Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Iran, Dr. Strangelove, and Nuclear Deterrence

There are many articles today discussing how difficult it is for the US and the EU-3 to develop strategies for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, including editorials in the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, all of which offer few effective options other than hoping that sanctions can have some impact. I argued in an earlier post that I am skeptical of the efficacy of sanctions, and that I see few, if any, military solutions. I also received an email from a reader ( it was my father) asking why the US doesn't, in effect, apply nuclear deterrence to the situation and threaten to nuke Iran if it develops nuclear weapons. If nuclear deterrence succeeded in keeping the Cold War cold, might it not be useful in preventing a third-rate country from developing nuclear weapons?

The answer is: not likely. Deterrence is predicated on three components: communication (the target must be aware of what action is being deterred and what the penalty for acting will be; this is what the Soviets got so hilariously wrong in Dr. Strangelove by not telling the US about their Doomsday Device), capability (the deterrer must have sufficient means to carry out the threat), and credibility (the target must believe that the deterrer will, in fact, carry out the threatened punishment). In most instances, establishing the credibility of the deterrent threat is the most difficult part. Deterrence is fundamentally an irrational act, as it requires taking an ex post action and paying attention to sunk costs. If deterrence failed and the Soviets had invaded, say, West Berlin and stopped, what would be the point in nuking? Carrying out the action might be useful for establishing future credibility, but that's not strong enough to build a deterrence strategy upon. Actors try to solve this problem by "hand tying" or creating unbreakable commitments that remove the decision from their hands and make the deterrent response automatic. This was the whole point of the Doomsday Device in Strangelove, and also a primary reason that the US based so many troops in Germany. Those soldiers couldn't have stopped a Soviet assault; rather they served as a tripwire to ensure that American soldiers would die in a Soviet attack on Western Europe, making it more likely that the US would fulfill its commitment to protect Europe, thereby enhancing its deterrent credibility.

What does all of this have to do with Iran? Deterrence is really REALLY hard to develop. When the stakes were as high as they were during the Cold War, with allies as important as West Germany, the US was still afraid that its credibility wasn't high enough. Credibility will be an even larger problem in deterring Iran. When I worked for the Strategic Assessment Center of SAIC, one of the last projects I worked on before returning to grad school was a series of wargames on the future role of nuclear weapons, examining what would be the effect of a country like Iran or Iraq developing a nuclear weapon. The analysis was that it would be very bad for US foreign policy, precisely because it would undermine US deterrent credibility. Would the US really destroy a city like Tehran, killing millions of innocent people, to prevent Iran from developing a nuke? Unlikely. If Iran did succeed in proliferating, would the US risk losing a city of a major ally, like Israel or Turkey if deterrence failed? Unlikely. Ironically, the lower the stakes become, the more difficult it becomes for a great power to deter a smaller one.

I don't see nuclear deterrence as a strong option in this case. Conventional deterrence is a little better, as the costs and implications of use are lower. In that case, the US could: A) Carry out or assist a limited air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; B) Conduct a small-scale operation to seize the facilities, or; C) Invade Iran. A is the most likely, but it's hard to believe Iran hasn't hardened its facilities against such a possibility. B and C are much more likely to work, but are much less desirable options for a myriad of reasons. So, as I see it, the best options are either a limited air strike against Iranian nuclear sites or trusting in sanctions, either through the UN, or in the case of a Russian or Chinese veto, through a western organization like NATO. I'm still undecided as to which I think would be best. I do know that this is an exceedingly difficult problem that will likely have a very unsatisfying resolution.

1 comment:

stefan moluf said...

I feel that the best and most credible threat is a sequel to Operation Desert Fox - strike not only Iran's nuclear facilities, but other military installations and forces as well.

Hit equipment depots, command and control centers, early warning systems, anti-aicraft defenses, etc. Make the cost of developing nuclear weapons heavy without resorting to killing civilians, and stall Iran's newfound belligerent streak. Nothing would more directly sting the government than a strike on its military assets.