Iran and the limits of deterrence

Deterrence would become the default response if Iran were not ultimately prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but neither the Cold War nor the South Asian experience offers much hope that stability would ensue.

While serious diplomacy to prevent weaponization in Iran has far from run its course, the possibility that prevention will fail still looms and leads inevitably to thoughts of deterrence.[i]

Deterrence, the argument goes, has “worked” to prevent nuclear use by nuclear powers that are much more formidable than Iran will ever be.[ii] If a nuclear armed Iran cannot be prevented, it can at least be deterred.

The resort to deterrence is especially argued by opponents of a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that a military confrontation would actually push Iran into taking the remaining overt step – from mastering weapons-relevant fuel cycle technologies to actually building a weapon. Besides radically destabilizing the region and almost certainly leading to escalating warfare, another Western attack on the Muslim heartland, by Israel and/or the United States, would actually guarantee the outcome that is ostensibly to be prevented by such action.[iii] As the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, put it in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, a direct attack would be the one action most “likely to drive Iran into taking the final decision to acquire nuclear weapons.”[iv]

So deterrence becomes the fallback position, but, as the Cold War amply demonstrated, nuclear deterrence does not deliver stability. While the absence of deliberate Soviet and American nuclear attacks can be attributed to deterrence, their nuclear arsenals went from a few hundred to 70,000 combined, all in the interests of building more credible deterrents. Deterrence produces arms races, and there was a lot more blind luck than strategy in the Cold War’s avoidance of the accidental or mistaken launch of some of those bombs.

In south Asia, even though India and Pakistan are both formally committed to minimum deterrence doctrines, a dangerous arms race is underway. Both states are building up their weapons arsenals and stockpiles of fissile materials for weapons purposes far beyond any deterrent requirement. The region remains unstable and both sides continue to engage in risky behaviour toward each other. The threat of mutually assured destruction did not prevent the two states from coming to direct blows in the 1999 fighting in the Kargil district of Kashmir. Ongoing confrontation between them heightens the risk of a miscalculation that boxes one or the other side into nuclear use.

Deterring direct Iranian nuclear use is feasible, but the deliberate use of a nuclear weapon is not the most immediate threat that would emanate from a nuclear armed Iran.

There is zero chance that a nuclear-armed Iran would become part of a stable deterrence system in the wider Middle East. Iran’s arsenal would create irresistible pressures on others in the region to respond in kind (e.g.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt). Heightened tensions among rival states given to risky behaviour would mean a dangerously high risk of accidental use or of political miscalculations leading to use.

Furthermore, a mini arms race in the Middle East would end all hope of significant reductions in the arsenals of the major powers. Imagine the reaction of the US Congress to Iran being in possession of even a few warheads. All political support in the US for ratifying the test ban treaty would vanish, as would support for any effort to follow-up the 2010 New START agreement with new reductions. Ballistic Missile Defence advocacy would go into high gear, putting paid to further arms control cooperation with Russia.

Deterrence is a superior option to immediate attack, but it is no substitute for diplomacy. Long-term stability in the Middle East depends, as the 190 states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have unanimously and repeatedly concluded, on the region becoming free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction. That is the job of diplomacy – diplomacy that will reach a sharply higher level of urgency if Iran is not prevented from building a nuclear weapon.


[i] Fareed Zakaria, “Deterring Iran is the best option,” Washington Post, 14 March 2012.

Paul Heinbecker, “Inside the Issues,” Centre for International Governance Innovation.

[ii] James Dobbins, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Frederic Wehrey, “Coping With a Nuclearizing Iran,” Rand Corporation, National Security Research Division, 2011.

[iii] Fredrik Dahl, “Could bombing Iran push it to build the Bomb?” Reuters, 28 Mar 28 2012.

[iv] Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, “The Only Option on Iran,” New York Times, 20 March 2012.

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