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The End of Deterrence

A nuclear Iran will change everything.

11:00 PM, Jan 10, 2007 • By S. ENDERS WIMBUSH
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Some of the new nuclear actors are less interested in deterrence than in using nuclear weapons to annihilate their enemies. Iran's leadership has spoken of its willingness--in their words--to "martyr" the entire Iranian nation, and it has even expressed the desirability of doing so as a way to accelerate an inevitable, apocalyptic collision between Islam and the West that will result in Islam's final worldwide triumph. Wiping Israel off the map--one of Iran's frequently expressed strategic objectives--even if it results in an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran, may be viewed as an acceptable trade-off. Ideological actors of this kind may be very different from today's nuclear powers who employ nuclear weapons as a deterrent to annihilation. Indeed, some of the new actors may seek to annihilate others and be annihilated, gloriously, in return.

What constitutes deterrence in this world? Proponents of new non-proliferation treaties and many European strategists speak of "managing" a nuclear Iran, as if Iran and the new nuclear actors that will emerge in Iran's wake can be easily deterred by getting them to sign documents and by talking nicely to them. This is a lethal naiveté. We have no idea how to deter ideological actors who may even welcome their own annihilation. We do not know what they hold dear enough to be deterred by the threat of its destruction. Our own nuclear arsenal is robust, but it may have no deterrent effect on a nuclear-armed ideological adversary.

This is the world Iran is dragging us into. Can they be talked out of it? Maybe. But it is getting very late to slow or reverse the momentum propelling us into this nuclear no-man's land. We should be under no illusion that talk alone--"engagement"--is a solution. Nuclear Iran will prompt the emergence of a world in which nuclear deterrence may evaporate, the likelihood of nuclear use will grow, and where deterrence, once broken, cannot be restored.

S. Enders Wimbush is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Future Security Strategies.