Explained: Iran's Nuclear Calculus
Imagine this possible newsclip that could be coming very soon: the U.S. and Iran governments have reportedly struck a deal whereby Tehran promises to rein in uranium enrichment while Washington promises to ease sanctions. Enrichment yields a crucial building block for operable nuclear weapon—hence the West’s fixation on slowing or stopping the process. Take away the enriched uranium and you eradicate the Islamic Republic’s bombmaking capacity. Simple!
Or not. Nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran has dominated headlines in recent weeks, especially since firebrand Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Writing over at the New York Times, for instance, ex-UN ambassador John Bolton clamored for the Obama administration to bombard Iranian nuclear sites from the air. Bolton’s goal: to damage important nodes, delaying the program to gain time:
"An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran."
Bolton’s plea elicited the sort of response you might expect. Both camps, though, seem to have something in common, namely the idea that replacing Iran’s Islamic regime will temper its behavior, bolstering prospects for a nonnuclear Middle East. I’m not so sure. Who rules in Tehran may influence Iranian nuclear behavior less than we might think. If that’s true, it may make little difference whether an accord successfully postpones a nuclear bomb for a decade or Washington tries to oust the regime through military action. The end result: atomic Iran.
Think about it. The Islamic regime didn’t initiate Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran maintained nuclear ambiguity starting during the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi, unseated by the Islamic regime during the 1979 revolution. That is, the shah’s regime pursued covert nuclear research while making every effort at concealment. The Iranian nuclear program, then, has endured for four decades spanning two radically dissimilar regimes.
It’s telling that both the shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic forged ahead with a nuclear program entailing military applications. A universal logic of nuclear proliferation may govern states’ actions regardless of regime type. The decision to go nuclear, the type of regime that makes the decision, and the kind of strategy officialdom puts in place to harness nuclear weapons for political gain appears tenuous. If so, strategies aiming at regime change—forcible or pacific—may do little to reverse proliferation.
What accounts for the logic of nuclear strategy? Basic human motives. As we peer into the second nuclear age—an age not of symmetrical arms races like the Cold War, but of a multitude of nuclear actors at various stages of nuclear development—who better to consult than a long-dead Greek historian? Thucydides, the chronicler of the 5th-century-B.C. Peloponnesian War, proclaims that “three of the strongest motives” impelling human deeds are “fear, honor, and interest.”
States that disregard elemental motives, says the father of history, flout “the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” That hardscrabble law applies to all societies, no matter who rules them. Societies must arm or face the consequences.
Consider Thucydides’ motives in turn. The third, interest, is ostensibly tangible and quantifiable. By applying raw intellect, representatives of different societies and cultures will probably come up with the same list of interests and options for similar situations. Interests, resources, time—all these are part of the cost/benefit calculus. In the second nuclear age, interests seem to nudge new entrants into the nuclear club toward minimal deterrence. That’s a posture whereby governments construct the fewest bombs necessary to deter attack—and create maneuver space for themselves.
If so, that helps explain the continuity in Iranian nuclear strategy since the days of the shah. In the second nuclear age as in the first, cost/benefit logic exempts neither secular nor religious rulers. Thucydides’ other two drivers for states’ actions, honor and fear, color perceptions of interests and of the best ways to achieve them. Think about honor. Iranians across the political spectrum take pride in their nation’s grand past, for instance. Like other implements of war, nuclear weapons constitute a token of greatness. Great powers maintain nuclear arsenals, so Iran needs an arsenal to be great. QED.
Clerical rule grafts religious motives onto the pursuit of renown. Not only must Iran recover past glory, it must reinforce its claim to leadership within the Muslim world. A religious and a more secular Tehran would differ in certain respects, to be sure, but the desire for some form of modest nuclear arsenal would remain. Continuity would prevail in both calculations of interest and the thirst for dignity and prestige.
In Thucydidean terms, then, fear may act as the arbiter of future Iranian nuclear strategy. This primordial passion will shape how a clerical or a more secular Tehran sizes up the external threat environment, and in turn could beget different nuclear postures. A secular regime would presumably incline to routine power politics. It would be less prone to hype regional and global powers’ intent and capabilities. It would view a minimal nuclear posture as a buffer against rivals—and would likely content itself with a few nukes kept at fairly low readiness.
By contrast, a clerical regime that defines itself in opposition to the secular West would see hostile designs lurking everywhere. That would be doubly true should the West attempt forcible regime change—and fail.
A Tehran gripped by dread of outside menaces would obsess over the arsenal’s security. For instance, the leadership could try to make a nuclear reversal impossible. Fielding a sizable arsenal rather than just a few score weapons would be one option. It’s hard to take out lots of weapons from the air. Dispersing these weapons to hardened sites in rugged terrain, far inland, and thus away from seaborne air strikes would constitute another obvious step.
Cultivating ambiguity about the leadership’s redlines for using nuclear weapons would constitute yet another stratagem for Tehran. Deterrence would remain minimal, but fielding a robust force while keeping prospective opponents wondering would suit Tehran’s aims. As strategist Thomas Schelling notes, in power politics it’s sometimes an advantage for enemies to doubt whether you’re fully rational. You think twice before kicking a mad dog with big fangs.
Nuclear weapons, then, advance dual purposes—and will do so whoever rules in Tehran. They burnish national prestige while supplying top cover under which the regime can pursue its diplomatic, economic, and conventional military goals. These are compelling motives for mullahs and secular rulers alike. Thucydides would nod knowingly. If a nuclear pact delays the nuclear program for a decade, well and good. But we’d better use that respite to think ahead about how to live with an atomic Iran.