Are We Able to Deter Iran?
RUSI Analysis, 29 Mar 2012
By Dr Jonathan Eyal, Senior Research Fellow / Director, International Studies
In pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, Iran is acting rationally and in accordance with its past actions and strategic interests. This does not mean that traditional deterrence policies can contain or deter a nuclear-armed Iran.
By Dr Jonathan Eyal for RUSI.org
As US commentator Fareed Zakaria recently observed, the debate about the response to Iran's nuclear quest has resulted in an odd role-reversal. During the Cold War, right-wing commentators extolled the virtues of nuclear deterrence; left-wing security experts mostly rejected the concept, arguing instead that only a nuclear freeze and eventual disarmament can provide enduring stability. Yet, when it comes to Iran today, ''it is the right that has decided that deterrence is a lie' writes Zakaria, while noted left-wing experts assert that deterrence is the best available option to contain Tehran, should it acquire the bomb.
Dividing the proponents and detractors of deterrence into 'left' and 'right-wingers' is both imprecise and is unfair. This applies even more to today's discourse about Iran. For, regardless of political affiliations or sympathies, few experts argue that global efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should cease, or that the deterrence should be the only option. And fewer still have ever asserted that a nuclear Iran would be anything but a major threat to international security, even if it is successfully deterred from ever using its newly-acquired bomb. Instead, the debate has concentrated on a more narrow dilemma: whether the huge risks inherent in contemplating a pre-emptive military strike on Iranian nuclear installations, with the virtual certainty that these may only slow down rather than end Tehran's nuclear quest, are worth taking, in comparison with the option of settling down to a policy of deterring Iran, should the international community fail to prevent the country from joining the nuclear club.
Still, it is true that many of those who never believed in deterrence have now acquired a sudden fondness for the concept, while many of the old Cold Warriors suddenly claim that the concept is simply inapplicable to the mullahs of Tehran or Qom. And it is equally true that much of the debate about Iran remains both glib and, occasionally, detached from reality. For it is often not governed by a precise analysis of the current situation either inside Iran or in the Arab world, and remains far too influenced by compressed, clichéd snapshots from the Cold War period, applied wholesale to a very different Middle Eastern condition.
In short, the debate about deterring a nuclear Iran is much more about the West and the risks it wishes to take, rather than about the price the country's neighbours may be required to pay once Tehran possesses the bomb, and the measures they may take to deal with the situation. Most importantly, the debate assumes that the deterrence of Iran will remain a strategy conceived and played between one adversary - Iran - and a handful of Western nations which are likely to act in unison when, in fact, it is likely to become a multi-sided game, in which each actor has a different understanding of fear, a different calculation of risk, and a different perception of allies and enemies. So, as the old warning of the financial investment community puts it, past performance is not necessarily a guide to future success; the fact that nuclear deterrence worked during the Cold War and seems to have worked in a number of cases since then may be of only a marginal help in predicting its success in the case of Iran.
Some of the arguments put forward by those who claim that deterrence cannot work in the case of Iran are clearly misconceived. For, as the historic experience of more than half a century indicates, although countries seek to acquire nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons, once they have the bomb they quickly realise that it has very few military uses. There is, therefore, a very high likelihood that Iran will experience a similar 'revelation', and may come to view its nuclear capability as a political, rather than operational tool.
