Tehran’s Nuclear Endgame
Will self-preservation keep Iran from using nuclear arms? Don’t bet your life.


Michael Rubin

Moammar Qaddafi’s rule might be crumbling, but the colonel refuses to quit. On the evening of August 23, Qaddafi loyalists launched Scuds at the rebel-run town of Misrata. The missile strikes will be a footnote to the last days of the Transitional National Council’s struggle to unseat Qaddafi, but Western policymakers should not ignore them, for reasons that have less to do with Libya and far more with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Both Pres. George W. Bush and Pres. Barack Obama declared that they would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. “The free world cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Bush declared on CBS’s Face the Nation in 2006. Obama, for his part, told the Associated Press in 2009 that he’s “not reconciled” with Iran’s theoretical possession of nuclear weapons during his presidency. Bush left office with his policy in tatters. Obama sought renewed diplomacy, but this too has failed.

Both inside and outside the State Department, Pentagon, and Old Executive Office Building, officials whisper privately what they will not state publicly: The United States is not prepared to use military force to deny Iran a nuclear weapon. Instead, the United States will rely on traditional deterrence.

Those around the administration, as well as respected analysts, agree. “I don’t think this is a suicidal regime. I don’t dismiss out of hand at all the idea that they could be deterred,” Thomas Fingar, one of the primary authors of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, told National Public Radio two years ago. Joshua Pollack, a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and government consultant, argued on the same program that deterrence is the least bad option. “The alternatives to deterrence are what, after all?” he explained, pointing out that the costs associated with military action against Iran would be greater than those in Iraq.

Fareed Zakaria, a pundit close to the Obama administration, also dismissed the notion that the regime is suicidal or liable to act on more extreme interpretations of its ideology. The mullahs, he argued in 2007, are “building up bank accounts in Dubai and in Switzerland. This does not strike me as the kind of ravings of, you know, an end-of-days millenarian,” he declared. In an excellent overview of the debate last year about the character of Iran’s regime, RealClearWorld’s Kevin Sullivan came down firmly against the notion that the Iranian regime remains suicidal, even if it once was. “Even history’s most suicidal of states can — and have — changed. Iran is already one of them. So if Iraqis can trust a once suicidal Iran, why can’t Americans and Israelis?” he asked.

When considering Iran’s nuclear weapons, however, the character of the regime is less important than the ideology of those who would have custody, command, and control of the nuclear arsenal.

It is safe to assume that should the Iranian regime develop a nuclear weapon, the most elite and ideologically trusted unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would retain custody. After all, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Revolutionary Guards to be the elite ideological guardians of his regime. The army’s officers had for too long supported the shah, and while they might help defend Iran’s borders, Khomeini had no confidence that when push came to shove, they would stand firm against the political winds.

Unfortunately, the Revolutionary Guards remain effectively a big black box to the American analytical and academic communities. Scholars and pundits often discuss reformers and hardliners, but only in the context of Iranian politics; parallel analysis of factions within the Revolutionary Guards does not exist. Some academics downplay the Revolutionary Guards’ ideology, suggesting that they, too, have become post-revolutionary. But while it is true that some Iranians may join the Guards for the associated privileges, others are true believers in the regime’s most extreme ideologies. Still, no matter how extreme they may be, the future custodians of an Iranian nuclear device may not be suicidal — so long as the regime’s grip is secure.