History offers many occasions on which deterrence failed when it was expected to work. For example, in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a massive armored attack against Israel, even though Israel was widely suspected of having nuclear weapons. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, later said that the U.S. was surprised by the attack because no one considered Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to be so irrational. But Sadat had powerful reasons for launching the war despite the apparent risks. Specifically, he believed the restoration of Egyptian honor following earlier losses to Israel demanded taking such action, and he hoped thereby to compel superpower intervention that would move Israel toward concessions in its dealings with Egypt. It is possible to question Sadat’s prudence in launching the attack for these reasons, but not his rationality. Rationality held, but deterrence failed.
Earlier, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cuban leadership lobbied hard for a Soviet nuclear strike from Cuba against the United States, according to Soviet leaders. The Cuban leaders apparently perceived a moment when socialism could attack capitalism and prevail, despite the obvious risks that such an attack would pose to Cuba and the world. Fortunately, the Soviet leadership calculated the risks and costs differently, as indicated by the response of Soviet vice premier Anastas Mikoyan. “We see your willingness to die beautifully,” he said, “but we do not believe it is worth dying beautifully.”
What motivations, hidden or explicit, might inspire Iranian leaders to make high-risk decisions? One possibility is their oft-expressed goal of eliminating Israel. Some have suggested that they may even be eager for the chaos and martyrdom that their use of nuclear weapons would produce, because that outcome is consistent with their apocalyptic religious vision of the future. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly expressed his belief that he is supernaturally guided in his decision-making and therefore protected against long odds and high risks. (Hitler held similar views.) Do we therefore know that Iran’s leaders would take high-risk actions? Of course not. Neither, however, do we know with confidence that they would not.
One prediction, however, can be made with some confidence: Iran would consider it less risky to promote its aggressive agenda in the Gulf and beyond if it had nuclear weapons. That agenda includes elevating Iran to the position of regional hegemon. Nuclear weapons would give it security cover as it maneuvered in ways that could lead to an escalation of tensions and outright conflict. This could involve, for example, sponsoring terrorist acts against Israel and other nations, fomenting political unrest in the Middle East, and undercutting the U.S. position in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This conclusion has enormous implications for U.S. policy. It suggests that, if Iran achieves nuclear capability, effective deterrence strategies will be particularly important but also potentially difficult to put into practice.
During the Cold War, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of defense, Harold Brown, concluded that effective deterrence requires a credible threat to what the enemy “considers most important.” The application of that conclusion to Iran leads to two fundamental questions. What is it that the Iranian leadership considers most important? And can the United States credibly put it at risk?
There is some evidence that what Iranian leaders hold dearest is the Islamic Republic itself and their autocratic leadership of it. For example, the founding leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, decided in 1988 to accept a ceasefire in his nation’s long war with Iraq — a ceasefire that essentially had been available since 1982 — because the war had come to pose a threat to his regime. He did this even though he regarded it as drinking “the cup of poison.” In addition, he established as a governing axiom that the supreme religious value is the preservation of the Islamic Republic and by extension revolutionary Islam, and that virtually any act may be condoned if undertaken for that purpose.
Indeed, this raison d’état likely underlies Iran’s apparent commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons, despite repeated declarations by the U.S. and other powers that such an outcome would be “unacceptable.” The regime may believe that nuclear weapons will protect the survival of the Islamic Republic and the leadership’s position in it both from external threats and from foreign military support for its democratic opposition, possibly supported by foreign governments. The world’s patient and relatively benign treatment of North Korea is likely to have demonstrated to Iranian leaders that nuclear weapons would enable them to hold their opponents at bay, just as the fates of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi demonstrated that the cost of challenging the West with only conventional forces can be prohibitively high.
Will the United States be able to establish credible strategies for deterring Iran’s leadership? Perhaps, but the policies of the Obama administration with respect to Iran are not encouraging. To date, they likely have reduced the credibility of U.S. deterrence strategies. How so?
A central theme of the administration’s national-security policy has been an almost unshakable faith in engagement. President Obama came to office promising an open hand to the mullahs in Tehran. In practice, this has meant that for almost three years the administration opposed — actually opposed — the imposition of effective sanctions on the regime in order not to reduce prospects for nuclear talks. By placing engagement at the center of its Iran policy, the administration has not only failed to achieve its objective, but has also bought time for Tehran to continue work on its nuclear program.