Can a Nuclear-Armed Iran Be Deterred?

By Etzioni, Amitai | Military Review, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

Can a Nuclear-Armed Iran Be Deterred?


Etzioni, Amitai, Military Review


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INCREASING EVIDENCE THAT Iran has embarked on a course that will lead it to develop nuclear arms in the near future has reintensified the debate about the ways the world should react to such a danger. Questions concerning ways to deal with the proliferation of nuclear arms are of course not limited to Iran, but also include other nations or groups that might employ nuclear arms, especially North Korea and terrorists.

Four possible responses are commonly discussed in dealing with Iran: engagement, sanctions, military strikes, and deterrence. Engagement has been tried, especially since the onset of the Obama administration (and previously by European governments) but so far has not yielded the desired results. Sanctions are deemed an unreliable tool, as some nations, especially China, have so far refused to authorize them. Also, sanctions, in the past, have often been readily circumvented and have not generated the sought-after effect, even when imposed on nations that are more vulnerable than Iran, such as Cuba and Syria. And sanctions may help solidify the regime in place and subdue democratic opposition. Military strikes are said to be likely to fail. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated on 13 April 2009, "Militarily, in my view, it [a bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities] would delay the Iranian program for some period of time, but only delay it, probably only one to three years."

Hence the growing interest in deterrence, that is, in tolerating a nuclear-armed Iran but keeping it at bay by threatening retaliation in kind should it use its nuclear weapons. Although the Obama administration has not formally embraced this position, several observers believe that this is the direction it is headed. Indeed, a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Thailand on 22 July 2009 was understood as implying such an approach. She stated, "If the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon." In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on 5 March 2010, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Advisor, also called for such an umbrella as the way to deal with Iran.

Retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command, put it as follows: "We need to make it very clear to the Iranians, the same way we made it clear to the Soviet Union and China that their first use ofnuclear weapons would result in the devastation of their nation. I don't believe Iran is a suicide state. Deterrence will work with Iran."

Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, a Washington Post columnist, and a frequent TV commentator, is a leading advocate of deterrence. In his article "Don't Scramble the Jets," he argues that Iran's religious leaders comprise a "canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite," and that military dictatorships like the one that is now forming in Iran "are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves alive and in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work." Among academics, Columbia University professor Kenneth Waltz has written that "It would be strange if Iran did not strive to get nuclear weapons, and I don't think we have to worry if they do. Because deterrence has worked 100 percent of the time. After all, we have deterred big nuclear powers like the Soviet Union and China. So sleep well."

A State Department official, who asked that his name not be used, pointed out that the United States is already providing to its allies in the Middle East countermeasures, such as positioning batteries of Patriot missiles, that might be employed to discourage Iran from using its nukes--but not from acquiring them.

In the following paragraphs, I focus on the question of whether deterrence might work and, if not, what kind of military strike--if any--could have the required effect. …

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