Balance of deterrence, or a catastrophe?

The world has to prepare itself for a proliferated Iran

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Balance of deterrence, or a catastrophe?
by Tina Ehrami
02-Oct-2009
 

After several years of IAEA inspections, accusations of a clandestine production of nuclear arms, UN security council sanctions and even threats of preemptive strikes, Iran continues its nuclear program. The question remains whether the possibility of Iran joining the Middle East nuclear arms family would destabilize the region. Or would it stabilize the balance of deterrence and with that only empower Iran’s position without causing a security threat to Israel and the US interests in the region? This review essay focuses on these questions and provides a critical analysis on these issues.

Iran’s nuclear program

After the Islamic revolution Iran receives help from other nuclear weapons states such as Russia, China and India to reconstruct its nuclear facilities.[i] In August 2002 an Iranian opposition group called the National Council of Resistance of Iran discloses a secret nuclear facility in Natanz. This results in a request of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Iran to inspect its facilities, since Iran is a signatory of the Non-proliferation Treaty. The IAEA report showed that Iran had been pursuing a uranium enrichment program for 18 years and a laser enrichment program for 12 years.[ii]

The disclosure of Iran’s clandestine nuclear developments, and the character of the nuclear activities caused a general sense of distrust with other NPT signatories and states who feared the outcome of Iran becoming a nuclear arms actor in the region.[iii] Especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York and the famous “Axis of Evil” speech of president George W. Bush during his State of the Union Address, Iran was being accused of producing nuclear weapons.[iv]

Additionally, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad gives the “war on terror” foremen more reason to fear the result of Iran acquiring nuclear arms. The thought of these actors having access to nuclear weapons is a scenario that poses an existential threat to Israel and US interests in the Middle East region.[v]

While diplomacy with Iran shifts from a “assisting” to a more hostile and even threatening tone, Iran’s decision makers use the same rhetoric and threaten their opponents in return. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi even declares that Iran will retaliate with force against Israel or any nation that attempts a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear program. [vi] On 18 September 2004 the IAEA unanimously adopts a resolution calling on Iran to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment. Two years later however Iran’s president Mahmood Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has enriched uranium to reactor-grade using 164 centrifuges. [vii]

Speculations about Iran’s nuclear program and whether it aims at acquiring nuclear weapons are answered in 2007 when the U.S. Intelligence Community released a National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003, but "is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."[viii] A year later the UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1803 - the third sanction resolution on Iran which extends financial sanctions to additional banks, extends travel bans to additional persons and bars exports to Iran of nuclear- and missile-related dual-use items.[ix]

A series of “robust threats” marks the period of 2005 to 2009. An example is the Iranian president’s speech during the “World without Zionism conference” saying that “Israel should be wiped out of the world map”.[x] President Ahmadinejad repeatedly denies the holocaust, which both alarms the US and Israeli government. As a reaction, US Vice President Joseph Biden states in an interview with ABC News in July 2009 that the United States would not stop an Israeli attack on Iran.[xi] At which Mohammad Ali Jafari, Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief, answers that if Israel attacked Iran, Iran would strike Israel's nuclear facilities with their missiles[xii].

Nuclear proliferation

However Iran constantly stresses the aim of its nuclear program to be for peaceful purposes only, many states fear Iran is acquiring nuclear arms. According to Ambassador Javad Zarif ..“the predominant view among Iranian decision-makers is that development, acquisition or possession of nuclear weapons would only undermine Iranian security. Viable security for Iran can be attained only through inclusion and regional and global engagement.”[xiii]

In contrast to what Ambassador Zarif states on Iran’s nuclear policy, it is likely that from a defensive rationalist perspective, Iran would have to obtain nuclear arms when considering its security position in the Middle East region. Like any other country Iran feels the need to secure itself in a hostile region and could very easily continue its “policy of concealment” in order to obtain nuclear weapons in the future.

In an article written by Zanvyl Krieger and Ariel Ilan Roth[xiv] they elaborate on Kenneth Waltz’s theory of defensive realism. They state the following:

“… according to Waltz, one of the main engines for war is uncertainty regarding outcomes and because the immense destruction that can come as a result of a nuclear exchange can be fully anticipated, it is never rational to engage in a war where the possibility of a nuclear exchange exists. Consequently, as Waltz forcefully argues, “the probability of major war among states having nuclear weapons approaches zero.”

