International September 2010

Living With a Nuclear Iran

Iran can be contained. The path to follow? A course laid out half a century ago by a young Henry Kissinger, who argued that American chances of checking revolutionary powers such as the Soviet Union depended on our credible willingness to engage them in limited war.

Indeed, I would argue that because Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because Sunni hostility to American and Israeli interests remains a conspicuous problem, the United States should theoretically welcome a strengthened Shiite role in the Middle East, were Iran to go through an even partial political transformation. And demographic, cultural, and other indicators all point to a positive ideological and philosophical shift in Iran in the medium to long term. Given this prognosis, and the high cost and poor chances for success of any military effort to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, I believe that containment of a nuclear Iran is the most sensible policy for the United States.

The success of containment will depend on a host of regional factors. But its sine qua non will be the ability of the United States to underline any policy toward a nuclear-armed Iran with the credible threat of military action. As Kissinger told me, “I want America to sustain whatever measures it takes about Iran.” As he writes in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, “Deterrence … is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.”

Kissinger well knows from personal experience that domestic politics temper U.S. willingness to run such risks. Limited wars—those conflicts when a nation chooses for political reasons not to bring to bear all the weapons at its disposal—have always been difficult for Americans. “My book,” he told me, “was written after one limited war, in Korea, where the U.S. achieved some of its objectives. Since the book was published, we had a limited war in Vietnam, in which a sector of the U.S. population wanted to lose the war in order to purify America’s soul. To a lesser extent, that was also the case in Iraq. That is a new experience. You can’t fight a war for an exit strategy.” His conclusion: “America can no longer engage in a conflict unless it knows it can win it.”

The crux of Kissinger’s book and, in many ways, his professional life is this ongoing tension between his belief that limited war is something that the United States must be prepared to wage and his recognition of the domestic upheavals that such wars inevitably trigger. To refuse as a matter of principle to fight limited wars is to leave America powerless, with only an inflexible and reactive policy against the subtle maneuvers of adversaries: “Our empiricism,” Kissinger writes, “dooms us” to requiring all the facts of a case beforehand, by which point it is too late to act. The search for certainty, he goes on, reduces us to dealing with emergencies, not preventing them. But for a democracy that needs to mobilize an entire population through patient argument in order to deploy troops for war—and, therefore, requires a good-versus-evil cause to ensure public support—limited wars, with their nuanced objectives, are far more challenging than all-out ones.

We must be more willing, not only to accept the prospect of limited war but, as Kissinger does in his book of a half century ago, to accept the prospect of a limited nuclear war between states. For most of the 1950s, observes Lawrence Freedman, a strategic theorist and historian at King’s College London, in The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, “the imminence of a strategic stalemate was taken as a basic premise.” Although Kissinger was not the first or only thinker to advocate that the West develop strategies for the limited use of nuclear weapons, his “challenging, confident, and assertive style” made him easily the most forceful and articulate.

Kissinger recognizes the inherent dangers of this new strategic approach. Indeed, writing in 1957 about a possible superpower confrontation, he is also describing a possible 21st-century India-Pakistan one:

A limited nuclear war which had to be improvised in the midst of military operations would be undertaken under the worst possible conditions … Because of the need for rapid reaction which is imposed by the speed and power of modern weapons, a misinterpretation of the opponent’s intentions … may well produce a cataclysm … And [the two adversaries’] difficulties would be compounded by the fact that they would have had no previous experience to serve as a guide.

As Kissinger argues in his book, the psychological advantage in limited war will constantly shift in favor of the side that convincingly conveys the intention of escalating, particularly if the escalation entails nuclear weapons. Armed with nuclear weapons, in other words, a cornered Pakistan in a limited war with India would be a fearsome thing to behold.

At the time of his writing Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, some analysts took Kissinger to task for what one reviewer called “wishful thinking”—in particular, his insufficient consideration of civilian casualties in a limited nuclear exchange. Moreover, Kissinger himself later moved away from his advocacy of a NATO strategy that relied on short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to counterbalance the might of the Soviet Union’s conventional forces. (The doctrinal willingness to suffer millions of West German civilian casualties to repel a Soviet attack seemed a poor way to demonstrate the American commitment to the security and freedom of its allies.) But that does not diminish the utility of Kissinger’s thinking the unthinkable. Indeed, now that the nuclear club has grown, and nuclear weaponry has become more versatile and sophisticated, the questions that his book raises are even more relevant. The dreadful prospect of limited nuclear exchanges is inherent in a world no longer protected by the carapace of mutual assured destruction. Yet much as limited war has brought us to grief, our willingness to wage it may one day save us from revolutionary powers that have cleverly obscured their intentions—Iran not least among them.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic national correspondent, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a member of the Defense Policy Board. His newest book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

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