Equally wrong is the argument that, somehow, the clerics who rule Iran are incapable of rational thinking and may, therefore, not be amenable to any deterrence argument. True, Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's Rahbar, or Supreme Leader, presides over a Byzantine court which is virtually detached from the outside world, and which may have a fatalistic, faith-driven, mystical concept of the universe, alien to most other political decision-makers. And it is equally true that Iran's leaders have displayed a reckless disregard for their people's lives, which included the dispatch of waves upon waves of ill-equipped and ill-trained soldiers to certain death against Iraqi forces during the 1980s war between the two countries. Finally, it is also true that Iran frequently issues blood-curdling threats against Israel, which may imply an intention to wipe the Jewish state off the map of the Earth. But none of these considerations should lead to the conclusion that, somehow, the mullahs are 'mad' or uniquely irrational. Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, was hardly a cosmopolitan figure, well-versed in the finer points of Western strategic thinking; he was a boorish individual who had no compunction in ordering the wholesale murder of millions. Mao Zedong also fell into this category: he frequently urged the Soviet Union during the 1950s to launch a nuclear attack on the West, arguing that China could 'well afford' the loss of even half of its population, and dismissing the bomb as a 'paper tiger'. But both China and the Soviet Union were ultimately deterred despite the fact that they continued to espouse an alternative, deterministic view of the universe, one in which communism was supposed to 'bury' capitalism.
So, there is no reason to suppose that a similar process will not take place in Iran. Indeed, in many respects, Iran is far more open to outside influence: it has a thriving middle class and intellectual elite which has maintained its links with the outside world and, despite its authoritarian political system, it also enjoys a much more noisy - if not vibrant - internal political debate. The Rahbar may be untouchable, but he cannot be immune to public pressure, or indifferent to the mass casualties which would ensure as a result of a nuclear exchange. As none other than Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, aptly put it recently, 'the regime in Iran is a very rational regime'. It may not be 'exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions', he added. And the weight of historic evidence is certainly in favour of Dagan's arguments. The Ayatollah Khomeini had no problem in accepting Israel's indirect military help during his country's war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Iran was also good at dampening down its support for Shia communities throughout the Middle East, when this was considered necessary. And it offered support to Sunni movements - such as Hamas, for instance - when this suited it. The idea that Iranians would not be able to understand the concept of deterrence and rush into a war is, therefore, not based on empirical evidence, and may just be the by-product of atavistic Western fears with racial connotations.
But, at the same time, some of the arguments advanced by those who claim that deterrence would work in the case of Iran also include a number of red herrings. The first is the argument that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa which deemed nuclear weapons un-Islamic, because they are inhumane. This fatwa was reiterated by the conservative clerics of Qom in another fatwa issued in September 2003, and is often advanced as an argument that the Iranian regime would never be able to justify the acquisition of nuclear weapons to its own people. (For further analysis of this, see XXX) But it is usually forgotten that the Shah's nuclear programme - stopped at the time of the Iranian revolution - was revived during Khomeini's own life, indicating that the religious and moral obstacles are not insuperable. And it is also clear that the reiteration of the fatwa in September 2003 was just a tactical move, designed to explain to the Iranian public a realpolitik decision taken in Tehran to accept the additional NPT protocol in December of that year, a move criticised by some hardliners in Tehran at that time as a 'capitulation' to American demands. Religious considerations are important to the Iranian regime. But they are as likely to be as much of a hindrance to the development of nuclear weapons as were the Soviet Union's claims that it was a 'peace-loving' nation, a rhetorical device, rather than an operational stricture.
A second argument which should not be given undue credence is the speculation about Iran's future nuclear posture. While there is no doubt that the difference between acquiring a 'nuclear latency' and actually deploying the weapons is significant, there is plenty of evidence that Iran has engaged in both processes. More importantly, even if Iran stops at a nuclear 'latent' capability, as far as Iran's neighbours are concerned this would be a distinction without a difference. For it will result in one of the following Iranian behaviours:
- Either an 'early posturing' stance similar to that of India after that country detonated an nuclear device in 1972 well before it had real delivery capabilities;
- Or a 'bomb in the basement' strategy similar to that of Israel.
Either way, the entire panoply of deterrence theories will kick in, as the strategic calculations of all actors will have to take into account Iran's capabilities.
Why deterrence may not work as intended
The reasons for pessimism about the chances of deterring a nuclear Iran lie elsewhere, and are as follows:
Who Gets the Message?
