James Holmes

Fear Factor in Nuclear Iran

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James Holmes

Fear Factor in Nuclear Iran

Fear, not the type of government, will be the key determinant of Iranian nuclear strategy.

Different types of regime—republics, democracies, autocracies—“do” strategy differently. Right? Not if you ask Thucydides. The chronicler of the Peloponnesian War opines that “fear, honor, and interest” comprise “three of the strongest motives” that propel states’ actions. The Greek historian disregards the nature of the regime as a variable in his fear-honor-interest calculus. Freewheeling democratic Athens obeyed his logic of statecraft. So did oligarchic Sparta.

The Islamic Republic of Iran may as well. In Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, my pal Scott Jones and I argue that the nature of the regime influences nuclear strategy and force structure less than common sense says it should. Tehran pursued a policy of nuclear ambiguity under the Shah, only to press ahead with nuclear-weapons R&D under the Islamic regime following the 1979 revolution. The Iranian nuclear program, then, has endured for some four decades across diametrically opposed regimes.

In other words, the link between how a country is governed, its leadership’s decision to go nuclear, and the kind of strategy it drafts to govern the use of nuclear weapons appears tenuous. Consider these motives in turn. Thucydides’ third driver, interest, is reasonably quantifiable. By applying raw intellect, representatives of different societies and cultures will probably come up with the same list of interests and options for a given state in given geopolitical surroundings.


How to uphold these interests, though? Most aspirants to nuclear-weapons status are developing countries. Pressing economic interests limit the funding they can devote to armaments. Having resolved to breach the nuclear barrier, they construct the fewest weapons they believe will deter potential adversaries. In the second nuclear age, consequently, the universal logic of interest prods resource-constrained governments toward “minimal deterrence,” with little surplus capability. Hence the apparent continuity in Iranian nuclear strategy since the days of the shah.


What about honor? The desire for honor and prestige pervades everything else nations and individuals do, including the weight they place on their interests and the methods they select to further those interests. Whatever their political leanings, Iranians see nuclear weapons as a token of national greatness and a way to restore lost grandeur. Regime change in Tehran would not dissipate these passions—and thus, in all likelihood, would not bring about disarmament.

In Thucydidean terms, then, fear promises to act as the arbiter of Iranian strategy following a nuclear breakout. How Tehran sizes up the external threat environment when ruled by different regimes could result in different nuclear postures. The more fearful Iranian leaders are, the more drastic measures they will be prepared to take.

A secular regime, that is, would presumably carry on routine power politics and would be less prone to hype regional and global rivals’ predatory intent or overbearing capabilities. A minimal nuclear posture would provide an adequate buffer against rivals not seen as bent on Iran’s destruction. More or less secular rulers would probably content themselves with a few nuclear weapons kept at fairly low readiness levels.

By contrast, a clerical regime that defines itself in opposition to the secular West would discern hostile designs lurking everywhere. All-consuming fear could goad Tehran into a mania for security of the arsenal.

Nuclear forces able to ride out a preemptive assault and strike back represent the gold standard for nuclear deterrence. Fielding a large arsenal rather than just a few score weapons would bolster deterrence accordingly. Concealment would be an obvious measure, as would dispersing the arsenal among hardened sites. Cultivating ambiguity about the conditions under which Tehran was prepared to use nuclear weapons would be yet another.

Nuclear weapons, then, serve dual purposes. They burnish Iranian prestige while providing top cover under which the regime can pursue its goals through diplomacy, economics, and conventional military force. Yet despite the constants in Iranian foreign policy, Iranian strategic behavior could look quite different from regime to regime—even under doctrines formally classified as minimal deterrence.

Pariah states are not irrational, but subjective factors like fear and honor shape their rational actions. Acknowledging this—and affording prospective antagonists the respect they merit—is the sine qua non for thinking about strategy in the second nuclear age.