Iran: Radical, But Not Crazy

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Last month Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that Iran was turning into a “military dictatorship,” as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was steadily assuming more and more power within the country. The image of Iran as a threatening and militarized nation, ruled by an irrational regime and intent on destroying Israel, would become even more ominous if Iran were to join the nuclear club.

While experts are divided on how long it will take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and the capability to deliver it reliably, many believe that the U.S. today could easily shoot down any missile aimed at Israel before it got 100 meters off the ground. Nonetheless, a nuclear armed Iran is no longer just a paranoid possibility - it now  seems a realistic probability.

Over the past 65 years, the world has learned to live with an increasing number of countries armed with nuclear weapons. During the early years of the Cold War, when the U.S. had an overwhelming nuclear superiority and the more extreme strategists urged pre-emptive strikes, some American and Soviet analysts believed that sooner or later the superpowers, by accident or by calculation, would end up in a nuclear war. While there were many false alarms triggering full alerts, thankfully no mistakes were made and no bombs fell.

Both superpowers fought deadly and protracted conventional wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But both clearly avoided direct military conflict, fearing nuclear escalation. Americans and Soviets established open communications about military maneuvers and actions so that neither side would mistakenly assume that it was about to be attacked by the other. As Soviet nuclear and missile delivery capabilities increased, the U.S. and Soviets were  locked into a balance of nuclear terror as neither party could use its weapons without suffering (with the rest of the world) massive nuclear retaliation. The fear of nuclear war might have been exaggerated in the public mind, but the foreign policies of the two superpowers remained coldly logical and realistic, especially after the near miss of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Today, all nine states that are known to have successfully tested nuclear weapons have never employed them in anger, except for their initial use against Japan to end the war in the Pacific in 1945. Rather than increasing the probability of war between nuclear powers, ironically, nuclear capability may have actually decreased the likelihood of conflict. Some  even argue that the mere possession of nuclear weapons "civilizes" the behavior of its holders. Nonetheless a nuclear armed Iran would be very destabilizing in the region.

To prevent a pre-emptive attack by an opponent, states try to communicate clearly that they will not resort to their own nuclear weapons unless they are first attacked. And a second strike capability reinforces the deterrent effect.  While in the past, overwhelming military superiority may have led states to try to compel behavior they sought in neighbors or adversaries, nuclear weapons are clearly better suited to instead deter unwanted behavior.

For the past 65 years, nuclear powers, even when provoked, have avoided increasing hostility against fellow nuclear club members. For example, the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai were seemingly planned and coordinated in Pakistan. Yet India did not  threaten Pakistan. In fact, the leaders of both countries intensified their diplomatic discourse. The same has held true for tensions between China and India.

But the situation becomes highly unpredictable when confronting so-called dirty bombs or “suitcase nukes” in the hands of terrorists with a fanatical state of mind and a death wish. Situations such as these clearly fall outside the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Will “rogue” states, such as North Korea, or states  that may be motivated by religious extremism, such as Iran, behave rationally and place national survival at the top of their foreign policy priorities?

Mao’s China was usually perceived in the West as irrational, unpredictable and inscrutable during the Cold War. An aggressive ideology - Communism - was believed to drive  its foreign policy. The great fear was that a nuclear China would force other nations, especially surrounding states, to capitulate or face  nuclear war. “Nuclear blackmail,” it was argued, would drive the states around China into the “Communist camp.”

History has shown this fear to have been unfounded. China behaved like all other nuclear powers and it has a rather rational, predictable and transparent foreign policy. Practicality and national interest have determined China’s foreign policy, not ideology. The key question is whether China’s behavior will also apply to a nuclear Iran. 

If Iran, as Secretary Clinton asserts, is moving toward a military dictatorship, it arguably might displace the religious fundamentalism of the current regime with more familiar patterns of praetorian rule. The IRGC, however, is not a regular army. It is more ideological and less pragmatic than the usual military, and it remains closely aligned with the clerical elite. Ahmadinejad himself is a former IRGC member, and he has reportedly transferred a large portion of Iranian state enterprises and other assets to IRGC control - consolidating its economic control and influence and undergirding its ability to potentially dominate internal Iranian politics and society.

But, one could still cautiously argue that soldiers who view the survival of their state as the fundamental imperative will give the consequences of a nuclear exchange a second thought. It is possible that Ahmadinejad is imprudent enough to actually provoke a nuclear exchange with Israel. However, the last thing the IRGC would want is a war they would lose. Indeed, the IRGC might even consider suspending the nuclear program if they were to realize that a nuclear weapons capability could decrease their control over Iranian society.

The world would clearly be better off if Iran did not possess nuclear weapons. Israelis know that populist national leaders can be dangerously irrational. Israel has bombed nuclear sites before, and describes a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. The Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, are deeply worried about an Iran with nuclear weapons and appear to be considering even closer ties with the U.S. and, astonishingly, Saudi Arabia is reportedly thinking of allowing Israeli military overflights to attack Iranian nuclear sites. But even Iran’s most extreme leaders would not want to risk destroying holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem with a nuclear weapon slightly off target from an attack on Tel Aviv.

Israeli military action targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities would also be highly destabilizing. It is unlikely that all of Iran’s nuclear sites would be destroyed and it would set back Iranian efforts by only a few years. More significantly, an Israeli strike would cause Iranians to rally around the flag and support the current regime and its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and give the regime a greater excuse to crack down on dissidents. Regardless of reality, the U.S. would be viewed as complicit, further compromising its role as peacemaker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. An upsurge in jihadist activity throughout the region would inevitably follow.

Israel will not easily accept the proposition that Iran will act like other nuclear powers and avoid the temptation to launch a suicidal nuclear attack. Iran may believe that Israel will surely attack its nuclear facilities. Instead of a Cold War analogy, this may be closer to a World War I situation where each side believes that the other will soon be attacking preemptively. The IRGC is a fairly decentralized organization. An IRGC commander could decide to launch an attack without consulting with his leadership in Tehran – potentially triggering an accidental nightmare scenario.

Israeli intransigence on the matter of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements is also seriously disrupting the Mideast peace process and the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much more destabilizing to the region than the prospect of Iranian nuclear arms. It energizes jihadist recruitment and flames resentment among millions.

In a world where the perfect is the enemy of the good, a containment and engagement policy, ideally coordinated with Russia, China and the EU, would probably work with Iran. The U.S. could extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel and to Arab states while expanding jointly approved international sanctions aimed at further restricting key aspects of Iranian trade – balancing these with continued diplomatic and other efforts to bring Iran into responsible regional and international engagement. As during the Cold War, a credible threat of nuclear retaliation for a nuclear attack by Iran on its neighbors can magnify the deterrent effect.

The clerical elites of Iran have not shown that they are driven by irrational ideology. They have been long on rhetoric but short in terms of probing action. They and the IRGC want first and foremost to maintain power and expand Iran’s image and role as a respected regional nation state with serious economic interests. Inviting pre-emptive attack or second-strike retaliation does neither.

As Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said last month, Iran is governed by radicals, but they are not “totally crazy.”

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.
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