This much the proponents of containment understand. But they confidently argue that all of these likely effects are manageable. (See, above all, James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh’s much-discussed piece in the March/April Foreign Affairs, “After Iran Gets the Bomb.”)
Really? Let’s examine for a moment what a still-non-nuclear Iran is doing right now. According to a little-noticed report submitted by the Defense Department to Capitol Hill in mid-April, Iran
seeks to increase its stature by countering U.S. influence and expanding ties with regional actors while advocating Islamic solidarity. It also seeks to demonstrate to the world its “resistance” to the West. Iran is attempting to secure political, economic, and security influence in Iraq and Afghanistan while undermining U.S. efforts by supporting various political groups, providing developmental and humanitarian assistance, and furnishing lethal aid to Iraqi Shia militants and Afghan insurgents.
These activities include (but are not limited to) supplying Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan — who are killing American soldiers — with “Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) with radio-controlled, remote arming and passive infrared detonators,” Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, 107- and 122-millimeter rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, and other weapons. Do those sound like the actions of a country that considers itself “contained”? How much less contained will Tehran feel once it has the bomb?
The unstated (and probably unrealized) assumption underlying the contain-Iran argument is that, once Tehran is nuclear, America will have to get tougher. But how likely is that? If we won’t confront Iran over the killing of American soldiers now, why would our national spine get any stiffer in the face of a threat of nuclear retaliation? If we won’t do anything to stop Iran from getting the bomb, why should anyone believe that we will suddenly grow bolder once Iran actually has the bomb?
The most obvious way for a nuclear Iran to flex its muscles would be to harass shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and otherwise foment regional instability with the goal of raising the price of oil. This is win-win for Tehran: more money in its coffers and less in ours. Since the same calculation applies to Russia, Moscow would be sure to help, or at least look the other way. If this particular cost ended there, that would be bad enough. But what if it didn’t? Containment advocates say that if Iran actually followed through on a nuclear threat, that would spell the end of the Islamic Republic; hence, the mullahs wouldn’t dare. Perhaps. Then again, we know from the Cold War that the potential for disastrous miscalculation can lurk around the most innocuous-looking of corners. For instance, the Soviets interpreted a 1983 NATO military exercise as a ruse de guerre and possible prelude to an American first strike, and they placed their nuclear forces on high alert. Fortunately, when the exercise quickly ended, Moscow realized its mistake and did nothing. But what if the exercise had lasted ten weeks rather than ten days? Also, from the perspective of an American president, once a mushroom cloud is rising over the Fifth Fleet’s base at Bahrain, the fact that you can massively retaliate is small comfort. You’ve already suffered a catastrophic blow. The overwhelming imperative will therefore be not to let things get anywhere close to that point, which means becoming much more accommodating to Iranian aggression.
The resurgent problem of permanent hair-trigger alert might nonetheless at first glance seem smaller than it was during the Cold War. Iran is virtually certain never to wield a nuclear arsenal even a hundredth as large or sophisticated as the USSR’s. Also, while Iran’s current arsenal of missiles could easily strike U.S. forces and allies in the region, it has, for the time being, no delivery system capable of reaching American soil. (Given Iran’s aggressive ballistic-missile program, though, this limitation is not likely to last; hence any containment regimen devised today would carry an expiration date.) But America and Iran would not be the only players in this standoff. Israelis would have more to lose than we do — potentially their whole country. Arms-control treaties — with their tension-lessening talks and verification procedures — would be impossible for reasons too numerous to list. Begin with the facts that to be party to an arms-control treaty, Israel would have to explicitly acknowledge its nuclear program (something Jerusalem will never do), the five recognized nuclear-weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would have to carve out exceptions for Iran and Israel (something at least three of those five would never do, lest it shred what’s left of the treaty), and both Tehran and Jerusalem would have to agree to allow weapons inspectors into their respective military programs’ “holiest of holies” (something neither of them will ever do). Mistrust — not to say paranoia — would permeate the region. Worse, the distance a missile would need to travel would be so short as to make alert times tiny fractions of what they were during the Cold War. The incentive to strike first in a crisis rather than wait out events would be dangerously and unprecedentedly high. If and when — God forbid — the post-1945 anti-nuclear taboo is ever broken, who can guess what might happen next and to whom?