Politics & Policy

Tehran’s Nuclear Endgame

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

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.

No Iranian leader, however, can bet on stability. The revolutionaries who seized power in 1979 represented a broad coalition united in opposition to the shah, not in allegiance to Khomeini. Almost immediately, the revolution turned on its own; the range of acceptable political discourse in Iran has shrunk with every subsequent year. Polls show that most Iranians today neither believe in Khomeini’s philosophy of clerical rule nor think that their current system can be reformed.

That does not mean Iranians are revolutionary; most are apathetic, scarred by a revolution that brought not freedom but renewed dictatorship and contributed to a war that killed perhaps one million people. Still, Iran is a tinderbox: The question for analysts is simply whether the government is better at extinguishing sparks than the opposition is at fanning the flames. In 1999, 2001, and 2009, Iranians poured into the streets in protests that briefly threatened the continuity of the regime. It is certain that when the regime miscalculates and contributes a new spark, there will be new mass protests in Iran. Eventually, the fire will take hold and some security forces may defect to the protesters, a parallel more akin to the last days of Nikolai Ceausescu in Romania, or perhaps Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, than to Libya, which required the involvement of outside forces.

In a case where regime collapse is inevitable, assumptions that the regime will act to moderate its own behavior become moot. When Qaddafi recognized his hours were numbered, he launched Scud missiles at his own people. What might the Revolutionary Guards do in a parallel situation? Ideological hatred toward the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia may be rhetorical among many Iranians, but for those in the Qods Force or other elite units, the embrace of ideology is sincere. While they might not normally be suicidal, if they believe the regime and perhaps their lives are over regardless of their actions, why not make good on the ideological goal and launch a nuclear weapon against external enemies? After all, would the United States or Israel really retaliate against a regime that would already have changed even before the smoke cleared? It is doubtful that the United States or Israel would gratuitously kill 20 million Iranians in such a situation.

Qaddafi’s last stand should provide a wake-up call for those who wish to tie American national security to deterrence. Placing a bet on a nuclear Islamic Republic’s desire for self-preservation discounts two important factors: The determination of the Iranian people to be free, and the ideological sincerity of the small elite whose fingers would be on the nuclear button.

— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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