What Will Iran Do If It Gets a Nuclear Bomb?

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Five experts predict how a nuclear bomb would or wouldn't change Tehran's behavior.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends an unveiling ceremony of new nuclear projects in Tehran / Reuters

In 1995, Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan coauthored the book, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, which sought to address the question: what are the likely consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons?

In a self-help international system, Waltz contended, "states must rely on the means they can generate and the arrangements they can make for themselves." He argued that a second-strike nuclear capability is the most reliable means for a state to assure its survival by dissuading other states from attacking. Due to fears of escalation, "new nuclear states will feel the constraints that present nuclear states have experienced."

Sagan, meanwhile, countered Waltz's optimism with two arguments based in organizational theory. First, "professional military organizations--because of common biases, inflexible routines, and parochial interests--display organizational behaviors that are likely to lead to deterrence failures and deliberate or accidental war." Second, "future nuclear-armed states will lack the positive mechanisms of civilian control." Sagan therefore called for a U.S. nonproliferation policy that includes reaffirming to nascent nuclear states that the bomb "will make their states targets for preventive attacks by their potential adversaries, will not easily lead to survivable arsenals, and will raise the specter of accidental or unauthorized uses of nuclear weapons."

This academic discussion has direct relevance to the ongoing policy debate over Iran, and whether Israel, the United States, or some combination of states should use preemptive military force against the regime's suspected nuclear weapons program. We cannot ask the Iranian government directly what they would do with a bomb, because it continues to maintain that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful for the purposes of producing nuclear power and medical diagnostic isotopes. Nevertheless, as President Obama stated recently, it is U.S. policy "to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region."

To explore this issue further, I asked several international relations and security studies scholars who have extensively researched and written on the topic of nuclear proliferation to contribute their thoughts on the impact of a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. Specifically, I asked:

"If the international community believed--through testing or intelligence estimates--that Iran possessed a nuclear weapon, what impact would the bomb have on Iranian foreign policy?"

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Kyle Beardsley is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory University and is the author of The Mediation Dilemma.

A nuclear-armed Iran is not likely to act much differently. Most importantly, Iran will have no incentive to use its nuclear weapons in aggression; doing so against Israeli or American targets would gain Iran little and cost it much. On a more practical level, an Iranian bomb also will not substantially change the general strategic dynamics. In a series of articles, Victor Asal and I have shown that states with nuclear weapons tend to face less hostility from opponents, be in shorter crises, and prevail more often in their crises against non-nuclear states.

The logic is that nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent that temper aggression. According to this logic, the main benefit to Iran of acquiring nuclear weapons is to deter military threats by its primary adversaries, Israel and the United States. Given that Iran already has a strong deterrent--via its importance to hydrocarbon supplies, robust conventional forces, ability to disrupt fragile situations in Lebanon and Iraq, and Western war weariness--it is doubtful that Iran will notice much immediate advantage from obtaining nuclear weapons. Its main incentive for proliferating apparently is to lock in the regime's security in the long run. Victor Asal and I also find that proliferators are sources of instability prior to attaining weapons, so a modest upside to successful proliferation would be movement away from the current alarming exchanges.

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Sarah Kreps is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and is the author of Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold War.

To answer this question, we should distinguish between Iran's bark and bite.

Having a nuclear weapon would give Iran a bigger bark. Armed with the bomb, Iran could make threats that might win it economic aid and political concessions. Influence, as Schelling noted, comes from "the power to hurt," and nuclear weapons provide the ultimate power to hurt.  Having such "latent violence" in the form of nuclear weapons can translate into considerable bargaining influence. The North Korea model is instructive here. The Kim Jong-il regime used its nuclear program as a bargaining chip, promising to dismantle its Yongbyon reactor in exchange for political concessions and economic aid. Often they gained concessions, however, while only temporarily or incompletely complying with their end of the bargain.

On the other hand, it seems doubtful that having the bomb would give Iran a bigger bite. Rather, there's every reason to believe that deterrence theory should hold. How much influence Iran's weapons can confer, again drawing on Schelling, "will indeed depend on how much the adversary can hurt in return."  Iran's primary rivals are Israel and the United States, each with arsenals that are far more lethal than what Iran could assemble even over the next decade. That each has enough weapons to hurt Iran quite badly should be enough to keep Iran's bite in check.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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