politically almost impossible for Obama to avoid stage 3. He should make it plain (but of course won’t) that if Israel attacks Iran without legal justification he will not wield the veto on its behalf in the UNSC, and will suspend all aid.

    Note to self: get back in touch with / resurrect local anti-war group. At least try to keep UK out of it this time, but that would also makes it harder for the US to go to war.

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