What Would You Do if You Were Iran?
Any New Yorker will tell you that the best views of Manhattan are to be found not on the island, but from across the water. The most sublime commentator on the workings of “democracy in America,” it is often argued, was not from America, but Europe — Alexis de Tocqueville, in his majestic work by that very title. The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped many breathtaking photographs of wondrous spiral galaxies millions of light years away, but no human has ever held such a perspective on our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, because no human (nor even any human artifact) has ever viewed it from the outside.
The greatest insight into a difficult and complex matter often comes from an outside observer. In late February the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had accelerated rather than suspended its uranium enrichment activities. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking from Australia, immediately warned Tehran, “All options are still on the table.” Two days later Cheney suddenly showed up, publicly unannounced, in Pakistan, setting off a flurry of talk radio and Internet speculation that the true purpose of the visit was to negotiate flyover rights for an impending air assault on Iran. In response, an Iranian deputy foreign minister stated, “We’re prepared for any situation — even for war.”
To the dismay and astonishment of the peace and progressive Democratic base that swept the party back into power last November, the three early front-runners for the 2008 presidential nomination — Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards — have consistently expressed a similar hawkishness on Iran. Clinton and Edwards have even uttered the identical “all options on the table” phrase!
Why is Iran so intent on pursuing its atomic ambitions, despite such naked saber rattling from the planet’s overweening military leviathan? The most candid, unvarnished answer to that question has recently come not from any Iranian or American but from someone viewing the impasse from across the water. From Europe. From the outside.
“We are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations,” the Russian president said in Munich last month, referring unambiguously to the United States. “Nobody feels secure anymore,” and America’s adversaries “feel cornered.” Of course, said Putin, “such a policy stimulates an arms race. The force’s dominance inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction” (emphasis added).
Putin said what no Iranian officials will say, because if they did they would have to admit that they are seeking not just nuclear electricity but nuclear weapons. Putin said what no Bush administration officials will say, because if they did they would have to admit that all their efforts to, as President Bush put it in 2002, “free the world from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who hate freedom” have had precisely the opposite effect.
Make no mistake. The repugnant comments by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about the Jewish past and the Israeli future deserve to be renounced by any right-thinking citizen of the world. But Ahmadinejad’s true influence among the mullahs has always been limited, and is now, by all accounts, in free fall. Regardless of who is really running the show, might not Iran have some legitimate national security interests in its own self-preservation?
Consider the world as seen from Tehran in the past half-decade. George W. Bush announced a new doctrine of “pre-emption,” wherein the U.S. may see fit to launch regime-changing invasions of states that Washington, in its own subjective judgment, concludes might pose a threat, someday, to American national security. He declared that of all the odious regimes on the planet, three alone constitute an “axis of evil.” Breaking with the entire Cold War legacy of mutual nuclear deterrence, he issued a new nuclear doctrine, one that contemplated nuclear attacks on non-nuclear states (in explicit violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). He actually named seven states (including Iran) as possible targets of a pre-emptive American nuclear first strike. Then he launched his first pre-emptive war against the country next door to Iran, decapitating its regime and driving its leader first into a spider hole in the ground and then to the gallows.
And after all that, Tehran finds itself surrounded on four sides by American military power — Iraq to the west, Afghanistan to the east, U.S. bases in Turkey and Central Asia to the north, and the mighty U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south (which just recently doubled its presence there).
Putin did not explain exactly how nuclear weapons could serve to defend a country like Iran from an overwhelming American air assault. But the old Cold Warrior surely understands the new model of nuclear deterrence that is emerging in the post-Cold War world — one that could radically transform the 21st century nuclear landscape.
During the Cold War’s long atomic arms race, it became clear that nuclear weapons had little actual military value. It was difficult to conceive of any scenario where the benefits of launching a nuclear weapon could exceed the almost infinite risks. But we needed thousands of nuclear weapons, the argument ran, because the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear weapons. And they needed them because we had them. Our atomic arsenal deterred them from using theirs, and their atomic arsenal deterred us from using ours. This, of course, was the logic behind “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD — surely the most appropriate acronym in all of human history.
But if a country like Iran manages to acquire a nuclear arsenal, its function will be dramatically different. Iran, of course, cannot hope to defeat the United States in any kind of direct military confrontation. No one can. But Tehran could aspire not to defeat but to deter what must seem to Iranian leaders to be a very real threat of an American military first strike. And to exercise such deterrence, it doesn’t need the capacity to bring about the “assured destruction” of the entire American nation. All it needs is the capability to vaporize an American military base or three in Qatar or Kuwait or Iraq, or an entire aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, or even an American city on one coast or the other. It also needs to indicate that it would respond to any attack by employing that capability immediately, before it becomes too late, following the venerable maxim: “Use them or lose them.” This, we learned in recent years from now-elderly Soviet officers who were on the ground during the Cuban missile crisis, is precisely what they were prepared to do at even a hint of an American first strike.
There is, of course, only one thing that can provide Iran with this kind of deterrent capability. Hint: it’s not nuclear electricity.
When Tehran looks west, it sees an Iraq that abandoned its nuclear weapons program, opened itself to unprecedented intrusions on its sovereignty, did not in fact possess any weapons of mass destruction — and got itself invaded for its trouble.
When Tehran looks east, it sees a North Korea that is one of the most desperate countries in the world. Most of its citizens are either languishing in gulags or chronically starving. It is impoverished, puny, a pathetic excuse for a 21st century nation-state. And yet, because it chose an alternate course — constructing a small nuclear arsenal in secret, then whipping back the curtain to reveal that arsenal to the world — it appears to be successfully deterring any kind of military attack from the greatest military juggernaut in human history.
What would you do if you were Iran?
It is true that neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor American intelligence officials have put forth a shred of evidence indicating that Iran has diverted materials from its nuclear energy activities to a nuclear weapons program. It is also quite possible that Iran might be dissuaded from its nuclear ambitions, in return for an end to U.S. support for internal Iranian groups seeking the violent overthrow of the regime (imagine if Iran were doing that here!), a formal mutual security pact with non-aggression pledges in both directions, and some acknowledgement on our part that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty doesn’t just impose nonproliferation obligations on them but also disarmament obligations on us.
Instead, astonishingly, with the ceaseless beating of the Iran war drums in the background, the Energy Department on March 2 announced a contract to build a brand-new, ultra-modernized U.S. nuclear warhead — the first in two decades — to ensure the long-term “reliability” of the American nuclear arsenal.
Until more enlightened diplomacy starts emanating from Washington, Tehran will continue its march toward the nuclear Rubicon. The logic of the situation requires it. No rational Iranian defense planner could responsibly recommend anything else.
A Cold War concept that never captured the public imagination quite like MAD was the simple idea of “unacceptable damage.” If a vulnerable nation could obtain the capability to impose unacceptable damage on an adversary, that would probably be enough to cause that adversary to pause, indefinitely, before initiating any kind of war. And the obliteration of an American military base or naval formation or city would clearly seem to qualify as “unacceptable damage” for us. Although “UD” hardly contains the rich acronymphomaniacal irony delivered by MAD, Iran and North Korea may be the first states to base their national security strategies solidly upon it.
There is very little reason to suppose that they will be the last.
Tad Daley is a veteran international policy analyst and nuclear disarmament advocate. He served as a policy aide to the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., and as national issues director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. He is presently Peace and Disarmament Fellow in the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel laureate anti-nuclear organization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.