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Re-evaluating the Threat of a Nuclear Iran

-There are a lot of reasons to be afraid of Iran’s nuclear program, and there are a lot of reasons to not to be. Unfortunately, sensationalist media outlets and ideologically biased individuals highlight all the wrong reasons, and fail to discuss the correct ones.

These emotional, knee-jerk responses – often void of any sound logic – that surround this issue have been amplified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress and the recent nuclear-deal between the P5+1 and Iran.

However, while many things remain unclear, there is something that cannot be denied; people are scared.  According to a poll conducted by NBC, 54% of Americans view Iran’s nuclear program as a “major threat”, while 91% of Americans view Iran’s program as either a major threat or a minor threat. Those viewing Iran’s nuclear program as not a threat at all trailed behind at 8%.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a similar poll at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County by asking students on the school’s online forums, “If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, would you view this as a threat?” Results indicated 52% of students responding affirmatively. In both polls, the scared have the majority, however large or small (or un-scientific) it may be.

The question must be asked, why are people scared? Surprisingly (or not), it’s quite simple. Besides a fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear strategy, there is a rampant misconception that if Iran were to obtain a nuclear-weapon on day A, it would be deployed on day B and fired on Israel, the United States, and any other nation it has ever bad-mouthed or spewed hate towards. Not counting Iran’s underdeveloped ballistic missile program, the main argument against this simplistic, uninformed belief is rationality.

Mad Mullahs?

No doubt, Iran’s official rhetoric is aggressive and somewhat apocalyptic. But however barbaric and belligerent “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” may sound, we must not forget that irrationality is a bold claim. As Kenneth Waltz argues in his landmark (and controversial) article Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,

“Iranian policy is made not by mad mullahs but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders.”

This is the key. It’s imperative for citizens and policymakers alike to understand that inflammatory and hateful rhetoric are not the same as a propensity for self-destruction. After all, any state that chooses to initiate a nuclear attack in this age – regardless of its politics – effectively invites its own destruction.

Iran is no different; they have a cold-hard calculus like every other nation. Such an attack would surely be met with retaliation, and thus risk the lives of tens of millions of Iranian, nearly all of the state’s infrastructure, intellectual progress, sacred religious sites, and more.

Despite the utter lack of evidence of an impending Iranian nuclear attack, there are still certain situations worth examining where fundamental assumptions on nuclear deterrence and calculus could be flipped. In this sense, Israel, perhaps the biggest opponent to Iran’s nuclear program, truly has an interest in assessing these situations because when it comes to the threat of nuclear warfare, even a 1% risk may be unacceptable to state leaders.

Let Me Die With Them

According to the Bible, Samson – known for his superhuman strength – was captured by the Philistines, beaten, blinded, and forced into labor. When he was taken to a Philistine temple for a religious sacrifice, Samson screamed “Let me die with the Philistines!” and pushed apart the two enormous pillars supporting the temple, killing himself and all others nearby.

In this light, where an actor is irrational and self-destructive, can the heightened Israeli threat perception of Iran be truly understood.

Impartial of religious beliefs, Samson was irrational. And this situation, coined as the “Samson Option”, is perhaps the most dangerous outcome of a nuclear-armed Iran. But is it likely that Iran would fire its entire (hypothetical) nuclear arsenal on Israel in a brazen, suicidal attack?

samson

The Samson Option is born out of desperation, where the actor involved feels cornered, sees no viable alternative, and no longer cares about their well-being. If we use the overthrow of the current regime as the model, such a situation could be realistically imagined.

A likely scenario is a situation where the “new Iranians” – young, frustrated, disconnected from the government – would seek regime change through violence. If revolutionaries were to corner top regime and military leaders, and their imminent death or capture becomes apparent, the Samson Option suddenly becomes a possibility.  They now have nothing to lose, and are irrational.

In fact, if a few circumstances were different, this could have happened in 2009, and the world as we know it today would be a much different place.

It’s no secret that there’s a disconnect between the Iranian government and its citizenry. The younger generations are generally more liberal, global-minded, and share an increasing desire to participate with the world. These Iranians view faith as a private matter, are eager for education, and constantly seek new ways of expression, including the right to criticize their government.

After Iran’s widely contested presidential election in 2009, the public’s frustration and anger resulted in the Green Revolution, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of Iranians against the government. The demonstrations remained largely peaceful, but if the protestors’ revolutionary fervor culminated in a desire for forceful regime change as outlined above, Iran’s entire (hypothetical) nuclear arsenal could have been launched at Israel in mere moments.

Israel possesses a second strike capability, but such a capability is intended to deter a rational actor from a first strike, or to at least convince them not to  proceed further once they have engaged. In the scenario above, Iran’s leaders who have chosen the Samson Option are no longer rational, and are no longer in power. An Israeli response would be meaningless, as it would be revenge after death.

What is more, even if revenge were pursued, it would ultimately destroy those who didn’t commit the attack – the “new Iranians”.  For Israel, this is the worst case scenario – they would be forced to accept the devastation.