Taking Waltz’s theory into account, it would be a very realistic to consider the need of Iran to proliferate. In addition, there are the lessons from the past that would provide incentives for Iran to obtain nuclear arms as well. Iran learned, during the 1980s Iran–Iraq War that for deterrence to operate, the threatening state must be confronted with the certainty of an equivalent response. Thus in order to deter Israel with the certainty of an equivalent response, it would be sound security policy for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps only for reasons of “arms control”.[xv]

Different views

For the US the thought of Iran obtaining nuclear arms and by doing so strengthening its role in the Middle East has become very alarming. Its most important issues regarding this matter are: the security of Israel, the status of Iraq and the security of Middle East's oil. Iran obtaining nuclear weapons will be a downright catastrophe for U.S. interests in the Middle East.[xvi]

From an Israeli perspective Iran’s current nuclear development is aimed at balancing other nuclear regional threats, and deterring Israel. However, beyond deterrence, Iran is issuing threats to Israel. Iranian nuclearization creates a major existential threat to Israel. In turn, Israeli efforts against Iranian nuclearization and the implied military threats to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities have brought upon more Iranian hostility toward Israel. After repeated declarations by Iranian leaders that Israel should disappear from the map Israel emphasized its second strike capability for mutual deterrence stability.[xvii] Iran however does not have a second strike capability. Therefore it would not be likely for Iran to attack either the U.S or Israel, from a rational point of view.[xviii]

Conclusion

Analyzing Iran’s non-conformation with the IAEA sanctions, the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions and EU-3 diplomacy, one would have to conclude that Iran has no intention to limit or alter its nuclear program. The repeated disclosures of several clandestine nuclear programs also show that Iran has no intention to show its cards to the international community. Its policy of secrecy, combined with its support of Hezbollah and threats towards Israel have alarmed the region and states that have interests in the region.[xix]

The possibility of Iran secretly acquiring nuclear weapons is based on rational deliberation, especially from a defensive realist point of view.[xx] Therefore, it would be rational to consider the effects of the outcome of that situation. According to Waltz’s theory, Iran’s proliferation would only bring stability in its relations with other nuclear states. But the dimension of Iran’s support to Hezbollah complicates the matter, since Hezbollah is a non-state actor and does not have a state to consider its security options, in case of deterrence. Thus having a nuclear Iran, with its current regime (that support Hezbollah) would cause an existential threat to Israel and empower Iran in its strategic position in the Middle East region.

Current sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, since Iran has more interest in preserving the status quo.[xxi] Another reason why the sanctions will not cause Iran to stop its nuclear program is the character of the sanctions itself. These will never directly threaten Iran’s core interest: the export of petroleum and gas, since the international community has been unwilling to impose sanctions that will harm energy trade between Iran and other capitals. [xxii]

Therefore one could conclude that the world has to prepare itself for a proliferated Iran and focus on Iran’s support to terrorist groups that could harm the stability between nuclear states. Engaging in equal diplomacy and accepting Iran’s nuclear program could perhaps make space for negotiations to shift towards mutual interests in guarding stability in the Middle East region. A proliferated Hezbollah could just as well cause harm to Iran as much as it could attack Israel or other nations in the region or outside the region.

[i] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[ii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[iii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[iv] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[v] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[vi] The Associated Press. 2004. Iran repeats warning against attacking nuclear facilities

Available at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1079941.html

[vii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[viii] National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council. 2007. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities

[ix] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1803, 3 March 2008

Available at: http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/IaeaIran/unsc...

[x] Fathi, N. 2005. Text of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. New York Times

Availbale at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/weekinreview/30i...

