War Stories

Should We Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb?

Debunking the nutty theory that Iranian nukes are a good thing.

Iran’s announcement of an advance in its uranium-enrichment program—and thus a potential step closer to an A-bomb—has sparked four responses in various opinion pages:

  1. It’s time to attack Iran now, before it’s too late.
  2. It’s time to rally the world to impose sanctions on Iran now, before it’s too late.
  3. It’s time to engage Iran in diplomacy now, before it’s too late.
  4. Relax: An Iranian A-bomb is not a big danger, and, in fact, it might help stabilize the Middle East.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

There are problems with all four arguments, but let’s deal with the last one first, since, if it’s true that we can stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb (to paraphrase Kubrick and Southern), the rest is moot.

The most recent sampling from this school of thought is an op-ed published in the Feb. 10 New York Times by Adam Lowther, a defense analyst at the Air Force Research Institute. Lowther argues that an Iranian bomb might be beneficial to U.S. interests: The Saudis and Egyptians would want us to protect them by pledging to retaliate against Iran if Iran attacks Saudi Arabia or Egypt; in exchange for this guarantee, we could insist that they institute massive economic and democratic reforms and make peace with Israel. Furthermore, Lowther claims, the Palestinians would also rush to make peace, because the radioactive fallout from an Iranian attack on Jerusalem would kill them, too.

This is one of the nuttiest op-ed pieces ever published in a major American newspaper. Brief rebuttal: No American president is going to treat an attack on Cairo or Riyadh as an attack on the United States. Even if a president said he would, no Egyptian or Saudi leader would believe him. Even if they did believe him, they’d assume that the United States was doing this for its own interests; they’d see no need to adopt democracy and capitalism or to snuggle with Israel; certainly, they wouldn’t agree to any such deal. The argument is delusional from start to finish.

There are smarter people—”international realists” such as Kenneth Waltz of Columbia University and Barry Posen of MIT—who make a more limited argument: that, if Iran built A-bombs, it could be deterred from using them by a credible threat of retaliation from the United States, Israel, or Arab countries that might build their own atomic arsenals in response. Some argue that a Middle East arms race, in this sense, might stabilize tensions, as each power would deter the others from a nuclear attack. Some also argue that revolutionary regimes have tended to moderate their behavior once A-bombs enter the equation. Knowing that wars can escalate, they have an interest in tamping down conflicts before they start.

This argument has some validity. If they hadn’t possessed the bomb, China and the Soviet Union probably would have gone to war with each other in the late 1960s; border clashes between East and West Germany might have erupted at some point during the Cold War; India and Pakistan might have fought more intensely in the past decade. The bomb has reduced the likelihood of major war between large powers.

However, it hasn’t eliminated the possibility. Moscow and Washington came very close to nuclear war at least twice. During the 1961 Berlin crisis, the Pentagon drew up highly specific plans for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. On the final day of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, all of President John F. Kennedy’s advisers, civilian and military, urged him to attack the Soviet missile sites. (JFK and Nikita Khrushchev ended the crisis by striking a secret deal.) If the U.S. Strategic Air Command had possessed independent control of the atomic arsenal during those crises or at any other tense moments in the 1950s or early ‘60s (when Gens. Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power were SAC chiefs), bombs almost certainly would have been dropped on the Soviet Union at some point. Perhaps the same can be said of the Soviet general staff dropping bombs on the United States.

During the Berlin and Cuban crises, U.S. and Soviet leaders had time to think the problem through; and the president and the premier had control over the bomb’s use. Over the decades, both sides took costly steps to make their weapons less vulnerable to attack (putting the missiles in underground concrete silos or on submarines or in bombers that could take off from runways on short notice). They also devised technologies—permissive action links, go codes, and redundant command-control links—that minimized the chance of accidental or unauthorized launches. All the other nations that subsequently built nuclear arsenals (Britain, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan) adopted similar systems, in some cases with U.S. assistance. (North Korea may be another story, but it doesn’t have a usable nuclear weapon—yet.)

This is where the realist’s case for insouciance about an Iranian bomb falls apart. If the Iranians do manage to build some A-bombs, it’s not at all certain—in fact, it’s probably unlikely—that they will institute these same elaborate control devices. Especially given the schisms within the regime, we don’t know who will have—or grab—the power to use them. (If it’s the Revolutionary Guard, that’s bad news.)

And if an Iranian bomb incites other powers in the region to build their own bombs for deterrence, that may “stabilize” tensions—by giving everyone a “deterrent”—though, more likely, it will make things worse. The other regimes probably won’t have control devices, either, at least not at first. There’s also the geographic factor: These countries are very close to one another; a nuclear-armed missile’s flight time, from launcher to target, is a few minutes. In the event of a crisis, one nation’s leader might launch a first strike to pre-empt an anticipated first strike by some other nation’s leader. (If U.S. and Russian borders were only 100 miles apart, it’s doubtful we could have survived the Cold War without a “nuclear exchange.” This is one reason, by the way, that Soviet missiles in Cuba, and U.S. missiles in Turkey, were viewed with such alarm.)

