As we are approaching the two month anniversary of JCPOA Implementation Day, I figured I would write about Iran. I honestly think the Iran Deal was the best option we had, and so far it looks like Iran is abiding by the deal even if they are violating other treaties and agreements. Nevertheless, I want to ponder what a nuclear Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear strategy might be. Think of it as a counterfactual: an alternate history of what could have been if the Iran Deal had not been implemented. Or, if you are more pessimistic, think of it as a potential future: something that still might be.
The most common argument that commentators who warn of a nuclear Iran make is that a revisionist, theocratic Iran would use their nukes to eliminate Israel. After all, former president Ahmadinejad pledged on many occasions to “wipe Israel off the map.” These statements are clearly concerning. There are nationalistic zealots in the country, and they have immense influence through the IRGC, the Guardian Council, and the Ayatollah’s office. Nevertheless, I think the risk of an Iranian nuclear attack is grossly overstated. History is replete with examples of leaders making empty threats. Indeed, Iranian leaders have on many occasions said outrageous things, yet they so far have not engaged in any large-scale attacks on the Jewish state. It’s important to remember that many leaders, especially those of nationalistic countries, are playing two-level games (this is meant in a game theory sense, not as in monopoly). Leaders must send signals to the outside world, but they also must send signals to their domestic base of support. Often, this results in muddled or confused messaging. For example, during the withdrawal from Iraq, Obama needed to simultaneously appease his domestic audience which opposed the war as well as deter the insurgent and terrorist networks in Iraq. Paradoxically, he needed to promise to pull out quickly while simultaneously signaling that the U.S. would fight as long as it needed to. A similar dynamic exists in Iran. The President of the Islamic Republic needs to both appease domestic hardliners who oppose any acquiescence to the West while also moderating Iranian foreign policy enough to limit sanctions and receive approval from the outside world. Thus, not every bombastic speech or threat should be taken at face value. More likely than not, these speeches are nothing more than red meat for the base, not actual grand strategy.
The other reason that I am not too worried is that deterrence, at least at the nuclear level, seems to work very well. Despite endless posturing and brinksmanship during the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. launched nuclear weapons. They knew that if they did, they would be destroyed in a hail of atomic fire. Say what you will about the Iranians, but I seriously doubt that the pampered elite of the Revolution care so much about Islam that they are willing to throw away their lives in a horrific death. Moreover, even if every Iranian is a zealot on the order of Al-Baghdadi (something I don’t buy for a second), it still doesn’t follow that they would use nukes. If they really valued their revolutionary ideology, they would want to spread Shia Islam throughout the world. That goal would become impossible if their country became a smoldering heap of radioactive glass. History is replete with madmen getting the bomb. Kruschev, Kim Jong-il, and Mao are just a few examples. Nevertheless, no matter how egotistical or ideological these leaders were, deterrence and sound military posturing ensured that they never used their deadly arsenals. Therefore, I have no reason to believe that deterrence wouldn’t work on Iran as well.
Another common argument for why a nuclear Iran would be a clear and present threat to the U.S. and its allies is nuclear terrorism. After all, Iran has used and funded proxy terror group around the world, especially around Israel. Their funding of Hezbollah, for example, is well known. Nevertheless, there is very little reason to expect that Iran would give nuclear weapons to their terrorist proxies. First, producing nukes is not easy. This is especially true when one is subject to constant monitoring by the IAEA and American and European intelligence. If Iran was somehow able to produce two or three warheads at immense cost, why would they simply relinquish them to an unpredictable terrorist group? Nukes represent a massive investment for states, and they are always guarded closely because losing them is costly. If Iran wanted to use nukes, they would do it themselves. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that terrorist groups are unpredictable. Iran suffers a principle-agent problem in that it can’t directly monitor and control every action a terrorist group takes. So, while Iran might want their terrorist proxies to attack Tel Aviv, the group may decide that there is more utility in fighting against Assad. This problem is compounded with nukes. After all, if terrorist groups funnel a few extra conventional weapons to an unauthorized region or conflict, it is probably not a big deal. If, however, they misuse one of the few nukes Iran has built, it is extremely costly. Third, the U.S. would be able to trace the nuke back to Iran. Sensors can analyze leftover isotopes that are unique to each country and reactor complex. While it might take a few days for the West to determine which party is responsible, retaliation would come eventually, thus negating the one possible advantage of outsourcing to terrorists: anonymity.
The third major argument for why a nuclear Iran might be dangerous is that an Iranian nuclear stockpile would act as an insurance policy against outside pressure or intervention. No state could credibly threaten Iran’s vital interests because Iran could simply retaliate with nuclear weapons. Of all the threats posed by a nuclear Iran, I believe this is the most worrying. There are many empirical examples of states using their nuclear stockpiles to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. North Korea, for example, never ceases to remind everyone that it is a nuclear state. Implicitly, the Kim regime is stating that if the U.S. were to try to knock out North Korea, South Korea might end up full of radioactive craters. Thus, even though North Korea has an appalling human rights record and provokes the U.S. and its allies endlessly, there is not much America can do without risking a nuclear attack.
Iran, too, could use their nukes to safeguard against American pressure or intervention. They are already heavily involved in funding terrorist groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, so the thought of them being able to fund even more groups with near-impunity is very frightening. Nevertheless, I think even this threat is to some degree manageable. Paul Pillar, a professor here at Georgetown, has written extensively and persuasively about how a nuclear Iran can be deterred. While it would be a challenge, there are still measures the U.S. could take such as increased sanctions, funding of its own proxy groups, and greater coordination with Middle Eastern allies to check Iranian influence.
An Iran without nukes is much better than an Iran with nukes. Even though I’m unpersuaded by the shrill, hyperbolic warnings that many right-leaning analysts make about Iran, I strongly agree that a nuclear Iran would pose a threat to the U.S. Between the potential for nuclear accidents and the risk that nuclear insurance only emboldens Iran further, a nuclear Iran is a future I would rather avoid. Fortunately, Iran seems to be complying with the JCPOA, and, if worst comes to worst, I have faith that the U.S. can deter a nuclear Iran in the same way that it has deterred other nuclear rivals.