The Daily | January 6, 2012
A NUCLEAR-armed Iran? Intolerable. That seems to be the only thing President Obama and his leading Republican opponents agree on, even as the Islamic Republic threatens to close the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls Iranian nuclearization “a red line” and hints at military action.
Republican presidential candidates are much less circumspect. “If all else fails, of course you take military action,” says former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum threatens airstrikes if the Iranians don’t allow inspections. Only Texas Rep. Ron Paul dissents. Iran may not be seeking nukes, and the odds of its actually using them are “probably zero,” he says. “They just are not going to commit suicide.”
Paul, in this case, is not being flaky. Iran’s nuclearization, should it happen, would be undesirable, but it would not be catastrophic. Conceivably, it might even redound to American advantage.
That is not to say we should be relaxed about it. Putting the world’s most dangerous weapons into the hands of some of the world’s most sinister and ruthless people is definitely not good. Nothing in this article suggests otherwise.
Even more important, however, than the question of who gets nuclear weapons is what they could do with them. Not very much, is the likely answer in Iran’s case — and in every other case since 1945. As John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, points out in his fascinating book “Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda,” the historical record on nuclear weapons is clear: They don’t actually matter much.
To begin with, they are next to useless militarily. There are few if any targets that could not be more effectively attacked with conventional munitions. They do seem to help deter a conventional attack — but that’s a defensive role, more likely to prevent war than to provoke it.
Can a tyrant leverage nukes for regional domination, as George W. Bush warned Saddam Hussein would do? Not easily. Countries don’t like to be dominated. The usual response to a saber-rattling rival is to strengthen one’s own defenses and organize countervailing coalitions. Post-Nagasaki, it’s hard to think of any case where the mere presence of nuclear weapons tipped a diplomatic balance or settled a conflict. They certainly didn’t prevent the North Vietnamese or Afghans from standing up to nuclear superpowers (and beating them, to boot).
Another fear is that nuclearization inspires recklessness. Again, however, the record suggests otherwise. If anything, countries tend to behave more responsibly after getting nuclear weapons than before. China is an instructive example of this. Fifty years ago, it was the Iran of its day, a rising regional power that was radical, ideological, boldly antagonistic.
It fought the U.S. in Korea, attacked India and Taiwan, supported violent insurgencies and more. Its leader, Mao Zedong, mused that killing half of mankind might be a price worth paying to make the world socialist. Understandably alarmed, some of President Eisenhower’s advisers urged a pre-emptive nuclear attack. (Ike wisely forbore.) President Kennedy said a nuclear China would dominate Southeast Asia and “so upset the world political scene” as to be “intolerable.”
In the event, as we know, China’s entry into the nuclear club was a nonevent. Nor, today, have nuclear weapons made North Korea more than the pathetic, half-starved duchy that it was before.
So what about Iran? Might it be the exception to nukes’ surprisingly benign track record?
No one wants to find out. Still, Iran’s behavior, as distinct from its rhetoric, has been far from irrational. In fact, it has been quite canny. Iran’s leaders recognize limits in a way that Saddam Hussein never did. Their existing proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, are already far more useful than a uranium bomb as weapons of intimidation, because they can be used without causing the mullahs’ own obliteration.
As for regional domination, nothing could do more to unite Iran’s many rivals and adversaries than for Iran to become a nuclear threat. It’s easy to imagine, for example, a regional consortium forming to balance and contain Iran, along the lines of NATO, with the United States and even Israel participating. The end result might be to reshape the region more to our liking.
“Ah,” you say, “what about Israel? What if mad mullahs launch a nuclear holocaust?” No sane person could deny that Israel has more to be worried about from Iranian nukes than does the U.S. or anybody else. Remember, though, that Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon on Israel, a nuclear state backed by a much larger nuclear state, would be suicidal, and nothing about Iran’s leaders suggest they are eager to exterminate themselves, however much trash they may talk.
In any case, even for Israel, military action is a bad bet. Because much of Iran’s nuclear program is hidden, hardened, and dispersed, an air strike is less likely to demolish the program than to delay it a couple of years — with the probable side effect of consolidating the Iranian regime’s hold on power. Which would be a bad result, because the real danger is the regime, not the weapons.
And that is the real lesson of the last 50 years. Getting the Iran equation right depends on remembering what we have learned coping with the USSR and China and every other troublesome nuclear state. Our main focus should be on containing Iran and eventually changing it. Disarming it is mostly beside the point.