On another level, the danger of an Iranian bomb isn’t that Tehran’s mullahs will wake up one day and nuke Jerusalem. They must know that they’d face annihilating retaliation. Deterrence does work on that basic level, at least against a regime with an instinct for self-preservation (and the Iranian leaders do have that). The danger, or one danger, is that nuclear weapons embolden their possessors to take risks, especially at committing lower levels of aggression. For instance, if Saddam Hussein had built some nukes before invading Kuwait in 1990, it would have been much harder for President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, to rally such a vast coalition—or, perhaps, any coalition at all—to push him back. During that war, Baker also declared that the United States would view a chemical or biological attack against Israel as identical to a nuclear attack against the United States and would respond accordingly. That declaration might have been less credible if Saddam had had his own nukes to bargain with.

This is not to say that a nuclear Iran cannot be contained; but it’s a more dicey proposition that involves making deals with other powers, and compromises with other interests, that we might rather not make.

In short, it’s worth going to some trouble to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. The question is, how much trouble?

Which leads us back to those other three proposed responses to the news that the Iranians may soon be producing highly enriched uranium, which would put them on the road to building the stuff of nuclear bombs.

First, it’s worth pointing out that they’re not at that point yet, and they seem to be experiencing technical problems in getting there. Second, if they do cross that point—that is, once they’ve enriched their uranium to the level of 20 percent—it will take a year or more to enrich it further to the 80 percent or 90 percent needed to build bombs. Third, if they get to that point, it’s another matter still to turn the material into bombs and then to fashion and miniaturize the bomb to fit onto a missile. This is rocket science.

In other words, the situation is not quite as urgent as some advocates for each of the options are suggesting. There’s still time to see how things in Iran pan out—politically, socially, and economically as well as technologically.

Launching an attack on Iran’s facilities is a bad idea, especially if it’s done with no concrete evidence that the Iranians can build a bomb, much less that they’re about to do so. An airstrike or commando raid would only consolidate the regime’s power. (There’s nothing like a foreign attack to rally domestic support for a beleaguered regime.)

At the same time, diplomatic engagement seems futile, mainly because there’s nobody over there to engage. Or, if some officials do want to engage, they’re swiftly overruled by other officials who don’t. (This happened a few months ago, when Iran announced that it would agree to export its uranium to be enriched abroad, as the United States and Russia had proposed—only to backpedal soon after.) The only reason for President Barack Obama to keep proposing talks (and it’s a good reason) is so he can say that he tried diplomacy if and when the time comes to take a more confrontational course.

As for sanctions, they’re tricky, especially at a time when mass movements are protesting a government we’re trying to pressure. Sanctions are crude; they punish the population as brutally as the government, when what we ought to be doing is seeking ways to aggravate the split between the Iranian people and their rulers. Several Western countries are imposing targeted sanctions—for instance, cutting off trade with companies owned by the Revolutionary Guard. This is very much worth doing, though it would be more effective if China could be persuaded to join in. Whether that’s possible, given China’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy, is up in the air.

Regime change would be nice, though a few things are worth noting. First, since we can’t really engage with the Iranian government right now, it might be a good idea to declare our sympathies with the rebels and demand an end to their torture and imprisonment more openly.

However, material assistance to these rebels (whether overt or badly disguised covert) will only make things worse, especially in Iran, where memories of 1953—the year the CIA helped overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh and install the shah—remain strong and politically exploitable. (When Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, publicly announced that the administration was budgeting $75 million to help Iranian rebels, many of those rebels moaned, knowing that they stood a higher chance of arrest for being CIA spies.)

Finally, even if democratic, pro-Western reformers took over the Iranian government, they would almost certainly continue to enrich uranium—though not necessarily to make A-bombs. It’s become, due in part to all the outside pressure, an issue of national pride.

So to prepare for that day, or for some other moment when an opportunity for negotiations arises, we should figure out what the goal of those talks ought to be—an end to enrichment (not likely) or strict limits on enrichment, to keep them from turning the uranium into a weapon (likelier but very hard to verify, especially with a hostile regime).

The real frustration about this whole issue, the reason why even reasonable people are flirting with actions that are dangerous or futile, is that, ultimately, we have little control over what happens next. It’s an extreme case of what we’ve experienced across much of the world since the fracturing of power that followed the end of the Cold War. It’s something we haven’t yet grown used to.Become a fan of  Slate  on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.