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.
For a nuclear armed country to achieve a stable relationship of mutual vulnerability (often called a stable deterrence relationship) with an enemy also depends on a high degree of confidence that firing nukes first would result in a devastating retaliatory attack – in other words, a credible second-strike capability. This requires not just the political will to engage in nuclear warfare, but also the ability to create multiple weapons with widely distributed, hidden or mobile delivery systems, further complicating the issues of command and control.
Add to this uncertainty questions of potential theft, accidental launch, unintended escalation due to miscommunication, or the logic of “fire if fired upon” standing orders, and the path to any kind of stable deterrence relationship between Iran and Israel is a highly uncertain one strewn with landmines both obvious and unexpected.
In such an environment, even otherwise conventional standoffs such as those betweenthe Revolutionary Guard and the British Royal Navy and U.S. 5th fleet in the Persian Gulf, or the so-called proxy war between Revolutionary Guard commandos and U.S. forces in Iraq,could raise the specter of unintended escalation.
Such organizational uncertainty is likely to rank highly on the list of Israeli fears for a potential threat environment featuring Iranian nuclear weapons. Given the origins of the state of Israel – a nation that was essentially an existential act of refuge from the Holocaust – its geography, and the belief that the will to employ violence underwrites security, Israel seems a poor candidate to walk the treacherous and uncertain path towards a stable nuclear deterrence relationship with Iran.
Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that the development of such a relationship between the United States and Soviet Union was neither automatic nor assured by logic. The early years of the Cold War were dominated by paranoia over when the other side would achieve enough bombs for a “knockout blow,” with many senior voices in the U.S. calling for preventative nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union to prevent such a situation from arising. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Orvil Anderson’s public comments in 1950 capture the existential nature of the perceived threat in simply allowing the Soviets to possess nuclear weapons: “Give me the order to do it and I can break up Russia’s five A-bomb nests in a week…And when I went up to Christ – I think I could explain to him that I saved civilization.”
As late as 1954, senior military leaders were publicly arguing (against the direct orders of both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower) that the Soviets were incapable of rational thought or restraint. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Nathan F. Twining expressed a common sentiment among hawkish military leaders when he publicly stated in 1954 that: “The Soviets are proven barbarians with an ideological predisposition for aggression.”
It’s crucial to note that extreme nuclear paranoia existed between countries with no history of mutual antagonism, enormous land masses, highly distributed population centers, and in an era where the only means of delivery were lumbering propeller-driven bombers based thousands of miles from their targets. Israel, on the other hand, sits within 10 minutes’ ballistic missile flight from Iran and is approximately 1/500th the size of the United States. Even one nuclear detonation on Israeli soil would spell national disaster on a relative scale only possible with all-out nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. For a state whose very establishment was premised on the resolution “never again,” these aren’t reassuring features of a potential security environment.
From the Israeli perspective, then, even if Ahmadinejad is playing the role of the madman for domestic political purposes or to intimidate his enemies, how can one tell the difference between someone acting the madman, and an actual madman? It’s likely that Israel is skirting the need to answer that question by avoiding it entirely, instead adopting a purely capabilities-based threat assessment of Iran. In this calculus, the personalities and preferences of leaders don’t matter, as those can change overnight. Capabilities, on the other hand, persist.
Israel is already believed by many to be engaged in a high-stakes covert war against Iran, employing a sustained campaign of sabotage, targeted assassinations of top Iranian nuclear and missile scientists, and possible deploying the most sophisticated cyber-warfare weapon ever used. With the revelation of a major rift at the highest levels of the Israeli national security establishment over the supposedly imminent use of preventative force against the Iranian program, it’s clear that Israel intends to use any and all means to keep itself from facing an existential threat from a sworn enemy.
As deterrence relationships (rather than defensive capabilities) only exist within the minds of those involved, it’s crucial to question whether Iran is capable of assuring the levels of command and control required for “rational” calculations of threat, and whether Israel is prepared to accept such an existential threat. One lesson to bear in mind when contemplating a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is that the history of human conflict is overpopulated with hostilities initiated by pride, fear, miscalculation, unintended escalation, and any number of non-rational forces. To expect that the blooming crisis between Iran and Israel will be any different is an exercise in wishful thinking in a region that offers few reasons for it.
Kimo Quaintance is a professor at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces. Bernd Kaussler is a Professor at James Madison University.