Deterring Iran?

Don’t be surprised when—it doesn’t seem to be a matter of “if”—President Obama, or someone in his administration, announces that Iran’s development and acquisition of nuclear weapons, while dangerous, is nonetheless addressable by deterrence, and therefore not worth going to war over.

In other words, we will accept—but don’t like—the reality of Iran with nuclear weapons. Getting our begrudging acquiescence for their nuclear weapons program has been the primary goal of Iranian diplomacy for at least the last ten years—they will rejoice at the news and “rub it in” as proof of weakness by the United States.

There are a number of political and real dangers associated with this policy determination, not the least of which is the faultiness of the basic assumption that Iran can or will be deterred from using nuclear weapons, or transferring them to a third party.

Nonetheless, the policy determination will serve primarily as the reason to justify not going to war with Iran over their nuclear weapons development and acquisition program, which has been ongoing for at least the last 30 years.

Second, and perhaps just as important for the Obama Administration, they will assume that it will thereafter be more difficult for future—i.e., Republican—administrations from changing the policy, even as Iran develops more sophisticated nuclear capabilities.

Deterrence, the idea that someone will not do something they may want to do for fear they will be net losers—perhaps even destroyed—if they do it, is an age-old concept and applicable to many kinds of conflicts.

The idea gained prominence as a nuclear doctrine during the Cold War, and the underlying assumptions were probably best explained by a the late Russell E. Dougherty, an Air Force general and former commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

General Dougherty said that deterrence—at best an uneasy relationship between adversaries—was conditioned on two things: “Capability and will”. Which meant that if your adversary determined—either correctly or incorrectly, and it didn’t matter which—that you lacked either of these essential requirements, you were in serious danger of being attacked, because your enemy would no longer be deterred.  In a nutshell, if your enemy no longer believed you, you were in real trouble.

Unsaid—because it didn’t need to be said in those days—was that your adversary was both (1) rational, and (2) known, in that you would be able to attribute events to him that were attributable to him—whether he wanted you to or not.

So, how much of the Cold War “deterrence” model applies to Iran, and the underlying idea that somehow it will be acceptable for them to have nuclear weapons?

None of it—and when the Obama Administration begins to talk about deterrence in context of Iran, we should be extremely concerned about our safety.

Here’s why:

First, what is there about Iran that could possibly lead us to believe that they are “rational? All the evidence since the 1978 Islamic Revolution is to the contrary—in fact, they are the epitome of a radical state, comparable to any radical regime the world has had to deal with, e.g., Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China or Tojo’s Japan. 

Second, and far more dangerous than the first, Iran has led the rest of the radical Muslim sphere of influence to favor terrorism—which often is unattributed to a nation-state—in its “wars” against the non-Muslim world. So, we have no guarantee we would “know” who our future nuclear attacker really was. What nation-state did we hold primarily responsible for the 9/11 attacks—for example—and based on what? What if the 9/11 attacks had been nuclear—whom would we have retaliated against?

In sum, if we decide to “deter” Iran’s use of nuclear weapons (rather than taking the action to prevent them from getting nukes in the first place) their very predictable reaction will be to use an anonymous surrogate as the primary “strategic-delivery system” for their nuclear weapons. It will encourage the unattributed use of nuclear weapons against us by state sponsors of terrorism. Terrorists do not respond to “deterrence” any more than the kamikazes’—or the 9/11 attackers—did.