Could We Live with a Nuclear Iran?

The Washington Monthly wins the award for most pungent description of the argument that an Iran with nuclear weapons would be highly dangerous: "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."

This sentence is from "We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran," an important essay, from the Monthly's March/April issue, that just went online. It was written by Paul Pillar, who teaches at Georgetown and has very relevant credentials: from 2000 to 2005 he was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, which means he was in charge of the analysis of those regions for the CIA and all other American intelligence agencies.

Pillar's piece provides what, so far as I know, is the best concise assessment of what the risks of a nuclear Iran are and aren't--and what the risks of war with Iran are and aren't. His conclusion: "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."

The belief that a nuclear Iran would be a much more dangerous Iran rests on two main claims:

1) Iran might launch a nuclear strike against Israel. This claim, though deployed to stir up fear in Israel and America, isn't given much credence by most national security experts in those countries because, as Pillar notes, it presupposes an Iranian leadership that is literally suicidal, willing to be destroyed by a nuclear counterattack. Pillar further undermines the claim by showing that Iran's leadership not only qualifies as sane in this minimal sense, but has a long history of cold (and, yes, chilling) cost-benefit analysis. "The government assassinated exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and '90, 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." (Pillar also explains why this sort of self-interested calculus would keep Iran from handing a nuclear weapon off to a terrorist group for covert deployment.)

2) Having nukes would let Iran throw its weight around with impunity--intimidating Arab states, launching missile attacks on Israel via Hezbollah, etc. This claim, more than the first, is taken seriously in national security circles, and that's why Pillar's contribution here is so valuable. He takes on leading proponents of the claim, notably Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written at length about things Iran might do if "shielded by a nuclear weapons capability." Pillar writes, "We never get an explanation of how, exactly, such a shield would work. Instead there is only a vague sense that nuclear weapons would lead Iran to feel its oats."

What Jain needs to do, Pillar explains, is give us an example of some act of aggression that (a) Iran now refrains from doing for fear of retaliation; and (b) is so important to Iran that it could credibly threaten to respond to this retaliation with a nuclear strike. And in the course of a 30-page monograph with five lengthy scenarios about new threats a nuclear Iran could pose, Jain, according to Pillar, never manages to do this.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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