IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Would deterrence work against a nuclear Iran?

The presidential contenders’ rhetoric so far has focused on how to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, not on how to deter the regime from using the weapons if it is able to build them. [!]
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Kham
The next president will need to gauge the intentions of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his colleagues Atta Kenare / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source:

As Iran continues to refuse to comply with a United Nations demand that it halt its uranium enrichment program, the U.S. presidential contenders know that the next occupant of the White House may have to contend with the prospect of nuclear-armed Iran.

Most of the contenders’ rhetoric so far has focused on how to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, not on how to deter the regime from using the weapons or sharing them with terrorists if it is able to build them.

Most of the candidates have been using a version of the well-worn “no option off the table” formula.

For instance, former Sen. John Edwards said, “you should never tie the hands of an American president or take any option off the table,” in response to questions from the Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post.

Richardson urges direct talks with Tehran
In a speech devoted entirely to Iran last week, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson called for direct negotiations with Iran with no preconditions. He also said the United States must tell the leaders in Tehran that “we will never allow them to acquire nuclear weapons.”

He said, “As we know from the Cold War, deterrence is above all a matter of clarity and credibility. We need to be absolutely clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and we need to be absolutely credible when we say what we will do about it if the Iranians continue to disregard the will of the international community.  The clear message must be this:  develop nukes and you will face devastating global sanctions.”

Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani also addressed Iran last week. “My bottom line is that we can't let them to become nuclear,” he told the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Does that mean taking military steps, the Journal asked?

“Whatever is necessary,” he replied.

But if deterrence fails and if the United States or Israel decides to not launch military strikes on Iran, the regime could become the world’s tenth nuclear-armed power.

Deter Iran as U.S. deterred Soviets?
In that case, would deterrence work, as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? If not, why not?

The risk of nuclear-armed Iran recalls the debate in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when many in Congress were convinced that Saddam Hussein had or might have weapons of mass destruction.

In July of 2002, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked the question that experts have been asking recently about Iran: “We lived with Russia for almost 50 years with the capacity to destroy us many times over and a policy of containment worked there,” Kerry said. Why, he wondered, could not a policy of containment also work against Iraq?

Kerry ended up deciding that deterrence might not work and he voted to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq.

Now, nearly five years after that vote, Iraq is the shadow looming over the Iran debate just as it looms over most other aspects of the 2008 presidential race.

The fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and that the U.S. military has now been engaged in military struggle there for more than four years colors the thinking of candidates and voters.

Survey finds opposition to U.S. attack
A Pew Research Center poll in May found that 61 percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed opposed bombing targets in Iran as a way of preventing Tehran from building nuclear weapons.

Among self-identified Republicans, 46 percent supported the military option, while among Democrats only 24 percent did. Likewise among independents, only about a quarter favored using military force.

Overall 64 percent of the survey respondents favored “the U.N. and other leading nations placing tough economic sanctions on Iran” as the way to deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons.

Giuliani said the current regime in Tehran could be “delusional” in thinking that “they could get away with handing weapons off to somebody and think that we couldn't put our hands on them — particularly because of the mistakes over the Iraq war. The burden next time for America is going to be much higher. You basically have to have fingerprints, photographs and eyewitnesses that say that they did it.”

Some nuclear proliferation experts argue that if, the Iranian regime builds nuclear weapons, there would still be a good likelihood of deterring it from using them or from passing them to a terrorist group.

Barry Posen, the director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “Can we deter Iran? We deterred the Soviet Union (more capable and more populous) and Mao's China (populous and at times quite difficult to understand and seemingly rather risk-accepting.)  So, why not Iran? It will not have a very strong nuclear force, it will not have a very strong conventional force; it does not have very many natural friends — since it is Persian and Shiite in a region consisting mainly of Arabs and Sunnis.”

Posen added despite the extreme rhetoric of some Iranian leaders, one should also examine “their behavior, which seems fairly cagey when it comes to calibrating risk.”

But Posen added his preferred solution is not deterrence, but for Iran to be offered “a diplomatic package of carrots and sticks, and that they see reason and choose to close down or at least seriously constrain their program.”

Giuliani rejects deterrence
Giuliani, for one, rejects the scenario of deterrence once Iran has nuclear weapons.

“It is not a good answer to say, ‘Well, we did containment with the Soviets and the Chinese.’ There are a lot of differences . . . not that the Soviets were any better then they are, but they were different and they had a big nation-state to protect,” he said.

If the Iranian regime is too risk-taking or too irrational to deter once it has nuclear weapons, then, Giuliani implied, military action to destroy its weapons program might be necessary.

MIT’s Posen says the Iran debate hasn’t yet really been engaged in earnest.

He contends that “Those advocating preventive war need to tell us why they think it will work” and what they think the Iranian reactions would be. “Once they do, preventive war can be compared to containment and deterrence and citizens and candidates can take their pick.”