Prof. Tom Nichols

This week, Prof. Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College answers readers’ questions about Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. arms spending and whether Israel should try a military strike.

Kevin Sheehy (LinkedIn):
The United States and Iran seem locked into a never ending game of nuclear poker. The United States and its allies continue to assert that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists it’s only interested in nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Looking over all the evidence and with your expertise, who do you feel is right?

Well, I’m not an expert on proliferation technologies, so I’ll leave the hardware questions to people who are lot smarter and more experienced than I am. Looking at this through the prism of politics, I would say that Iran is failing the “Duck Test”: if it walks and quacks and has feathers like a duck, it’s a duck. The Iranians are walking and talking and acting in ways that tell us – or are meant to make us think – that they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Lots of countries have nuclear power plants, but don’t have nuclear weapons, and you don’t see the world locked in a crisis with those countries every day. Why Iran? Because Iran refuses to comply with international standards about inspections and transparency, while also talking about wiping Israel off the map. If they’re not headed for a nuclear capability, they’re sure acting like it.

Kim Cheung (Facebook):
If Iran developed a nuclear weapon, what options would it have to deliver such a weapon to Israel, an EU target or the United States? Reports came out recently that Iran was attempting to develop an ICBM. Is such a capability within its technical grasp in the near future?

Making a nuclear bomb, and making one small enough to fit on a missile, are two different things. But Israel is only a thousand miles from Iran, and if you’re willing to sacrifice accuracy and just drop a bomb, you can save some time. But again, I’m not an expert on bomb miniaturization. The intelligence communities around the world are having a tough time pinpointing this, so I’m not going to second-guess them. (This is also probably a good time to remind people that I don’t represent the views of the U.S. government on this or anything else.)

Joe DeWine (LinkedIn):
What’s your position on proposed U.S. defense cuts overall? Could America cut one or more legs off its “nuclear triad” and still maintain a credible nuclear deterrent?

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I think the United States could make dramatic cuts in nuclear weapons and be just as safe today – or safer, even – than it was 20 years ago. At least I hope I’m right: I’ve just written a whole book making that argument that should be out later this year.

The thing about a “credible deterrent” is that you always have to ask: “against what?” I find it incredibly frustrating that so much of our discussions of nuclear strategy and deterrence always take place without any context. Does anyone think that Russia or China are just waiting for U.S. nuclear forces to drop below, say, 300, so they can attack America? Even during the Cold War, when everything was at stake for both sides, the U.S. and USSR went to great lengths to avoid using nuclear weapons, because they knew – despite all the blustery nonsense from the “strategists” and think-tankers of the day – that even a few nuclear explosions wouldn’t only be an unrecoverable catastrophe, but that the use of nuclear weapons risked escalation to all-out war.

Think of it this way: We’re still all freaked out about the disasters at the Fukushima nuclear plant and in 1986 at Chernobyl. And yet we’re still talking about strategies where we strike 150 urban centers on each side? These are war games, and not the way normal human beings (the people who have to make these decisions) think about nuclear war.

As for the triad, I used to think we could live without the bombers, and I still think we could, but there’s no harm in keeping some of them. The key parts are the land-based ICBMs (which force an enemy to attack North America and up the ante in an attack on our deterrent) and the submarines, which are to all intents and purposes invulnerable. We could get to 300 weapons – or lower. I also don’t care about exact numerical parity with the Russians; I don’t think it mattered much during the Cold War and I don’t think it matters now.

If we make those cuts, not only would we save money and have fewer weapons to worry about, but it would give us a better moral high ground to demand that other nations turn away from developing their own weapons.

Josh Horowitz (Facebook):
If Israel were to strike Iran to try and damage its nuclear capabilities, how long would it delay Iran from acquiring the necessary capabilities and technology to develop the means to develop a nuclear weapon? What would constitute in your view “success”?

Again, this is a question for an engineer, not for me. But I’ll say this much about “success”: the goal, in my view, isn’t to deprive Iran of the ability to make a bomb forever, because that’s impossible. You can’t dis-invent the technology. The real question is this: Can you stop the Iranian program long enough for regime change to take place? The Iranian regime is unstable, and like all autocratic revolutionary regimes, is going to have to change or collapse. I’m certain that Iran in its present form can’t last much longer – of course, I used to be a Sovietologist, so take what I say with a grain of rock salt. To me, the question becomes whether we can keep nukes out of their hands long enough for internal processes there to take down that regime. Whether a military strike can do that is a complicated matrix of politics and engineering; I think the worst outcome is the one where the Iranians are only slightly delayed, but not stopped, from making a bomb. Then we’ve got a real problem on our hands.

Joel Petley (Facebook):
Since there seems to be some doubt as to whether Iran can be considered a rational actor or not, does nuclear deterrence really apply to Iran?

“Rational actor” is one of the misused and misunderstood metaphors in political science. It doesn’t connote “states that act rationally,” in the sense of “in a way we think is acceptable.” It merely is a tool that’s meant to help us think about states as unitary actors with clearly structured preferences. Those preferences might be completely evil or nutty by our cultural standards, but understanding your opponent means understanding those preferences.

I prefer Keith Payne’s much better distinction, from a book he wrote some years ago, about “rational” vs. “reasonable.” Are the Iranians “rational?” Of course they are. They’re engaged in methodical, goal-driven behavior. They aren’t acting randomly or in a way that’s detached from reality. (Think Hitler in 1945 or Saddam in 2003. That’s irrational.) But by our standards, they’re completely unreasonable: they have no respect for the norms of the international system, international agreements, principles of coexistence with other peoples, or any of the things we take for granted as a group of developed nations in the West (or North, depending on how you want to look at it).

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And again, “nuclear deterrence” isn’t some generic condition. In the book, I point out that “deterrence” isn’t like the weather, like sunshine or humidity that affects everyone the same way. Everyone fears death and destruction, but that doesn’t tell you much; everyone wants to eat, sleep, procreate, and do a lot of other normal human things, too, but the way we all do them varies greatly. The question is: Do the Iranians think that nuclear war with Israel would be worse than the other things they seem to want? (Think about Japan in 1941: they weren’t really all that keen about war with the United States, but they wanted their imperial goals more than they feared war.)

I’m not enough of an Iranian expert to know if all that stuff about bringing out the “12th Imam” or any of that apocalyptic ideology is real, or really motivates them. The one thing I think you can say about the Iranians is that they are clearly risk-takers who believe they’ve tilted the odds in their favor. That’s always a dangerous mindset – but especially so where nuclear weapons are concerned. Are they deterrable? That’s going to depend on the particular crisis and the specific threat that’s being used to deter them. But having done the occasional gambling myself, you never want to be at the same table with the guy who’s always throwing the dice and doesn’t know when to quit, or repeatedly going all-in while trying to pull to an inside straight. The odds aren’t good.