The Realist Prism: Iran's Nuclear Pipedream, and Washington's

By Nikolas Gvosdev

With the possibility of a clash between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program looming on the horizon, one cannot help but wonder: Is it worth it for Iran, now grappling with increasingly onerous sanctions, to continue its pursuit of a nuclear capacity, albeit an ambiguous one?

By all indications, Iran's leaders believe so, based on their read of recent history. Since the end of the Cold War, according to this narrative, regimes that the U.S. dislikes for their internal behavior or external activity -- and Iran certainly qualifies on both scores -- run the risk of being on the receiving end of America's expeditionary firepower, unless they possess a suitable deterrent capability. Serbia in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 were all subject to military operations because each country lacked nuclear weapons, giving the United States a free opportunity to strike without fear of dramatic consequences.

In contrast, North Korea -- which, among other things, shelled a South Korean island, sank a South Korean destroyer, engaged in state-sponsored terrorism and criminal activities, and has committed gross violations of human rights that make a mockery of the very "responsibility to protect" -- has not only enjoyed immunity from any sort of military action but has engaged in high-level diplomacy with the world's great powers to  bargain for economic aid and fuel deliveries for its cash-strapped country. To Iranian eyes, Pyongyang has been treated differently precisely because of its nuclear capabilities. Iranian commentators have also noted how Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has similarly shielded Islamabad from the full force of American wrath, despite years of semi-official Pakistani support for the ongoing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

This narrative is problematic, as it depends on the premise that a lack of a credible nuclear deterrent was the critical deciding factor in allowing for Western military intervention in these cases. The reality is not so simple. Libya and Serbia were small countries with compact populations, no significant conventional military forces and no allies willing to threaten force to block NATO’s intervention. The invasion of Iraq proceeded, in part, on the assumption that the Iraqi military would not fight for Saddam Hussein and that coalition forces would be welcomed as liberators.

Moreover, over the same period, other non-nuclear powers still found ways to deter Western pressure. Proposals for a Libya-style operation against Sudan over its campaign in Darfur -- using Western airpower to ground government aircraft, disrupt supply lines and cut off oil exports -- went nowhere for a variety of reasons: the sheer size of Sudan (Darfur itself is as large as Spain); fears about being dragged into a ground conflict; and, last but not least, Sudan's position as an energy supplier, particularly to growing Asian markets. Despite tough rhetoric, diplomacy ended up being the instrument of choice in dealing with Khartoum. Syria also -- at least for the moment -- appears to be in no danger of finding itself in a face-off against NATO.

The North Korea example also bears closer consideration. Pyongyang's nuclear devices have not shown themselves to be particularly reliable or deliverable. But even without nuclear weapons, the conventional capabilities of North Korea are still formidable. North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to obliterate Seoul, bombard Japan and utterly destabilize Northeastern Asia. Moreover, China's continued desire for a "buffer" between itself and U.S. forces stationed in Japan and South Korea has provided a veritable lifeline for the Kim regime to survive, nestled within Beijing's protective embrace. Nuclear weapons may enhance Pyongyang's leverage, but they are not the basis for regime security.

Moreover, even a possible nuclear capability does not change the day-to-day realities of geography and demography. In arguing against military strikes against Iran, Colin Kahl, who recently stepped down as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, notes that the "picture of a clean, calibrated conflict is a mirage. Any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences." It bears noting that Kahl’s assessment concerns a conflict with a non-nuclear Iran, meaning that even if Iran stopped work on its nuclear program tomorrow,  any military operation against Iran would be risky and not lightly ventured.

U.S. pundits need to examine how their own rhetoric might influence the allure that "the bomb" exercises over Tehran. Suggesting that an Iranian nuclear capacity is the only thing that might keep the U.S. at bay is not only misleading, but could also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially given the sometimes heated rhetoric in Washington over Iran's support for Hezbollah or its repression of the Green Movement.

For their part, Iranians should not overvalue what nuclear weapons can do for their security. After all, the Soviet Union was the world's leading nuclear power at the time it disappeared as a state. Indeed, all the money and resources Iran is spending on its nuclear program might be put to better use shoring up popular support for the regime, following the model employed by the other oil-rich states across the Persian Gulf. If the Islamic Republic is overthrown, it seems much more likely it will be the result of a Soviet-style implosion from within, rather than due to pressure from without.

Moreover, it is Iran’s unwillingness to “come clean” about its nuclear program and intentions that has united a reluctant coalition of states, including even China and Russia, to impose sanctions, which have had the impact of exacerbating the country’s fragile economic position. If Iran decided to embrace a policy of complete transparency -- and perhaps accept a deal that enrichment take place outside the country, along the lines of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft’s proposal several years ago -- this pressure would ease up, as most countries are less concerned about Iran’s domestic politics or its rejectionist stance vis-à-vis the Middle East peace process than they are over its nuclear intentions.

For the time being, however, Iran has clearly decided that continued intransigence on the subject of its nuclear program best serves regime interests. Whether or not Tehran plans to reconsider that assessment as the danger of armed conflict grows remains to be seen.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest, and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism , appears every Friday.