Situations where the entire dynamics of nuclear deterrence, rationality, and response capabilities are obsolete are indeed rare, but if one can be imagined, it must be taken seriously.  Revolution may not be imminent in Iran, but regime change is inevitable. But the question remains, is this specific scenario sufficient grounds to prevent the nuclear program by any means necessary?

Proliferation

Another unfounded fear is nuclear proliferation, or the rapid and uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons. Many worry that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would encourage states in the region to pursue similar capabilities out of fear, entitlement, or both. However, a closer look at history shows a significant downturn in the spread of nuclear weapons (with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the ambiguous Israel being the exception) since the technology’s inception.

But if Iran’s newly-acquired nuclear capabilities were to indeed cause proliferation, who would be the likely contenders? Saudi Arabia, as the principal Sunni power in the region, immediately comes to mind. In fact, the Kingdom has made its desire explicit:

“I’ve always said whatever comes out of these [nuclear talks with Iran], we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud to the BBC.”

However, despite the prince’s confidence, states do not acquire nuclear weapons at whim, nor do they acquire them because they suddenly feel threatened. Perhaps the best example is the case of Israel, who is speculated to have developed and built its first nuclear weapon between the 1950s-1966. During this time, the infant state of Israel was engaged in constant warfare with its Arab neighbors, none of whom then obtained nuclear weapons in response. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time for nuclear proliferation in the region, but nothing happened. Again, as Kenneth Waltz reminds us,

“If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.”

Egypt, which has arguably the Middle East’s strongest military, and Turkey, another major Sunni rival to Shia Iran, are also thought to be likely seekers of nuclear capabilities. Egypt has already signed a preliminary agreement with Russia to cooperate on building a nuclear power plant amid the “continuation of ‘strategic relations’ and high-level meetings to discuss regional issues” (why not just say Iran?). Turkey’s response is more speculative, as it already enjoys a nuclear umbrella by hosting approximately 60-70 US tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.

But proliferation cannot be talked about in terms of “If State X acquires WMD, States Y & Z will as well.” This logic ignores the intricate workings of diplomacy, sanctions, foreign aid, protectionist relationships, and other incentives to avoid seeking the bomb. Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi has already demonstrated his dependence on US military and economic aid, which will likely be revoked should he continue down the nuclear path. And again, the United States’ nuclear umbrella over Turkey comes at the implicit cost of them participating in anti-proliferation efforts. It becomes clear that below the surface, likely contenders for nuclear-capabilities are not in fact what they appear to be.

Lastly, there seems to be a prevailing thought that Iran’s nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist groups. But which ones? Hezbollah – a Shia Islamic militant group based out of Lebanon – could be a likely candidate, but again, this fear is superficial. The historical record is clear: nuclear states do not eagerly hand-off what is arguably the single greatest source of power in the world to groups they potentially could not control. All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that such a hand-off would be easily detected by United States and Israeli intelligence, and that non-state terrorist groups lack the infrastructure, know-how, and capabilities to maintain and deploy nuclear weapons.

As we know, the Islamic State, one of the more formidable groups in the region, is by no stretch of the imagination friendly with Iran. In fact, the leader of ISIS urged the group’s followers to prioritize violence on Shia Muslims (of which the majority live in Iran), then the Saudi royal family, and finally on Western crusaders. The Islamic State could only ever acquire an Iranian nuclear arsenal by force. Given the capabilities of Iran – 545,000 active frontline personnel, 1,800,000 active reserve personnel, and extensive land, air, and naval power – this is not likely to happen.

The Pakistani Example

However unlikely proliferation may be, there is a valid concern that nuclear weapons would enable Iran – a known state-sponsor of terrorism – to act more aggressively, dangerously, and increase its support for militant proxy groups

While some scholars and policy analysts argue that the acquisition of nuclear weapons increases a state’s sense of vulnerability and thus prevents it from acting boldly, the Pakistani case speaks to the contrary.

Pakistan began its nuclear program in the 1970s and successfully tested nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Ever since, Pakistan has been able to act aggressively and dangerously because of its nuclear protection. A prime example is the recent purchase of eight diesel-electric submarines from China, which could be equipped with nuclear missiles. In the month prior, Pakistan also test fired a ballistic missile that appears capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to every part of India – its nuclear arch nemesis, so to speak.

Obviously, Iran acting this aggressively is a threat, but what does this mean? Acknowledging that this dangerous behavior may occur is certainly due diligence for the United States, Israel, and regional Sunni powers, but what is more important is trying to understand what exactly Iran may do with its nuclear shield.

Will Iran continue and increase its support for proxies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas? Certainly, although transferring nuclear weapons to them is highly unlikely.

Iran could also increase its support for the Assad regime in Syria, thus prolonging the tragic conflict that has claimed over 200,000 lives. While this would be appalling, it’s unclear if heightened conflict in Syria would necessarily result in an increased threat to the United States, Israel, and its allies.

