The Magazine

The Coming Attack on Iran

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s gotta give.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By TOD LINDBERG
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A second element is the view of Iran as a rational actor. Put aside talk of “rogue states,” let alone the old “axis of evil”: The Iranian government would respond, in this view, to incentives positive and negative—carrots and sticks. If the cost of continuing its nuclear program is elevated and promises to keep mounting the longer Iran persists, and if the benefit from abandoning the program would be considerable in terms of reintegration into the world economy, one could reasonably expect Iran to give up its program.

The Obama administration’s early overture to Iran was worth a try (though not to the point of turning its back on the Iranian “Green Revolution” movement that took to the streets following fraudulent elections in summer 2009). But Iran has not budged in the face of tightening sanctions, nor does it appear to value reentry into the world community as highly as the security gains it believes a nuclear weapon would provide. This does not necessarily make Iran “irrational”; it may simply mean that Iran’s rulers calculate costs and benefits differently from Americans and Europeans.

In this context, the Western rumors of war in early 2012 could be construed in part as the last peaceable attempt to persuade Iran to change course. It appears to be failing. The Iranians want a nuke and appear to be pressing ahead as fast as they can.

The United States and its allies have said repeatedly that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable.” One must ask: Why? There are two responses to this question. The first is that the Iranian regime is so dangerous, internally unstable, and ideologically inflamed that it might use a nuclear weapon if it had one, specifically against Israel. If not a missile, then a suitcase. If not directly, then indirectly through surrogates closer at hand.

What, then, about Israel’s undeclared but widely acknowledged nuclear arsenal, which would surely be unleashed in reprisal? Perhaps there are those in Iran who would be prepared to pay such a price for the destruction of the Jewish state. Surely the rhetoric of the Holocaust-denying Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for the annihilation of Israel is not reassuring. Iran might well be deterred from using a nuclear weapon against Israel by the prospect of nuclear retaliation. But what are the chances that it won’t be? Is one chance in five over the next 20 years an acceptable risk? Precise calculation of such a risk is impossible. Yet it may be worthwhile, even at considerable cost, to attempt to reduce the likelihood of a low-probability, high-impact event to zero at least for some period of time. This view is understandably more prevalent in Israel than among Americans—though if it’s a suitcase that concerns you, Tel Aviv is not the only place about which you might be concerned.

A more common worry among American analysts is the possibility that if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want one as a deterrent. Perhaps Iran’s neighbor Turkey will as well. From there, who knows? The fear is that Iran is the tipping point to a so-called polynuclear Middle East, which might easily extend into Central Asia. The stability of such a situation is highly open to question. If one state in the region goes on nuclear alert, all the other states will follow suit (as, likely, would the United States, Russia, and China). The regional nuclear arsenals in question will likely not be large, and each state will feel a certain “use ’em or lose ’em” pressure in fear of being attacked first. The chance of such fears leading to catastrophe—well, once again, it is incalculable, but it is not zero. Deterrence theory, even on the assumption that all of the states involved seek only to deter the others from attack, is not at all reassuring in such a scenario.

A polynuclear Middle East would be a potential second-order effect of an Iranian bomb. One could address it by trying to dissuade other states in the region from going nuclear through the extension of security guarantees. How credible they would be is another question. Would Saudi Arabia feel reassured under an American nuclear umbrella? A Pakistani nuclear umbrella? Would such an exercise in “extended deterrence” make sense to Americans?

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