The Atlantic | July/August 2006
BOIL AWAY the verbiage, and Americans’ reaction to Iran’s apparent drive for nuclear weapons amounts to: “Oh, no!” It’s a reasonable reaction. A bitter enemy appears determined to acquire fearsome weapons, or the capability to produce them (which comes to the same thing). A preventive military strike might do little more than buy a couple of years, and at a steep price. Iran might drop a bomb on Israel; it might give the bomb to terrorists; it might use the bomb to blackmail and dominate the Middle East; it might feel emboldened to export terror and insurgency without constraint.
“Iran armed with a nuclear weapon poses a grave threat to the security of the world,” President Bush said in January. Various other assessments make Bush’s sound comparatively low-key. In September, Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, called Iran a “diabolical threat to Western civilization” whose ambitions, if not stopped, “will lead to a disastrous situation with catastrophic consequences worldwide.”
The ascendancy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives particular cause for alarm, not least because he has called the Holocaust a myth, renewed Iran’s commitment to eliminate Israel, and declared that anyone who objects to Iran’s achieving nuclear capability should “be angry and die of this anger.” Writing in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, the historian Niall Ferguson imagines the upshot: Iran and Israel engage in a devastating nuclear exchange; the resulting “Great Gulf War” marks the end of the oil age—even, perhaps, “the twilight of the West.”
Here are some things we have seen before: a nuclear-armed country with a brittle and aggressive ideology, world-revolutionary aspirations, and a belief in the historic inevitability of its triumph against a decadent and ultimately hollow West. In that country, an unpopular and divided regime, with hard-liners and relative pragmatists squabbling for influence. A crumbling, resource-dependent economy. A paranoid worldview in which America is an omnipresent military and ideological threat. A tactical predilection for supporting and manipulating insurgent proxies around the world, instead of engaging in direct confrontations. Above all, a belief that nuclear weapons are strategically essential to deter the United States and maintain national prestige.
Yes—but the Soviet Union was deterrable. Would the same be true of a nuclear Iran? No one knows, and no one wants to find out, and Ahmadinejad’s trash-talking is alarming. Still, that Iran will be “a suicide bomber with a radioactive waist” (as one commentator put it recently) is not a given. The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth M. Pollack, the author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, points out that Iran has been aggressively anti-American “but not reckless.” He explains, “These guys try to press the edge of the envelope, but if they find they’ve pressed too far, they pull back.” Behaviorally, if not rhetorically, the Iranians seem more akin to the opportunistic Nikita Khrushchev of the Cuban missile crisis than the delusional Saddam Hussein of the Kuwait invasion and the Iraq War.
One can hardly count on predictability from the likes of Ahmadinejad. But the presidency is only one of a number of competing Iranian power centers; the supreme ruler is Iran’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. The fact that Ahmadinejad and his energetic faction are vying for control is not reassuring, but it is worth remembering that Stalin and Khrushchev were not reassuring figures either. Only in hindsight is it evident that they were deterrable.
“Many today forget that Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China were seen as more threatening in both capabilities and intentions than are today’s mullahs in Tehran,” writes Richard K. Betts, of Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, in The National Interest. Even if the Cold War Soviet leadership lacked the Armageddon-minded nuttiness of Ahmadinejad, it was more than paranoid enough to be frightening. “What made things very dangerous,” says Timothy Naftali, a University of Virginia Cold War historian, “was that the Soviets were at times willing to be brinksmen in a nuclear world.”
When American strategists chose to deter and contain the Soviet Union, they didn’t know it to be deterrable and containable. At times, respectable strategists thought it wasn’t. Rather, the United States settled for the deter-and-contain model because the other options seemed worse.
In the end, of course, the Cold War strategy succeeded, spectacularly. The United States not only got regime change in the Soviet Union, it got it without the kind of conflagration or implosion that the collapse of a nuclear superpower might easily have brought. The West was lucky, no doubt, but it was also patient and, on the whole, skillful.
Iran is, if anything, more vulnerable to long-term pressure than the USSR was. It is smaller and weaker in every dimension. Its economy is a mess. Its oil weapon fires backward as well as forward, because oil sales keep Iran’s economy afloat. And, unlike the Soviet Union, Iran has no conceivable hope of disarming or crippling America with a first strike; America’s deterrent against Iran is massive, credible, and impregnable.
During the Cold War, once a credible deterrent was in place, containment meant both hemming in the Soviets (between NATO and the Pacific alliances) and drawing them into arms-control talks and security arrangements and grain deals that made trigger fingers less twitchy. The two approaches, though often in tension, were not mutually exclusive, nor would they be in the case of a nuclear Iran. One can envision a regional consortium aimed at containing Iran—what Pollack calls a NATO for the Persian Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and others in the region, might join with the United States (and maybe Europe) to agree on countermeasures to be used if Iran invaded one of them, proliferated nukes, or destabilized its neighbors. At the same time, the consortium might also negotiate a pact in which Tehran agreed not to cross any of those red lines, in exchange for security guarantees.
Americans would see such an agreement as a deal with the devil, and they’d be right. But the United States dealt with the Soviets, who were at least as murderous as the mullahs and far mightier, and the end result was regime change. It took a while, but containment is a long game, and it’s a game on which the United States wrote the book.
The example of the Cold War does not counsel complacency in the face of Iran’s nuclear exertions. Nor does it imply that force is off the table. It does counsel calm. If we appear deathly afraid of atomic ayatollahs, we may do less to deter them from going nuclear than to convince them that going nuclear will deter us.