Containing a Nuclear Iran

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

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