What if Iran Did Get the Bomb?

19 September 2013, 2206 EDT

Casual observation suggests that the two most common answers to the question above are: 1) there’s a very good chance that they’d start a nuclear war with Israel; and 2) there’s no real reason to think any other state would be impacted in any significant way. I find both unpersuasive for reasons I’ll discuss below.


Before I do, though, let me get something out of the way—in this post, I will argue neither for nor against the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To answer questions of what should be done, one must not only draw upon some set of beliefs about the likely consequences of the available options, but one’s value judgments about the outcomes and the costs likely to be incurred along the way to producing them. I’m willing to try to persuade you to change your views about the likely consequences of certain outcomes, but I’m going to keep my value judgments to myself.


At one extreme, we have those who take (some) Iranian rhetoric at face value. They point to claims by former president Ahmadinejad (and, somewhat less often, those by Ayatollah Khamenei) about the 12th Imam.  Here, you’ll find a perfect example of why the beliefs about the 12th Imam that are held by many Iranians are often considered to be so threatening. It concludes

Ahmadinejad and the entire Iranian Regime in power believe in the return of this 12th Imam, no problem. The Iranian Regime seeks to hasten his return, Big Problem. It is believed they have signed contracts to this end. The rhetoric coming out of Iran supports this belief. The argument to allow Iran to have nuclear power has been, “don’t worry they’re not going to attack and commit suicide.” But when Ahmadinejad praises victims of a plane crash, calling them martyrs, and advocates to “hasten” the return of the 12th Imam, which can only be accomplished after or during the Apocalypse, do you really want to take that chance? I don’t.

In short, since Iran’s senior leadership believes they can hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam, it would be ridiculous to think that any threat of retaliation would deter them from starting a nuclear war. As evidence that Iran can’t be deterred, we are often reminded that Iran sponsors suicide terrorism and sent children to die in the Iran-Iraq War.

I have two problems with this argument.

First, exhibiting callous indifference towards the deaths of those who are not members of the senior leadership, or critical to its ability to remain in office, hardly constitutes evidence that Iran’s senior leadership is suicidal. Many of the world’s governments have shown a heart-wrenching, thoroughly deplorable disregard for the well-being of their own people. Rarely has anyone suggested that such behavior implies that those in power have no desire to remain in power. True, few of those governments have claimed to be hastening the end times, but even so, anyone who seeks to convince skeptics that Iran’s leadership is suicidal by pointing to elite disregard for the lives of non-elites is committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent: if I was right, we’d expect this behavior; since we observe this behavior, I must be right. Sorry, that just doesn’t work.

This brings me to the second point. Namely, this. Myself, I’m inclined to believe that Khamenei would like to remain alive and in power, as would other elite actors in Iran. As such, I wouldn’t trust religious edicts to prevent Iran from using nuclear weapons if survival of the regime was on the line anymore than I believe fiery rhetoric about the end times and the possibility of hastening their arrival. But while I’ll admit I could be mistaken about this, one thing I’m quite sure I’m not mistaken about is that one can’t simultaneously say “We have to take leaders at their word” and “You’d be naive to believe Khamenei’s decree is binding.”

At the other end, we’re sometimes told that nuclear weapons have no offensive value; that states desire them only because they bring prestige and because they serve as the ultimate deterrent against invasion (a lesson some say Qaddafi learned a little too late, thereby turning himself into a cautionary tale in the eyes of Iran and North Korea). That doesn’t quite work, though. First, the absence of evidence linking the possession of nuclear weapons to compellence success, or the initiation of conflict, is insufficient to establish the conclusion that they are of no value for anything but prestige or deterrence, as I’ve argued before. There is, after all, some evidence that nuclear weapons affect distributive outcomes.

Note that the claim that nuclear weapons determine who gets what is in fact fully compatible with the notion that no leader would ever order their use save as a last resort if the survival of the regime was at stake, as in the case of an invasion. Once you grant that threats to go nuclear are inherently credible under that condition, you’ve already granted that they matter more broadly.

How so?

Simply put, any actions that are deterred by threats to invade become viable once a state acquires nuclear weapons. By “viable” I don’t necessarily mean “likely to occur in equilibrium.” I simply mean that the set of actions a state can credibly threaten to undertake expands once its opponents lose the ability to credibly threaten certain forms of retaliation. What exactly that means in the case of Iran is unclear. Any examples I provide are certain to be contested by those who don’t like how I pivoted from critiquing the fearmongers to arguing that perhaps the US and Israel would in fact be made worse off, at least to some degree, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. And they might even be right to do so. So I’ll leave it to others to argue over the details. But if you’re going to argue that Iran’s primary goal is to take “regime change” off the table for the US, which strikes me as eminently plausible, you’ve got to admit that there are further implications to this of some size—unless, of course, you think that Iran’s behavior up until now was not constrained in the least by fear that crossing certain lines would provoke US invasion.

As I said above, I’m not arguing for or against a strike on Iran. I leave it to others to decide that. But it sure would be nice if that debate could be had without anyone arguing that a) we should take Iranian leaders at their word if doing so supports our position but they ought not be otherwise, or b) there are precisely zero implications for US interests if Iran acquires the bomb.