Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program resume in Turkey this weekend, attended by delegates from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Not much is likely to happen.
The big obstacle is this: The Iranians want a pocketful of nuclear weapons. Or, more to the point: The Iranians have always aspired to be the major power in their region. Several of the region’s powers—Israel, Pakistan, and India—have nukes, so Iran wants some too.
What many people are reluctant to admit is that Iran would want these nukes even if the country weren’t run by mullahs. Back in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon stepped up foreign arms sales (in part to spread American influence in the Third World, in part to shore up the trade balance), Henry Kissinger told the Shah of Iran that he could buy any weapon in the U.S. arsenal. The Shah asked for a Polaris submarine, which carried 16 nuclear missiles. (Kissinger had to tone down the offer: any weapon except nukes.)
Still, if Iran’s leaders were Western-leaning democrats, their nuclear program would be less worrisome. In 2006, when India was openly seeking to expand its nuclear arsenal, President George W. Bush not only declined to protest, he sold Delhi the supplies (as part of a “global partnership” pact) and declared it to be “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” and thus eligible for the same benefits as a state that had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (even though India was one of just three countries in the world that hadn’t).
Iranian leaders no doubt followed this story closely and drew from it the lesson that the United States was troubled not so much by Iranian nukes as by the Iranian regime.
This being the case, if the Iranians’ nuclear program has a military dimension (as it almost certainly does), one motive driving it is the old-fashioned doctrine of deterrence: They want a nuclear arsenal in part to deter their enemies, chiefly the United States and Israel, from launching an attack on their regime.
None of this is to say that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are purely defensive—or defensible. The danger, in large part, is the regime. It’s not a good thing for weapons of mass destruction to wind up in the hands of messianic fundamentalists.
Even so, it’s extremely unlikely that a nuclear-armed Iran would one day, out of the blue, start dropping bombs or firing missiles at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. For one thing, whatever the status of Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program, they are probably years away from turning an explosive device into a weapon, miniaturizing it to fit inside a warhead, and installing the warhead on top of a missile heavy enough to deliver it over a long distance with accuracy.
For another thing, Israel is believed to possess up to 200 nuclear weapons. It’s a reasonable guess that they are dispersed, heavily protected, some of them mobile, perhaps at sea, and connected to redundant command-control networks so that, even if the capital is destroyed, the surviving weapons can still be launched. In other words, if Iran lobs some nukes at Israel, Israel can be counted on to blow Iran to smithereens. The Iranian leaders surely know this: They may sponsor suicide bombers, but they’re not suicidal themselves.
Some have inferred from this argument that an Iranian bomb is nothing to worry about. This inference is wrong, for several reasons. First, nuclear weapons are good not just for deterring but also for brandishing. They can provide cover for conventional aggression or intimidation. For instance, if Saddam Hussein had possessed some nukes before invading Kuwait, it’s unlikely that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker could have assembled or sustained the vast coalition that pushed Iraq’s army out of Kuwait. Or, during that same war, when Baker declared that a chemical or biological attack on Israel would be treated the same way as a nuclear attack against the United States, his threat might have been less credible if Saddam had had his own nukes to bargain with.
Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran may push or condone the more militant factions within Hezbollah and other proxies to step up their aggression and take greater risks.
Second, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to maintain a “balance of terror” for several decades of Cold War tensions, without pushing the button, in part because both sides learned—and applied—the lessons of deterrence as they went along. They put missiles in blast-hardened silos and untargetable submarines. They set up early-warning radars and a hotline for managing crises. They installed coded locks (“permissive action links” or PALs) on their missiles, to minimize the chance that some loony general might launch a first-strike on his own. There is no assurance that the Iranians will do any of these things with their arsenal.