The most vocal supporters of preventative military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons program claim that Iran is developing nukes to use them, rather than to deter the United States and its allies from invasion. This inversion of the Cold War theory of nuclear deterrence assumes that Iran doesn’t have the capacity for rational choice. After all, as the argument goes, if the Iranians are crazy, then the certainty of national suicide won’t stop them from seizing the opportunity to unleash their new nuclear weapons on Israel. A state that believes the end of the world is coming (never mind thinking it has the special responsibility to usher in Armageddon) can’t be considered likely to weigh costs and benefits in any rational, self-preserving way.
How do these assumptions about Iranian decision-making square with what we actually know about the regime?While, it’s true that the anticipation of deliverance and the return of the “Hidden Imam” features prominently in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches, we also should consider other explanations before accepting his political rhetoric at face value.
Since the contested elections of 2009, Ahmadinejad operates within a volatile domestic political space where statements are often designed more for internal power struggles than external audiences. His penchant for millenarian propaganda should rather be seen as a challenge to the authority of the clergy through the manipulation of Shia end time ideology that also conveniently rattles external adversaries. As anxious as the West and Israel may be, most domestic Iranian observers see Ahmadinejad’s cries of “the end is near” as part his challenge to the Iranian political hierarchy, and just one aspect of his seemingly failed campaign to marginalize powerful clerical rivals by undermining the velayat-e faqih (the rule of the jurist consult).
So, would Iran continue to escalate a potential crisis or would calmer heads prevail? It’s evident that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the entire security establishment define foreign policy objectives in conservative rather than revolutionary terms. A nuclear-armed Iran would project its power and continue to act as the anti-status quo power in the region, but is unlikely to seek war.
Many would argue that Iran’s last war of aggression was against Afghanistan in 1856, and by all accounts the national trauma of the Iran-Iraq War casts a pall over discussions of overt military conflict. Even the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate credited the Iranian government’s nuclear decisions as being guided by a rational “cost-benefit approach” rather than adventurism, imperial scheming or ideologically-driven suicide.
While there’s little reason to believe Iran would choose self-annihilation through offensive use of a nuclear weapon, the issue of command and control presents several troubling questions. Who would have the authority to order the use of Iranian nuclear weapons? How could the Iranian regime assure even itself that accidental or unauthorized use wouldn’t be possible?
As the commander in chief, nuclear policy would ostensibly fall under the authority of the Supreme Leader’s Office, though the practical details of managing nuclear weapons would likely fall to the top brass of the Revolutionary Guard. Yet, even though they seem to represent the backbone of regime stability, the Revolutionary Guard is hardly a homogeneous group, ranging from Ahmadinejad cronies to loyalists of the Supreme Leader. The armed forces as a whole have been subject to defection, abduction and assassinations by foreign intelligence, so who could be trusted with nuclear launch authority?
Furthermore, Iran reportedly doesn’t even have a systematic security clearance program for its military personnel. Revolutionary pedigree and contacts to the right spheres of power are no longer sufficient to remain at the top, so existing power struggles and cabals amongst the country’s maze of power centers and factions would only be exacerbated once nuclear weapons entered the mix.
This begs the practical question of how the Iranian regime could assure even itself that accidental or unauthorized use wouldn’t be possible. After all, it took the United States decades to achieve any real degree of the complex technical and organizational requirements that help ensure meaningful nuclear safety.
In addition to complex organizational procedures intended to assure proper chain of command for launch authorization, current U.S. nukes are secured through sophisticated encrypted arming systems that prevent unauthorized or accidental detonation, as well as high-tech tamper-proof casings to prevent the theft of the “physics package” inside a warhead. Yet according to one former U.S. Minuteman missile launch officer, until 1977 the U.S. Air Force so feared that launch codes would fail to reach missile silos in the event of nuclear war, it built in a default code of “OOOOOOOO”, even going as far as to list the code in the launch checklist. Far from an isolated incident, such glaring flaws in authorization systems, as well as potentially catastrophic nuclear accidents, were regular features of the Cold War.