The “Iran problem” can be summed up as follows: The Iranians really seem to be building nuclear weapons and, while they’re not there yet (an important caveat), they have everything they need to get there soon. It would be seriously bad news if they took that final step. Yet a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities would set back their program only slightly, boost popular support for their regime, and likely unleash a spree of terrorist attacks and economic retaliation with devastating effects worldwide.
So what to do if, despite all the sanctions and pressures, Iran goes ahead and builds a bomb? There’s only one option, really, and it’s worked pretty well against much mightier regimes—calm, vigorous, sustained containment.
In this case, vigorous containment might also include stepping up pressure against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, as the European and Arab allies are already doing. Syria is Iran’s gateway to points west in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. A change of regime in Damascus, fomented by powers in the region, would do a great deal to weaken Iran, both its reach and its support at home.
Let’s back up for a moment.
For those who believe the Iranians are pursuing nuclear energy strictly for electrical power, take a look at this week’s much-publicized report by the International Atomic Energy Agency—or the summary and analysis of it in plain (well, plainer) English by David Albright and his associates at the Institute for Science and International Security. A pithier précis still: This is not a repeat of the Iraqi WMD hype.
Even so, one might ask: So what? Israel possesses up to a couple hundred atomic bombs. If Iran nukes Israel, Israel can blow the place to smithereens; therefore, by this argument, Iran will be deterred, so its nuclear weapons would be useless.
The problem with this argument is that nuclear weapons are also good for brandishing. It’s extremely unlikely, for the reasons stated above, that the Iranians would launch a nuclear attack against Israel or anybody else. But they could use the nukes as a cover for stepping up other means of aggression and intimidation across the region.
Think of it this way. If Saddam Hussein had finished building a nuclear bomb before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, it is unlikely that George H.W. Bush and James Baker could have assembled or sustained the vast coalition that led to the ouster and defeat of his army. If Muammar Qaddafi had completed his nuclear-weapons project, rather than turned them over to the British and Americans, it is unlikely that NATO would have dared to pummel his ground forces, or done much to support the rebels, earlier this year.
Nuclear-deterrence theorists have phrases for this: “strategic blackmail” or “escalation dominance.” In a serious international showdown, the side that can keep threatening to escalate the conflict is the side that usually wins. Nukes not only deter countries from launching a nuclear first strike; they can also deter countries from responding to a conventional attack on (or even the intimidation of) an ally.
The way to respond to this sort of blackmail is to create the means that allow it to be ignored. For instance, if Iran does build a small nuclear arsenal, then makes demands on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, or whatever—or unleashes Hezbollah to wreak unprecedented damage—and then says, “If you don’t do what I say, I have these nuclear weapons in my pocket and I’m crazy enough to use them,” a good answer might be: “We have the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, a couple of aircraft carriers attached to Central Command, a few air bases within range, some troops and special-ops guys in Kuwait, and a big bag of neat tricks at Cyber Command—and we will not hesitate to launch air strikes against all your military targets, wreck your digital networks for years to come, and send in commandos to blow up your palaces and bunkers.”