[xi] BBC News. 2009. Biden strikes tough note on Iran

Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8135414.stm

[xii]Haaretz. 2009. Iran: If Israel attacks us, we’ll hit its nuclear sites

Available at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1102705.html

[xiii] Zarif, H.E. 2005. An Unnecessary Crisis- Setting the Record Straight about Iran's Nuclear Program. New York Times

[xiv] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xv] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[xvi] Moss, K.B. 2009. Defining strategic priorities: Ballistic missile defense, Iran and relation with major powers. Mediterranean Quarterly, 20 (1) pp.31-51

[xvii] Kam, E. 2008. Israel and a nuclear Iran: Implications for arms control, deterrence and defense. Institute of National Security Studies

[xviii] Zaborski, J. 2005. Deterring a nuclear Iran. The Washington Quarterly, 28(3) pp. 153–167.

[xix] Kam, E. 2008. Israel and a nuclear Iran: Implications for arms control, deterrence and defense. Institute of National Security Studies

[xx] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review, 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xxi] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review, 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xxii] Shen, D. 2008. Can sanctions stop proliferation? The Washington Quarterly, 31 (3) pp. 89-100

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Tina Ehrami

@ JJ: "Will the IRI

by Tina Ehrami on

@ JJ: "Will the IRI actually wipe Israel off the map in a nuclear attack? I don't see how the answer could be yes. The leaders of the Islamic Republic are crazy and reckless. That's true. But crazy enough to start nuclear war? I don't think so." - My point exactly!

@ Ahmed from Bahrein: "I therefore conclude that nukes in the hands of Israel is more dangerous than Iran." -Theory on strategic studies proves otherwise. See Waltz's theory as mentioned in the article.

@ Ostaad: "What does "Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad" have anything to do with the alleged eventuality that Iran will build nukes and it will carelessly and madly spread them around the first chance it gets?!!!" -The answer is: historical patterns! Iran has supported these non-state actors with arms in the past, for whatever purpose. Their purpose is not within the scope of my research question, their behavior on the other hand is! When these non-state actors acquire nuclear arms, they will obtain force of deterrence. The absence of a state in this relation will allow them to start nuclear warfare with their targeted enemies, because they wouldn't have to fear retaliation, since they don't have a single state to consider security options for; there is no balance of power then.

 @Examiner: "It is a shame to see some intellectually handicapped Iranians willingly propagate the agenda of warmongers. Our justifiable disgust toward the horror inflicted on our fellow countrymen is no excuse for aiding and abetting enemies of Iran." -I have based my arguments on theories of strategic studies and arms control. Your assumptions however are based on obscure "underbelly emotions" and IRI propaganda. So I'm sorry, that makes YOU "intellectually handicapped", not me!


Examiner

What is being “wiped off the map”?

by Examiner on


Regurgitating the crap western propaganda agencies feed their public in order to brainwash the clueless and win their support for yet another war of aggression is no “critical analysis”.

It is a shame to see some intellectually handicapped Iranians willingly propagate the agenda of warmongers. Our justifiable disgust toward the horror inflicted on our fellow countrymen is no excuse for aiding and abetting enemies of Iran.

What we need is an authentic critical analysis that goes beyond the headlines, stereotypes and mistranslations in order to educate us about the conflict we – not only as Iranians but also as world citizens– face today: A conflict rooted in diminishing natural resources, degrading environment and collapsing empires, that has provided a golden opportunity for both extortionist powers and populist demagogues.

This one has clearly failed us. 


Ostaad

I have a question and a comment...

by Ostaad on

What does "Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad" have anything to do with the alleged eventuality that Iran will build nukes and it will carelessly and madly spread them around the first chance it gets?!!! I have seen references to Iran's support for the Hezb and Hamas to resist and to defeat Israel's savage attacks on their civilian population, civilian installations and occupation of their homeland as a "sign" that Iran will simply offer and/or give its non-existing nukes to anyone who asks in order to "wipe Israel off the map"!  Curiously such innuendos are rarely backed up by any evidence or solid analysis.

Iran has no obligation to "conform" nor comply with the UNSC diktats. Iran has from the beginning declared its intention not to comply with such resolutions because it has justifiably determined the UNSC sanctions were dictated and imposed as the result of political pressure on that UN body in order to bring Iran to its knees. Iran has consistently argued that the IAEA is the sole international body legally empowered to deal with the its members' nuclear issues including Iran's legal and open nuclear program, not the UNSC where a few countries have veto powers. 

