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.

Just to take one of Jain's examples (one that Pillar doesn't get into, but is perhaps the most widely cited): Suppose that Hezbollah, secure under Iran's "nuclear umbrella," starts launching missiles into Israel, as it did in 2006. Now, does anyone seriously think that, because Iran had nuclear weapons, Israel would refrain from going after Hezbollah's missile launchers and infrastructure in Lebanon? Just sit passively by as Tel Aviv residents get killed every day? That doesn't sound like the Israel I know!

Among the reasons Israel wouldn't be thus paralyzed by the prospect of Iranian nuclear retaliation is that such retaliation isn't credible. It would result in dozens of Israeli nuclear warheads raining down on Iran--a pretty high price for Tehran to pay for the pleasure of watching Hezbollah flex its muscles for a few days.

So this particular "nuclear umbrella" scenario turns out to be implausible in part for the same reason that an unprovoked Iranian nuclear strike on Israel is implausible: Iranian leaders have no desire to be annihilated along with their families, friends, and Persian civilization. And the Israelis who would be making the decisions in these "nuclear umbrella" scenarios know that. Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said two years ago (back when he was freer to speak candidly), "I don't think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, (would) drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality."

Pillar, like me, hopes Iran doesn't get nuclear weapons, for reasons he spells out. But the common belief that war would be preferable to a nuclear Iran looks weaker when you do what he recommends, and try to think clearly about what threats a nuclear Iran would actually pose.

That belief looks weaker still when you think clearly about the consequences of war. Pillar does a good job of explaining why conceiving of air strikes as surgical is confused, given the many reasons to believe they would lead to a wider war and/or the invasion and occupation of Iran.

And he makes the crucial point that the pro-war case mounted by hawks depends on a paradox: They posit the best-case scenario for how an attack on Iran would play out (limited or no retaliation), while positing the worst-case scenario for how Iran's possessing nuclear weapons would play out. The former assumes Iran is careful to the point of timidity, and the latter assumes Iran is reckless, even crazy. You can't have it both ways. Yet it's only by having it both ways that hawks make war sound worthwhile.

Pillar is an open-minded analyst, and he doesn't claim to have mathematically proved that the costs of war exceed the benefits. Maybe there is some reason to think a nuclear Iran would be unacceptably dangerous, and hawks just haven't done a good job of articulating it. If so, they should get busy. The ball is now in their court.