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The End of Deterrence By: S. Enders Wimbush
The Weekly Standard | Monday, January 15, 2007


If President Bush is persuaded by the Iraq Study Group to speak directly with Iran, he will be under strong pressure to cut a deal that makes Iran a significant partner in salvaging, at least temporarily, the mess in Iraq. For its quid pro quo in aiding America to come up with a face saving exit strategy, Iran will insist on a free hand to develop its "peaceful" nuclear power. One can almost hear the inevitable claims by those seeking to justify the president's giving ground on this issue. A nuclear Iran can be "managed" or deterred, we will hear; moreover, this is a good trade-off for extricating America from Iraq. President Bush should not be taken in. He must reject even the hint of compromise.

Iran is fast building its position as the Middle East's political and military hegemon, a position that will be largely unchallengeable once it acquires nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran will change all of the critical strategic dynamics of this volatile region in ways that threaten the interests of virtually everyone else. The outlines of some of these negative trends are already visible, as other actors adjust their strategies to accommodate what increasingly appears to be the emerging reality of an unpredictable, unstable nuclear power. Iran needn't test a device to shift these dangerous dynamics into high gear; that is already happening. By the time Iran tests, the landscape will have changed dramatically because everyone will have seen it coming.

The opportunities nuclear weapons will afford Iran far exceed the prospect of using them to win a military conflict. Nuclear weapons will empower strategies of coercion, intimidation, and denial that go far beyond purely military considerations. Acquiring the bomb as an icon of state power will enhance the legitimacy of Iran's mullahs and make it harder for disgruntled Iranians to oust them. With nuclear weapons, Iran will have gained the ability to deter any direct American threats, as well as the leverage to keep the United States at a distance and to discourage it from helping Iran's regional opponents. Would the United States be in Iraq if Saddam had had a few nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them on target to much of Europe and all of Israel? Would it even have gone to war in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression? Unlikely. Yet Iran is rapidly acquiring just such a capability. If it succeeds, a relatively small nuclear outcast will be able to deter a mature nuclear power. Iran will become a billboard advertising nuclear weapons as the logical asymmetric weapon of choice for nations that wish to confront the United States.

It should surprise no one that quiet discussions have already begun in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East about the desirability of developing national nuclear capabilities to blunt Iran's anticipated advantage and to offset the perceived decline in America's protective power. This is just the beginning. We should anticipate that proliferation across Eurasia will be broad and swift, creating nightmarish challenges. The diffusion of nuclear know-how is on the verge of becoming impossible to impede. Advanced computation and simulation techniques will eventually make testing unnecessary for some actors, thereby expanding the possibilities for unwelcome surprises and rapid shifts in the security environment. Leakage of nuclear knowledge and technologies from weak states will become commonplace, and new covert supply networks will emerge to fill the gap left by the neutralization of Pakistani proliferator A. Q. Khan. Non-proliferation treaties, never effective in blocking the ambitions of rogues like Iran and North Korea, will be meaningless. Intentional proliferation to state and non-state actors is virtually certain, as newly capable states seek to empower their friends and sympathizers. Iran, with its well known support of Hezbollah, is a particularly good candidate to proliferate nuclear capabilities beyond the control of any state as a way to extend the coercive reach of its own nuclear politics.

Arsenals will be small, which sounds reassuring, but in fact it heightens the dangers and risk. New players with just a few weapons, including Iran, will be especially dangerous. Cold War deterrence was based on the belief that an initial strike by an attacker could not destroy all an opponent's nuclear weapons, leaving the adversary with the capacity to strike back in a devastating retaliatory blow. Because it is likely to appear easier to destroy them in a single blow, small arsenals will increase the incentive to strike first in a crisis. Small, emerging nuclear forces could also raise the risk of preventive war, as leaders are tempted to attack before enemy arsenals grow bigger and more secure.

Some of the new nuclear actors are less interested in deterrence than in using nuclear weapons to annihilate their enemies. Iran's leadership has spoken of its willingness--in their words--to "martyr" the entire Iranian nation, and it has even expressed the desirability of doing so as a way to accelerate an inevitable, apocalyptic collision between Islam and the West that will result in Islam's final worldwide triumph. Wiping Israel off the map--one of Iran's frequently expressed strategic objectives--even if it results in an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran, may be viewed as an acceptable trade-off. Ideological actors of this kind may be very different from today's nuclear powers who employ nuclear weapons as a deterrent to annihilation. Indeed, some of the new actors may seek to annihilate others and be annihilated, gloriously, in return.

What constitutes deterrence in this world? Proponents of new non-proliferation treaties and many European strategists speak of "managing" a nuclear Iran, as if Iran and the new nuclear actors that will emerge in Iran's wake can be easily deterred by getting them to sign documents and by talking nicely to them. This is a lethal naiveté. We have no idea how to deter ideological actors who may even welcome their own annihilation. We do not know what they hold dear enough to be deterred by the threat of its destruction. Our own nuclear arsenal is robust, but it may have no deterrent effect on a nuclear-armed ideological adversary.

This is the world Iran is dragging us into. Can they be talked out of it? Maybe. But it is getting very late to slow or reverse the momentum propelling us into this nuclear no-man's land. We should be under no illusion that talk alone--"engagement"--is a solution. Nuclear Iran will prompt the emergence of a world in which nuclear deterrence may evaporate, the likelihood of nuclear use will grow, and where deterrence, once broken, cannot be restored.

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S. Enders Wimbush is senior fellow and director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute. He was director of Radio Liberty from 1987 to 1992.


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