A recent op-ed in the New York Times argues that we can live with a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, the author asserts that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be less risky than attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent the acquisition of such weapons. One reason given is that a deterrent strategy would work with Iran as well as it did with the Soviet Union:
However, there are serious, thoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran, kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction. If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?
But there is a reason why we may not want to rely on the “assurance of retaliatory destruction” strategy for Iran.
A fundamental assumption of deterrence is that the state’s leaders, the people with their fingers on the nuclear button, are rational — that they rationally know their self-interests and will rationally choose actions that promote those self-interests. Since the use of nuclear weapons would not normally be in their rational self-interest, the theory goes, we can rely on their rational decisionmaking to prevent the use of such weapons. For the Soviet Union, this was a reasonable assumption.
It is harder to make the case that Iran’s leadership is rational, however. A recent illustration in this regard comes from the Telegraph concerning Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accused the West of deliberately destroying rain clouds headed for Iran in a concerted effort to plunge the country into a damaging drought.
“Today our country is moving towards drought, which is partly unintentional due to industry and partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country and this is a war that Iran is going to overcome,” Mr Ahmadinejad said in a speech in the Caspian Sea city of Gonbad-e Kavus….
Another recent quote from President Ahmadinejad comes from the Arab Times:
“The Zionist regime and the Zionists are a cancerous tumor. Even if one cell of them is left in one inch of (Palestinian) land, in the future this story (of Israel’s existence) will repeat,” he said in a speech in Tehran marking Iran’s Quds Day that was broadcast on state television.
“The nations of the region will soon finish off the usurper Zionists in the Palestinian land…. A new Middle East will definitely be formed. With the grace of God and help of the nations, in the new Middle East there will be no trace of the Americans and Zionists,” he said.
Given statements such as these, would it be wise to rely on the rational decisionmaking skills of leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ensure that Iran is deterred from using nuclear weapons?
One could argue that Iranian leaders are in fact rational, and that they are just pandering for support from an irrational political base. Arguably this could be true. Nonetheless, it does not fully address the “rational decisionmaking” issue. It just poses the issue in a different way: How important to Iran’s leadership is the support from an irrational political base, and how far would Iranian leaders go to maintain that support?
In the case of Iran, the assumption of a “rational decisionmaking leadership” is a slim reed on which to base a strategy.
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