Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Let Iran Go Nuclear?

James S. Robbins, National Review Online:
The latest really bad idea.

A friend at State says there is a buzz at Foggy Bottom - low level, but growing - that maybe it would not be so bad if Iran went nuclear. After all, deterrence kept us free from nuclear conflict through the Cold War, and India and Pakistan haven't pressed the big button yet. If the mullahs in Tehran get the bomb, so what? If they use it, we will destroy them. They know that; thus, they will not use it. In fact - so the buzz goes - a nuclear Iran might help stabilize the region - Tehran and Tel Aviv can face off in a Middle Eastern mini-MAD, both armed to the teeth and each afraid to blink. Nothing says peace and stability like a Mexican standoff.

As I noted in a recent piece on Iran, stability is chimerical, and seeking it cedes the initiative to those who desire change. The belief that there is an upside to a nuclear-capable Iran is a rationalization of perceived impotence; those who suppose we are unable to prevent this from happening seek to make a virtue out of necessity.

Of course, one might ask, if nuclear weapons do not confer advantages, why do rogue states want them so badly? Hmmm…well, that is explained away by saying the up-and-coming states do not really understand what they want, or seek nuclear weapons chiefly as status symbols. No worries though, they will be deterred.

I am not concerned about whether or not the Iranians will be deterred. I am worried that the United States will be deterred. Even if the Iranians never use their nuclear weapons, they will have made themselves immune from attack. That would be just fine if they were likely to mind their own business. However, Iran has a long track record of fomenting instability in the region, particularly through terrorist surrogates. Furthermore, the regime in power has made it clear that they are intent on increasing the threats to their neighbors, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. They do not like us very much either. READ MORE

Now add nuclear weapons to the equation. Forget the “nuke Tel Aviv” scenario, that is child's play. Which is not to say they would not do it, in time they probably would. But the proponents of Middle East MAD are much too focused on the high end of the equation. Nuclear weapons are not most effective when lobbed between nuclear powers; they are best used as leverage to augment military actions in the conventional or unconventional realm by arming countries with the threat of escalation.

Let's look at some examples.

Scenario One, very familiar to U.S. war planners. Tehran closes off the Straits of Hormuz and subjects the world to energy blackmail, an “access denial” strategy. Currently the Coalition would respond by sending a flotilla to force an entry, probably accompanied by a punitive air campaign against every available worthwhile target in Iran. At present the regime would have no effective way to respond to that. But if they had nuclear weapons, particularly with long-range missiles or other delivery systems, our war planning would be immensely complicated. How close would we risk sending a Carrier Battle Group? How punitive would we pursue an air campaign, knowing that when we bomb Tehran the Iranians might have the capability to strike back, perhaps against domestic targets using terrorist surrogates? Can we count on our allies if Iranian missiles can reach Europe - they cannot now, but if they have nukes, how can we stop Iran from developing longer-range weapons?

Scenario Two. Iran launches a ground invasion through southern Iraq and into Kuwait, then, not making the mistake Saddam Hussein made, drive right on into Saudi Arabia. They would control four of the top five oil reserves in the world. Iran makes no further demands, and keeps the oil flowing. How would we respond, knowing that Iran would have recourse to nuclear weapons if the fight got too tough? Would we even take action and risk shutting off most Middle Eastern energy exports? Would we really care whether Arabia was under the sway of Wahabbism or Shia Fundamentalism - and if we did care would it be worth the risk?

Scenario Three. The long-awaited democratic revolution begins to develop in Iran. Massive crowds turn out in the streets demonstrating against the increasingly harsh laws imposed by the radical government. Students, liberal oppositionists - even joined by some army and police units - begin to coalesce into a true revolutionary force. The regime sends in the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, the only instrument left they can trust, to put an end to it. In a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown, tanks roll in to crush (literally) the revolutionaries, who plea for Coalition intervention. If it happened tomorrow, we could give the uprising enough air and other means of support to at least stave off catastrophe, maybe to tip the balance in their favor, and do so with majority support of the international community. But if the regime had nuclear weapons, would we risk intervening? Or would it be Hungary 1956 all over again? Moreover, say the liberal revolution looked like it would succeed without anyone's help - would we be as eager to see the current regime destabilized if the endgame for the mullahs was a last-minute Armageddon-style nuclear launch when they were going down and had nothing to lose? Wouldn't we tell the democratic opposition to cool it?

There are scores of similar scenarios that do not involve actually going to nuclear war but all of which demonstrate that deterrence at the nuclear level does not translate into stability at lower levels of conflict. In fact, it leads to permanent instability as regimes pursue conflict by other means, relying on their nuclear insurance cards to deter the U.S. or any other power from settling things decisively. This is why the United States had to withdraw from Vietnam rather than invade north and risk a Soviet or Chinese response; it is why the Soviet Union was unwilling to impose its will on Afghanistan by invading Pakistan and risking a U.S. response. Consciously allowing the Iranian regime to assume the mantle of a nuclear power would be an act of strategic negligence that would make the world a much more dangerous place.

And by the way, these scenarios assume the Iranian leaders are “rational actors who won't just wake up one day and decide that they don't want to live in a world with New York, Washington, D.C., or a variety of other cities. They send their surrogates out to punish the Great Satan, and the rest is God's will. Or maybe terrorists or a radical faction within the government get hold of the weapons and use them without permission. Would you gamble your life against the bribe level of an Iranian nuclear-weapons manager? Let's hope we don't have to.

James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.