The fact is Iran is has been cooperating with the IAEA for years, and NO relevant international body that is legally empowered to deal with matters related to the NPT has ever proved Iran has violated ANY of its NPT obligations. Iran may have not, and should have not, behaved the way certain countries that are mainly its enemies have expected. But any Iranian government, good or bad, has a huge obligation to the Iranian people to protect Iran's military and/or political interests whether some "powers" like it or not. This is NOT a popularity context and the author's so-called analysis seems to miss that crucial point all together.

I am not at all sure what Iran's support for Hezbollah has anything to do with its civilian nuclear program. As far as that issue is concerned Iran's achievement to train and equip a bunch of Lebanese villages to stand up to, defeat, and kick out the most viscous army, the Zionist army, that occupied their homeland to subjugate them, and to steal their irrigation water for their own use is a BIG feather in Iran's hat that rivals Cyrus's emancipation of the Jews from Babylon in the annals of Iran history.

Iran may have made many mistakes and it may be suffering under an un-democratic and utterly despotic regime, but helping the Hezbollah to defeat the Zionists has been beneficial to keep the Apartheid regime and other Iran enemies from firming their positions to attack Iran.


Ahmed from Bahrain

Amore serious question should be

by Ahmed from Bahrain on

asked: Why some have the right to have nukes and others do not?

It is often said that Iran presents a threat to world peace but others don't, yet we all know that the US has actually used nukes. I also strongly believe that Hizbolla presents no threat whatsoever to any world peace or lack of it.

Huzbolla is a local resistance that came into being as a result of Israeli incursion into south Lebanon.Their activity is limited to their territory despite what other claim, yet Israeli activity is based on expansion. It is the only country with no defined borders,as it has big eyes on taking more real estate from other neighboring countries. Its history is testimony to this: Golan Heights, Sinai Sheba Valley, Jerusalem and part of what used to be Jordan; not to speak of over 80% of what used to be Palestine - now they are negotiating on the remaining 21% o which a bandustan state is becoming even more like a mirage or Palestinians - and increasingly for Obama!.

I therefore conclude that nukes in the hands of Israel is more dangerous than Iran. Besides if Iran ever uses nukes for whatever reason, that is assuming they get it, then they will be really baked to cinders by the US.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

The world needs to make a serious attempt at ridding humanity from such dreadful WMD, including all chemical weapons.

Ahmed from Bahrain


benross

Excellent

by benross on

It seems to me that there is another dimension of IRI pursue of nuclear weapons (or one screwdriver away from having one as they put it) that should be explored. A nuclear power IRI will not attack Israel. It does the same thing all other proliferated countries do. Enhancing their position in regional and global balance of power.

But for an anachronistic regime that sees and expects the constant threat to its own existence by its own people and being prepared and suppressing the threat of its own people was one of its basic duties from its conception, the proliferation and its impact on balance of power, above all, is a formidable tool to continue repressing its own people with impunity.


Jahanshah Javid

Excellent analysis

by Jahanshah Javid on

You covered the most important points with sound reasoning. One of them, which is the key here, is what would happen if the Islamic Republic DOES build nuclear weapons. This is the most important issue in the whole conflict. Does that mean it will use it? Will the IRI actually wipe Israel off the map in a nuclear attack? I don't see how the answer could be yes. The leaders of the Islamic Republic are crazy and reckless. That's true. But crazy enough to start nuclear war? I don't think so. Since the invention of the nuclear bomb, there have been a lot crazier world leaders who have built nuclear arsenals and none have dared to strike first. And neither will the loudmouth cowards ruling Iran.

This is all if we assume Iran is building nuclear bombs. An assumption that has moved into the realm of solid fact by force of fear and propaganda. Even the IRI itself is doing everything it can to undermine its own credibility and create deep suspicions about its activities and intentions.

I'm deeply worried about the outcome of "pre-emptive" strikes on Iran's nuclear centers. I think it will make everything inside Iran and the entire Middle East ten times worse. Internally, the IRI has become severely weakened and only a crisis blamed firmly on foreign powers will save it from falling apart.