Deterring Iran

From Jeffrey Goldberg's much-discussed interview with Benjamin Netanyahu:

"Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they'll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?"

To which Alex Massie responds:

It's not a nice risk to take, but it is one we've taken before. Once upon a time plenty of people talked about the Soviet Union in this way. Now clearly that doesn't mean that what worked with the Soviets will work with the Iranians either but, equally clearly, Tehran poses a much smaller threat than Moscow ever did and it is far from clear that the same nuclear imperatives that prevented war with the Soviets can't also be brought to bear upon Iran. 

I think a better analogue still would be Mao's China, where the evidence of fanaticism and recklessness throughout the 1950s and '60s - in Mao's public statements, in his brinksmanship around Korea and Taiwan, and in his domestic conduct - was arguably much more pronounced that anything from the post-Stalin Soviet Union. And of course China's recklessness arguably diminished after it joined the nuclear club in 1964, and by the 1970s Nixon and Kissinger were toasting Mao's health in Beijing. So there you go ...

Well, sort of. What the "we deterred Stalin and Khrushchev and Mao, didn't we?" argument sometimes skates over a little too quickly, though, is just what a close-run thing Mutually Assured Destruction sometimes was - especially in the era before the various arsenals grew large enough to really mutually assure destruction. From Korea to Berlin to Quemoy and Matsu to (obviously) the Cuban Missile Crisis, we spent more than a decade enmeshed in foreign-policy struggles that could have gone nuclear had events fallen out somewhat differently. In the late 1960s, the Russians and Chinese tiptoed around nuclear war over a set of uninhabited islands in the wilds of Manchuria. And of course Pakistan and India have done their share of tiptoeing as well over the last decade. Deterrence can work, absolutely - but past results don't guarantee future returns. And the more nuclear-armed, ideologically-zealous governments you add to the balance, the higher the risk that fanaticism (or stupidity, or miscalculation, or what-have-you) will produce an actual nuclear exchange.

So no: An Iranian bomb wouldn't be a new thing under the sun. But it would be a significant risk-multiplier - and so would the nuclearizations that would likely follow in the region. Overall, I agree with Massie (and many others) that it's a risk the United States should probably be willing to take, given the alternative approaches on offer. But I think we need to be clear-eyed about what a Mesopotamian balance of terror is likely to mean for U.S. policy in the region. Saying that we can live with a nuclear-armed Iran is the beginning of managing the problem, not the end of it. Deterrence proposed is easier than deterrence implemented. In an earlier post on the subject, Massie expressed the hope that "the United States retains (I trust!) sufficient institutional memory as to be able to play the nuclear game with rather more finesse, subtlety and confidence than it has sometimes shown in more assymetric struggles." I hope so too! But that game isn't an easy one to play, and it has tendency to enmesh you in ever-deeper layers of regional commitment, with all the difficulties that such commitments entail.

If you want a sense of what that could mean in practice, I've pasted below the fold excerpts from remarks (the full text isn't online, unfortunately) that my friend Elbridge Colby - a strong deterrence proponent overall - recently offered at the Institute for Defense Analyses on the subject of what American strategy might look like in a world with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Assuring countries in the region that a nuclear Iran would not decisively shift the strategic balance would be key. The U.S. should therefore be ready to consult intensively with allies and partners in the region and concerned parties outside the region to develop a political-diplomatic structure or structures, formal or informal, appropriate to the challenge. This might involve the U.S. and partner states agreeing to more formal security arrangements, for instance, or the strengthening and development of regional security architectures ...

What would this structure likely require? Principally, both Iran and participant members of the structure would need to see not only that the U.S. and its partners would have the capability to defend and, if necessary, retaliate against Iranian aggression or coercion; they would have to see that such capabilities are likely to be exercised in the event. This would place a premium on evidences of political commitment to partners by the U.S. and other key states both within and outside the region. Focuses of such credibility-building activity might appropriately include military, diplomatic, and intelligence contact among the allies; steps to build up theater ballistic missile defense to defend members; training exercises; legally or politically-binding statements of resolve; and procurement and deployment decisions. The Gulf Security Dialogue and arms sales relationships with Egypt, Jordan, and Israel all provide foundations for such activities. 
 
From a military perspective, the U.S. can take steps at a number of levels to strengthen its extended deterrent against a nuclear Iran. At the highest level, it could reiterate through a variety of media, directly and indirectly, that it is prepared to respond overwhelmingly and potentially in kind to Iranian nuclear employment and that American retaliation would be indisputably devastating to Iran and whatever objectives it was trying to pursue ... From a military standpoint, the U.S. could look into deliberately noticeable deployments of U.S. nuclear forces into the region, including through strategic bomber flights, dual-capable aircraft, and/or the re-installment of nuclear weapons aboard U.S. surface vessels and attack submarines, suspended by the Presidential Nuclear Initiative of 1991 ...  The U.S. could also deploy additional conventional forces, such as strike aircraft and naval forces armed with cruise missiles, that could be used in retaliatory strikes against Iran as well as for direct defense of vital interests ...

Assuring Israel would be a particularly complex and demanding task, assuming here that Israel could be convinced to agree to a deterrent posture against a nuclear Iran. From a political standpoint, the U.S. and its partners would have to be flexible in developing a structure that could, formally or informally, encompass both the Arab states and Israel.  The diplomatic arrangements for the Desert Shield/Storm campaign provide some precedent for this kind of effort. More specifically, Israel might well demand significantly intensified military assistance or protection in exchange for adopting a deterrent approach to Iran. The U.S. would have to engage intensively with Israel to determine what kind of military provisions would be best suited to assuring Israel. These might include much more robust missile defenses, firmer U.S. commitments to retaliation against Iranian nuclear usage, and even assistance in more sensitive areas.

In other words, if you don't like how cozy the U.S. is with the Israeli government and/or various Arab oligarchies now, just wait till we're trying to play balance-of-power politics in the shadow of a nuclearized Iran.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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