One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the ongoing WikiLeaks fiasco is that Arab leaders, including Saudi King Abdullah, have been banging the drums of war, calling for American preventive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Yet calls for military force are based on incorrect assertions about what the world would look like if Iran built nuclear weapons.
Advocates of the military option routinely make two claims. The first is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to blackmail its neighbors. The second is that other countries would be forced to capitulate to Iran’s demands. Both assumptions are wrong.
Nukes and threats: what history shows
A close look at the history of the nuclear age shows that countries with nuclear weapons are neither more likely to make coercive threats nor more likely to succeed in blackmailing their adversaries. Nuclear powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union certainly made numerous threats after they acquired nuclear weapons. But so did Libya, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Venezuela, and dozens of other countries that did not possess the bomb. Nuclear weapons are not a prerequisite for engaging in military blackmail.
Further, there is scant evidence that possessing the bomb makes coercive threats more successful when they are made. Nuclear weapons did not help the United States compel North Korea to release the USS Pueblo and its crew in 1968. Israeli coercive threats backed by the implicit threat of nuclear war failed against Syria prior to the 1982 Lebanon War, just as British threats against Argentina in 1982 were unable to compel the return of the Falkland Islands, despite Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons.
If history is any guide, the acquisition of nuclear weapons will not embolden Iran to blackmail its neighbors. This does not mean that Iran will refrain from threatening its neighbors if it builds the bomb. Tehran has threatened other states in the Middle East in the past and it will probably do so again in the future. Building nuclear weapons, however, is not likely to accelerate the rate at which Iran makes coercive threats.
Would a nuclear-armed Iran have more success blackmailing its neighbors? The historical record suggests not. For example, during the 20th century, Britain made successful threats against Germany, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and others before acquiring nuclear weapons in 1952. Since acquiring the bomb, however, it has made only one successful threat, as part of a NATO coalition against the Bosnian Serbs in 1994.
Many hardliners say Iran’s ideological fervor makes it unique. US officials voiced similar concerns about Mao’s China in the early 1960s. But nuclear weapons did not embolden China. Iran today is certainly different from China in the 1960s, but policymakers would do well to remember that apocalyptic fears about nuclear proliferation are not new.
This is not to say that the United States should ignore Iran’s efforts to get the bomb. A nuclear-armed Iran could undermine international security by raising the risk of accidental nuclear war and terrorist acquisition of the bomb.
Is military force really necessary?
However, it is important that US officials recognize that worst-case arguments about Iran are unlikely to materialize. If policymakers are considering preventive strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities because they fear that acquiring nuclear weapons will embolden Tehran and enhance its coercive leverage, they need to reconsider whether military force is necessary.
We should be careful to avoid the twin mistakes of inflating the Iranian threat and downplaying the dangers of military strikes. The United States and its allies should be resolved to curtail Iran’s nuclear program by supporting harsher economic sanctions, but they should not panic and take risky military gambles. Hysteria about nuclear weapons and blackmail is wrong – and potentially dangerous.
Matthew Fuhrmann is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Todd S. Sechser is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia.