Nuclear deterrence makes it unnecessary to attack in order to prevent Iran from starting a nuclear war. The evidence of this is abundant but seldom recognized as the crisis over Iran’s weapons escalates.
During the cold war the US was opposed by Russia and China, two nuclear-armed regimes that together possessed tens of thousands of nuclear missiles and were just as determined to crush democracy and economic freedom as the current regime in Tehran. What restrained them, as it would restrain a nuclear Iran now, was the overwhelming nuclear deterrent of the US.
Add to the thousands of US nuclear warheads the hundreds possessed by Iran’s neighbor Israel. Any nuclear attack on Israel or American forces anywhere in the world would doom Iran to catastrophic and irredeemable destruction. Of course, some would argue that what makes the Iranian regime more dangerous than a cold-war Russia or China is its religious extremism, which glorifies martyrdom.
This line of reasoning confuses the sacrifice of the faithful and credulous with the careful ways in which Iran’s rulers have avoided risks to their personal survival and the survival of the regime.
Annihilation is not in their interest, and avoiding annihilation is not a hard calculation to make. The obviousness and certainty of the destruction mean not that an Iranian nuclear capability is unimportant, but that it can’t be used.
The best argument from those who urge that Iran must be stopped from acquiring a nuclear weapon at all costs is not that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will launch nuclear war. It’s that after acquiring nuclear weapons, Iranian political and military leaders might make miscalculations about how far to push their adversaries with their newfound capabilities. But this is not so much an argument for a pre-emptive strike as evidence of the need for strategic dialogue and restraint among all the parties.
At this point it is far from clear that it will be possible to prevent an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. If it is possible, it will come about only if the leaders and peoples of the region and the US calmly and rationally assess not only the enormous economic, diplomatic, and human costs of such an attack but the strengths that flow from rejecting it.
The author is W.M. Keck Foundation professor of International Strategic Studies and director of the Center for Human Rights Leadership at Claremont McKenna College.