Can the world live with a nuclear Iran? Just a few years ago, the answer seemed clear. The United States “will not tolerate” the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, President George W. Bush famously intoned back in 2002. Eight years later, however, America’s stance on the issue is considerably less settled. Like its predecessor, the Obama administration still publicly opposes the idea of an Iranian bomb. But quietly, the policy consensus in official Washington appears to be shifting toward the idea that the emergence of a nuclear Iran would be a manageable - even benign - event. In recent weeks, a rash of articles and expert commentaries in such publications as The Washington Post, theNew York Timesand Foreign Affairshave floated the idea that, just like the Soviet Union in its day, a nuclear Iran can, in fact, be successfully contained and deterred.
But can it? A closer examination of Iranian ideology and of the dynamics of deterrence offers ample reason for skepticism that, when it comes to nuclear possession, Tehran will, in fact, behave just like Moscow.
For one thing, deterrence and containment aren’t automatic, and nuclear possession is not necessarily stabilizing. Policymakers today tend to forget that the “balance of terror” that dominated relations between Washington and Moscow in the latter decades of the Cold War was preceded by about 15 years of bilateral crises that brought the world perilously close to nuclear annihilation. This instability had a great deal to do with the immaturity of both the United States and the Soviet Union, which back then were novice nuclear possessors uncertain of how to wield - and manage - their newfound atomic clout. Only later did Moscow and Washington (and subsequently, Beijing) manage to strike some sort ofmodus vivendi. Until they did, the world was a very dangerous place.
The Middle East is likely to go the same way. That is because, in the seven years since Iran’s nuclear program broke out into the open, a veritable arms race has broken out in its neighborhood. Today, more than a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa are known to be seeking some level of nuclear capability, and most - despite their public protestations - are doing so in response to the emerging Iranian bomb. The geopolitical jockeying among these nearly nuclear states, and between them and a newly nuclear-armed Iran, is likely to make the Middle East a dramatically more dangerous place in the years ahead.
For another, the basic conditions for a stable deterrence relationship between Washington and Tehran simply don’t exist. The sine qua non of real containment is the ability of the United States to shape how a nuclear Iran behaves under any and all circumstances. Here, the comforting comparisons between the Soviet Union and the Islamic republic fall flat. During the Cold War, the U.S. government and its Soviet counterpart communicated regularly, interacted extensively and, as a result, had a clear idea of each other’s political “red lines.” By contrast, despite the Obama administration’s best efforts at “engagement,” our contacts with Iran’s leadership are sporadic and ad hoc and have yielded little insight into its strategic culture.
Nor can Iran’s leaders be expected to behave in the same way Soviet elites would in the event of a crisis. “The Soviets were radical, but they were rational,” former CIA Director R. James Woolsey is fond of pointing out. “They didn’t believe in the next life, so they wanted to live well in this one.” By contrast, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk believe that Iran is engaged in a “civilizational war” against the West that will bring about the second coming of the Islamic messiah - and they say so openly.
None of that necessarily means Iran is a suicide state. To the contrary, more than a few Iranian politicians (including former President and current Assembly of Experts and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) are known to be notoriously pragmatic. So, too, is the vibrant opposition to clerical rule that has emerged since this past summer’s fraudulent presidential vote. What it does suggest, however, is that at least one segment of the Iranian leadership is not in fact seeking to avoid conflict with the West and may actually welcome it. And that demolishes the assumption that the U.S. can expect to successfully deter the Iranian regime under any conceivable conflict scenario.
Most of all, the current embrace of containment presupposes two things previously antithetical to American policy. The first is the existence of some level of a nuclear weapons capability in the hands of Iran’s ayatollahs, since the principle of “mutual assured destruction” requires both countries to have strategic arsenals. In order for deterrence and containment to kick in, in other words, America must first be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. Second, and related, is Washington’s acquiescence to the logical consequence of such a nuclearization - an expanded sphere of influence for the Islamic republic in the Middle East.
Until recently, neither option was palatable to the United States. That it is now speaks volumes about the sorry state of U.S. strategy toward Iran. None of which should blind policymakers in Washington to the fact that the rise of a radical, nuclear-armed regional hegemon in the Middle East would constitute a major setback for international security and for long-term American interests. Adopting a policy of containment would only serve to make such an outcome more likely.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.