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Why Iran Shouldn’t Get the Bomb

By: Se Hwan Youn "Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us," said U.S. President Kennedy who envisioned a world with twenty or so nuclear-weapon states by the mid-1960s.

Many U.S. politicians as well as International Relations scholars shared this gloomy sentiment about the future, believing that nuclear technology would eventually spread around the world and become an essential part of future conflicts. The empirical reality does not fit such a doomsday scenario, however, as the number of nuclear weapon-states has remained in the one-digit range. Still, the destructive nature of nuclear weapons have raised the cost of conflict to unacceptably high levels such that nuclear weapon states no longer deter by showing the ability to repel an attack from their adversaries but by demonstrating the specter of devastation. This belief that a nuclear strike is a harbinger of the future conflicts has continued to manifest itself in various form of argument among International Relations scholars.

In an article for the July/August 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Waltz, a prominent International Relations scholar, claimed that a nuclear-armed Tehran would restore stability to the Middle East. Waltz (2012) claims that power begs to be balanced in the Middle East between Israel and Iran and asserts that “the United States and its allies need not take such pains to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.” The logic behind this counterintuitive and somewhat provocative argument is that once both Israel and Iran are equipped with nuclear weapons, either side can inflict the adversary immeasurable cost such that nuclear deterrence will kick in and stabilize the region. The principle of nuclear deterrence, as Betts (1987:3) explains, is to give the adversary “a window into the future, a view of what he would, or at least might, suffer if he were to provoke war” in order to prevent him from tempting fate.

Therefore, Waltz predicts that both Iran and Israel would prefer to remain deterred from each other than endure the punishment that could be inflicted.

If what Waltz predicts actually happens, that would be wonderful. Yet, his prediction does not fully capture alternative possibilities. As Waltz notes, Iran’s proliferation effort is primarily driven by its desire to repel an external security threat; however, his claim that Iran does not intend to improve its offensive capabilities comes with misleading implications. Even if we relax the assumption that the Iranian leaders are irrational “mad mullahs,” once it obtains the bomb, Iran is likely play the nuclear card aggressively if the U.S. and Israel do not provide credible negative security guarantees of not attacking Iran. Even though sending nuclear blackmails may not have been a determining factor in the Iranian leaders’ calculus for proliferation, Iran is going to examine the effectiveness of nuclear coercion by initiating a low-level conflict. This behavior then invites the stability-instability paradox where strategic stability created by nuclear deterrence undermines the stability of the region by making lower-levels of violence more likely.

In the world of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the defender with second-strike capabilities can inflict unacceptable damage on the attacker after absorbing a first strike. When both countries are locked in MAD, the Iranian behavior like this is possible; as nuclear deterrence theorist Robert Powell (1990:15) explains, even though the threat of a preemptive nuclear strike can never be credible in the strictest interpretation of mutually assured destruction, threat credibility flows from a set of limited options that would deliberately “raise the risk of the crisis going out of the control” if exercised. A nuclear-armed Tehran will find this strategy of brinkmanship increasingly attractive and no one can accurately assess the full ramifications of the future Iranian brinkmanship at the moment.

In short, whether a nuclear-armed Tehran will stabilize the region is highly questionable. Even though there must be no preventive strike from a nuclear power during the transition period when a nonnuclear state, Iran, is building a nuclear weapon, asymmetric advantages created by nuclear proliferation will likely result in a preventive or preemptive strike by Israel. Also, in order for deterrence to operate, both Iran and Israel must have a high capability for second-strike survivability so that either side can retaliate if attacked first. Without carefully addressing these issues, broaching the possibility of “allowing” Iran to develop a bomb and claiming the future stability of the region based on the basic tenets of rational deterrence theory are both premature and dangerous.

Se Hwan Youn is a senior at Emory studying international security. As a South Korean student, he is heavily interested in the security landscape of the Korean peninsula. Also, he studies the issues related to nuclear proliferation, crisis bargaining, and international institutions.

Works Cited

Betts, Richard. 1987. Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution

Powell, Robert. 1990. Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Waltz, Kenneth N. "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb." Foreign Affairs. June 15, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2012.

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