Following precedent from other nuclear-powers (i.e., United States, China, Pakistan), Iran could potentially mobilize nuclear-equipped submarines into the Persian Gulf, which has the potential to create a world-wide stand-off with Iran pitted against the Gulf powers and the United States. This may be likely, as Iran has a history of making its desire to control the Gulf quite clear. A move into the Mediterranean is unlikely, as this would be unacceptable to the United States, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and European powers.

A lot of the scenarios outlined above are speculative, but should be considered nonetheless. Indeed, there is a much more nuanced set of questions and concerns that need to be addressed instead of the common hysteria that has plagued television news and radio.

It’s important to realize that Iran’s nuclear program has broad implications for the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers, and several other states in the world, all of whom have competing strategic interests and different levels of threat perception. However, for the sake of preventing catastrophic conflict, the fears of others should constantly be questioned.

 -AE

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6 comments on “Re-evaluating the Threat of a Nuclear Iran

  1. Anonymous
    April 21, 2015

    I reject your premise that the criterion for self-destruction is irrationality. Is it irrational for a solider to jump on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers? Not exactly an exact parallel to this situation, but I still think it’s facile to argue that self-destruction comes from irrationality.

    Similarly, I think that the assertion that the fear of proliferation is unfounded is also facile. Especially when taken in the context of the recent issues with our nuclear defense program.

    Like

    • Ahmed Eissa
      April 21, 2015

      I don’t think “irrational” is inherently bad as you present it; sound morals and self-destruction are not mutually exclusive. Yes, it is irrational for a solider to jump on a grenade and effectively commit suicide, albeit for a noble cause. How is this facile?

      Regarding proliferation, I would love for you to elaborate, should you wish to. I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to.

      Like

      • Anonymous
        April 27, 2015

        My first point is it’s not irrational for a soldier to jump on a grenade, when taken in the context of their values. That’s true for every individual on this planet, with respect to their own values. It’s not irrational for terrorists to commit suicide when taken in the context of their beliefs. Given the acceptance of a false premise, you can “logically” conclude anything. My argument is that you shouldn’t expect people to adhere to the belief system you think they have. It’s facile because I think the world in which your argument would be the safe bet would be the world in which the Iranian government is a homogenous entity with a predictable set of beliefs. Neither of those things are the case (as far as I’m aware).

        The point about proliferation is that we have a hard enough time managing and keeping track of ours, as evidenced by the recent press coverage and the coincidental resignation of the SecDef. If the US, a country with arguably the most experience managing nuclear weapons, and the most proficient military in the world has trouble with that. What makes you think a country in a tumultuous region that has never dealt with this issue before is going to do it better? The fear of nuclear proliferation is an extremely valid one.

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  2. Mark Kennet
    April 21, 2015

    A well-thought out argument that raises some interesting points, some of which I agree with and some that I do not.

    My strongest objection comes from your apparent reliance on Iranian “moderates” who seek regime change. This group is FAR from a majority in Iran; there is little serious discussion about whether their votes were suppressed or otherwise suborned in the election you mention, and they did not come close to a majority. Thus, in my opinion, absent some outside influence, the world is forced to deal with the mullahs for the foreseeable future. More importantly, it is NEVER a good idea to base foreign policy decisions on wishful thinking of any sort.

    Will the Iranian bomb be catastrophic? Perhaps, as you say, the Iranian leadership is rational and thus there is no need to worry. But history is full of examples where leaders were assumed by their counterparts to be rational, and it later turned out that either it was a different sort of rationality than previously understood, or the rationality assumption was just plain wrong. A good example was Chamberlain’s decision to seek “peace in our time” by ceding Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany. Chamberlain surely thought Hitler was rational, too.

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    • Aaron Kennet
      April 21, 2015

      Actually, Ahmed’s argument has strong foundations in the Green Revolution.

      Like

    • Ahmed Eissa
      April 21, 2015

      I’m not entirely sure what you disagree with, but I think your contention is that we cannot wait for the one situation where they could become irrational, correct? If so, I agree that this justifies the Israeli threat perception, as leaders often cannot accept even a 1% risk in nuclear situations.

      As a I mentioned, there may not really be any current suspicion of an impending revolution, but this is still a situation that many Israelis and military analysts fear (I was first made aware of this by a strategic studies professor of mine, who is Israeli and served in the IDF). As such, I think the Israeli threat-perception can be most justified, but again, I don’t find much merit to arguments of proliferation and a sudden nuclear attack.

      With regards to your comment on rationality – it’s a completely different calculus in conventional war than it is in nuclear war. I would argue that there aren’t actually different “sorts of rationality.” An actor shows a propensity for self-destruction, or not. As horrible as Hitler was, I’m not sure if irrational is the correct description, especially when trying to draw a parallel to the Iranian situation. But if he was irrational, could we then declare any leader who has ever instigated a conventional war an irrational actor? I would think not. History has shown that many leaders have engaged in conventional war just to show strength or save face (domestic politics), with full knowledge that they would just quickly withdraw, surrender, or sign a peace agreement. Again, the calculus in conventional war is completely different.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2015 by in The Middle East and tagged .

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