The overwhelming majority of countries which possess nuclear weapons have a clear chain of political command, with a strong civilian control over the military; the only exceptions to this are North Korea and Pakistan and, unsurprisingly, assessing the effectiveness of deterrence is problematic in both these countries. Yet, compared to the decision-making mechanism of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are simplicity itself. For the Iranian regime represents a spider's web of overlapping intelligence and security services, militias and paramilitary organisations, all at loggerheads with each other. The structure was put in place in order to ensure the regime's survival, and is not unique: the countries of the former Soviet bloc had similar, deliberately confusing parallel structures of command. But what is unique in the case of Iran is the existence of two layers of political power, one deriving its legitimacy from 'providence', and the other from the ballot boxes.
The tensions between the president and the Supreme Leader have been a constant refrain from the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and are likely to endure as long as the current set-up remains. This does not necessarily means that, once it joins the nuclear club, Iran will be unable to overhaul its decision-making process, by establishing a clear - if not necessarily transparent structure; nuclear weapons have a knack of concentrating minds and, for safety reasons alone, the question of whose finger is on the 'button' will have to be resolved. Still, the process will be slow and tricky, with Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its regular military fighting each other for influence. So, for at least for a number of years after Iran acquires nuclear a capability, it would not be clear to whom the message of deterrence should be addressed. And it will not be clear whether this message is properly understood.
Nor is it clear what the deterrence message to Iran would be. In theory, this is simple: no Iranian attempt to subvert the sovereignty of its neighbouring states in return for a Western promise not to subvert the Iranian regime, and the threat of disaster in the case of a nuclear exchange. However, what appears as a time-tested formula falls to pieces when confronted with Middle Eastern realities.
A nuclear-able Iran will not happen in a vacuum: it will only come about either after Israel, the US, or both tried and failed to halt Iran's programme, or after the US decided to do nothing, and prevailed upon Israel to stay quiet as well. In both cases, the reputation of the US in the Middle East would suffer a grievous blow. So, the moment Iran has a nuclear capability, the first response from the US would be to extend a formal nuclear guarantee to Israel and, perhaps, other Middle Easter countries. Meanwhile, Israel's own nuclear arsenal will also be overhauled, to provide the Jewish state with a credible first, second and third-strike capabilities. Missile defence projects will flourish. And conventional weapon stocks will expand. For the West, such measures would seem purely defensive, but Iran will interpret them as a serious escalation, and may opt to react.
Which Status Quo?
Nuclear deterrence usually works by freezing a particular strategic status quo: nuclear countries agree to coexist, without challenge each other's spheres of influence and vital interests. But, in the case of today's Middle East, accepting Iran's sphere of influence is impossible. Iran has financed and armed Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the Hezbullah militia in Lebanon. It also supports various armed groups in Iraq and looks set to support similar movements in Syria, even if President Bashar al-Assad eventually falls from power. It is hard to believe that, as a result of acquiring a nuclear capability, Iran would abandon these projects. But it equally implausible to suggest that Iran could be allowed to continue supporting its proxies without tearing the region apart. The effort to deter Iran from supporting its proxies will be construed by Tehran not as deterrence, but as 'compellence'. But Iran would not be allowed to continue exporting violence with impunity, under the guise of 'plausible deniability'. Would nuclear deterrence have worked during the Cold War if the Soviet Union armed militias in France and Italy, or if the US organised and fed a permanent rebellion in, say, Poland? The Cold War's proxy battles were fought in Asia and Africa; Iran's proxy adventures are in its region, and are unlikely to be abandoned unless, of course, the US is willing to ultimately accept Iranian influence through half of the Middle East.
