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.

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Interview: "A Strategy to Avoid Tragedy"
Robert D. Kaplan talks to James Gibney about Kissinger, Iran, North Korea, and the right way to think about the prospect of a limited nuclear exchange.

In 1957, a 34-year-old Harvard faculty member, Henry Kissinger, published a book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, putting forth a counterintuitive proposition: that at the height of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union amassing enough hydrogen bombs for Armageddon, a messy, limited war featuring conventional forces and a tactical nuclear exchange or two was still possible, and the United States had to be prepared for such a conflict. Fresh in Kissinger’s mind was the Korean War, which had concluded with a truce only four years earlier—“a war to which,” as he wrote, “an all-out strategy seemed particularly unsuited.” But President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that any armed conflict with Moscow would accelerate into a thermonuclear holocaust, and he rejected outright this notion of “limited” nuclear war.

The absence of a nuclear exchange during the Cold War makes Eisenhower and what became the doctrine of mutual assured destruction look wise in hindsight. But more than half a century after Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was published, it still offers swift, searing insights into human nature and a deeply troubling contemporary relevance. Eurasia—from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Japan—is today an almost unbroken belt of overlapping ballistic-missile ranges: those of Israel, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea. Many of these nations have or seek to acquire nuclear arsenals; some are stirred by religious zealotry; and only a few have robust bureaucratic control mechanisms to inhibit the use of these weapons. This conjunction of circumstances increases the prospect of limited nuclear war in this century. Kissinger long ago considered this problem in full, and the current nuclear impasse with Iran gives fresh reason to bring his book back into the debate.

Kissinger begins his study by challenging the idea that peace constitutes the “‘normal’ pattern of relations among states.” Indeed, he describes a world that seems anything but peaceful:

On the ideological plane, the contemporary ferment is fed by the rapidity with which ideas can be communicated and by the inherent impossibility of fulfilling the expectations aroused by revolutionary slogans. On the economic and social plane, millions are rebelling against standards of living as well as against social and racial barriers which had remained unchanged for centuries.

Continuing his description of a world that matches our own, he writes, “International relationships have become truly global … There are no longer any isolated areas.” In 2010, that sounds utterly mundane; but then again, in Eisenhower’s day, the idea that North Korea would help Syria to build a nuclear plant and thereby precipitate an Israeli military raid (as happened in 2007) would have seemed wildly improbable. Kissinger foresaw an interconnected world incessantly roiled by unsettling ideologies and unmet expectations.

Out of this turbulence inevitably come revolutionary powers, whose emergence is a critical theme in Kissinger’s book:

Time and again states appear which boldly proclaim that their purpose is to destroy the existing structure and to recast it completely. And time and again, the powers that are the declared victims stand by indifferent or inactive, while the balance of power is overturned.

Obviously, Kissinger was concerned here with the Soviet Union. As he told me in an interview last spring in his Manhattan office, he considered Moscow a revolutionary power because of its instigation of the 1948–49 Berlin blockade, and its encouragement of the Korean War in 1950, which were very much recent history when he wrote—Stalin had been dead for only four years. Over nearly five decades, thanks at least in part to a Western strategy of containment that resulted in no limited nuclear exchanges, the behavior of the Soviet regime evolved. The revolutionary power had been tamed, if not by us, then by its own longevity.

To insert a nuclearizing Iran in place of the mid-20th-century Soviet Union is to raise several tantalizing possibilities. In his book, Kissinger writes that, by acquiring nuclear weapons, a nation becomes able, for the first time, to change the regional or global balance of power without an invasion or a declaration of war. Let us assume that Iran develops a nuclear capability—an outcome that seems likely despite the imposition of sanctions and the threat by Israel of some kind of preemptive military strike. Would a nuclear Iran be as dangerous a revolutionary power as the old Soviet Union? More broadly, how should the United States contend with the threat posed by Iran, North Korea, and other would-be revolutionary powers that seek to use their possession of nuclear weapons to overturn the status quo?

Kissinger’s 1957 analysis of how the status quo powers respond to revolutionary powers seems sadly applicable to the situation with Iran today: “All their instincts will cause them to seek to integrate the revolutionary power into the legitimate framework with which they are familiar and which to them seems ‘natural.’” They see negotiations as the preferred way to manage emerging differences. The problem is that for a revolutionary power, a negotiation is not “in itself a symptom of reduced tension,” as the status quo powers would have us believe, but merely a tactic to gain time. Whereas for normal nations, a treaty has legal and moral weight, for the revolutionary power, treaty talks are merely a concessionary phase in the continuing struggle. Think of how North Korea has skillfully—and repeatedly—used the promise of giving up its nuclear capability as a negotiating tool to secure other benefits, from fuel oil to relief from sanctions.

“Iran,” Kissinger told me, “merely by pursuing nuclear weapons, has given itself a role in the region out of proportion to its actual power, and it gains further by the psychological impact of its being able to successfully defy the United Nations Security Council.” Nevertheless, he went on, he does not consider Iran a threat of the “same order of magnitude” as the 1950s’ Soviet Union, even as it “ideologically and militarily challenges the Middle East order.”

When I asked Kissinger whether a nuclear Iran would be containable, he suggested that he would want to take tough measures to prevent a nuclear Iran in the first place. He did tell me that the United States had “different deterrence equations” to consider: Iran versus Israel, Iran versus the Sunni Arabs, Iran versus its own dissidents, and Islam versus the West. All of these dynamics, he explained, would interact in the event of an Iran that goes nuclear, and lead to “even more-frequent crises” than we currently have in the Middle East.

But in spite of Iran’s refusal thus far to avail itself of “the genuine opportunity to transform itself from a cause to a nation,” Kissinger told me, the country’s true strategic interests should “run parallel with our own.” For example, Iran should want to limit Russia’s influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it should want to limit the Taliban’s influence in neighboring Afghanistan, it should accept stability in Iraq, and it should want to serve as a peaceful balancing power in the Sunni Arab world.

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.