Nuclear chain reactions
But, if by some miracle, Iran desists from supporting its proxies, it will still represent an existential threat to current Arab governments. For the Iranian nuclear project was never about standing up to Israel or the US, but about Iran's historic destiny, about a country which cherishes its glorious history and feels entitled to relive it, a state which was betrayed by great and small powers for centuries and is determined never to allow this again, a Shia nation which feels an obligation to defend its brethren, who have been oppressed and discriminated against throughout the Arab world for more than a millennium. The moment Iran acquires a nuclear capability, it will be perceived - and is almost certain to portray itself - as both triumphant and untouchable. And this may encourage Shia groups throughout the Middle East. Bahrain's monarchy will almost certainly be toppled, while Saudi Arabia may lose control over its oil-rich Eastern Province. That's why it is virtually certain that, in response to a nuclear-armed Iran, the House of Saud will seek to acquire its own nuclear capability. The Saudis have planned for this eventuality over decades; they have largely bankrolled Pakistan's nuclear project and gave protection to all of Pakistan's leaders at one time or another precisely for this purpose. And, if the Saudis embark on the nuclear path, it is also likely that Turkey, another country which sees its destiny as a major Middle Eastern player, will also join the fray.
It is possible that the US will be able to apply pressure on both these countries to desist. But, having failed to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb, it is doubtful that the Americans will succeed in preventing the Saudis or the Turks from doing the same. Nor is Iran likely to be deterred by this nuclear chain reaction; indeed, the authorities in Tehran may conclude that the proliferation of nuclear weapons will create a level-playing field, and which will still provide Iran with the upper hand. Try imagining Europe of the Cold War not as a continent kept at peace by a mutual deterrence strategy between the Soviet Union and 'the West', but one in which West Germany and say, Czechoslovakia, were also acquiring their own nuclear weapons, in defiance of the wishes of their 'patrons'. Yet this is the scenario which may unfold in the Middle East when Iran becomes nuclear-capable. Would that bring stability? Doubtful.
Furthermore, would the deterrence posture of Saudi Arabia be similar to that of Israel's? Would Israel's deterrence posture towards Iran be identical to that of the US? And how would Turkey, should it acquire its own capability, fit into this picture? It is curious that those who claim that the US can do nothing to stop Iran from getting the bomb still claim that Washington can compel Saudi Arabia or Turkey from doing the same. And it is even more curious to assume that, having failed to prevent one of the most spectacular acts of defiance against the non-proliferation regime, the US will still retain the option of not only co-ordinating but actually controlling the deterrence strategy which will be implemented against Iran. A nuclear Iran means a multi-polar Middle East. And that, in turn, means a multi-polar, or multi-tiered deterrence strategy on Iran, of a kind which the world has never experienced before.
The ways forward
None of this suggests that a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear installations is either desirable, or could be effective. Furthermore, the containment of Iran does not have to be by nuclear means alone; it can, and will, take many other forms. Nevertheless, it is glib to suggest that Iran's Arab neighbours would simply have to accept a nuclear Iran, and will settle down to what they do best - sell oil and gas, and deal with their 'difficult' Iranian neighbour. For Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capability will transform the Middle East, posing a direct threat not only to the existing political status quo, but even to the frontiers of the region's states; Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are already almost destined to become battlegrounds for proxy wars between Iranian-financed militias, and Sunni ones, supported by Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Turkey as well. It will be the most profoundly destabilising development in the region, since the collapse of the Ottoman and British empires.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, while US president Barack Obama frequently claims that 'all options remain on the table' in the nuclear showdown with Iran, the American leader categorically rules out one option: that of containing Iran. Even if that's what he or his successors may ultimately have to undertake, but perhaps only after the option of delaying the Iranian project through a military strike had been tried.
Dr Jonathan Eyal is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of International Security Studies, RUSI
 The Washington Post, 14 March 2012.
 Although, notably, most of these threats were confined to the assertion that Israel would 'disappear' as a result of wider developments in the Middle East, rather than as a result of an Iranian attack.
 See Dagan's extensive interview on the '60 Minutes' programme of CBC TV network, 11 March 2012, >, accessed on 17 March 2012.
 S Bar, Iranian Defence Doctrine and Decision-Making, Institute for Policy and Strategy, November 2004, at pp.58-59.
Further Analysis: Israel, Middle East and North Africa, Iran