Living With a Nuclear-Armed Iran

Iran will eventually develop a nuclear weapon. Here’s how the world should deal with it.

By Michael D. Purzycki
November 7, 2011

Regardless of whether Iran ever obtains a nuclear weapon, the best response from the rest of the world is to assume that it will, and then to deter the country from ever actually using it. Israel, the United States, and European and Arab countries will thus have to adjust their security strategies to account for a future in which Tehran can choose to launch a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead. Despite the temptation of launching a preventative strike, containment and deterrence of the Islamic Republic remain the best choice.

Already, NATO is developing a strategy for regional missile defense, important building blocks of which were put in place in September when Romania and Turkey signed off on the placement of missile defense sites in their countries. In the Middle East, were the U.S. to follow the advice of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah to “cut off the head of the snake,” other Arab-state foes would likely be the target of Iranian-backed attacks similar to the planned assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In Israel, the temptation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government feels to attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites is certainly understandable. Confronted on several borders by terrorist groups that rely on Iranian support, Israel is naturally inclined to strike at the patron state. The most likely result of such a strike, however, would be Iran’s increased arming and encouragement of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations. Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran may be religious zealots, but they have no incentive to start a war with Israel that would result in the destruction of their country. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has every incentive to attack Israel in the hope of provoking an unwise, disproportionate Israeli response, as happened in the summer of 2006.

The best historical parallel to be made is with U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in and after 1949. When the first Soviet atomic bomb was tested that year, President Truman wisely chose to stick with his administration’s policy of containment. Although the world came dangerously close to nuclear war at various points over the next four decades, the fact that cooler heads prevailed in every case is a testament to the example Truman set for his successors―to resist the urge to fire the first shot of World War III.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the Middle East as an unfolding, miniature cold war. The threat of an Iran-Israel standoff must be kept from spiraling out of control, and there are several important steps the United States can take to reduce the threat of a nuclear exchange.

First, Washington should expand the U.S.-Israel alliance to include the coordination of nuclear strategy, provided Israel first officially acknowledges that it possesses nuclear weapons. Israel will be very reluctant to reveal the size and strength of its arsenal, just as it will continue to worry about the very existence of an Iranian arsenal. But it need not worry about either; the world is already well aware that Israel has nuclear weapons, and the estimated 80 warheads Israel possesses will be more than sufficient to deter Iranian nuclear aggression.

Second, the U.S. should explore the possibility of formal defense ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); already, member states Bahrain and Kuwait (as well as potential members Jordan and Morocco) are major non-NATO allies of the U.S., while Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command. In return for American help in developing defensive weapons systems, the GCC’s members would all have to publicly renounce any development of their own nuclear deterrents.

Israel will doubtless object to any formal cooperation between its closest ally and Arab states that still refuse to recognize Israel, as it did when President Obama announced the sale of military aircraft to Saudi Arabia in October 2010. But, faced with a choice between a possible nuclear attack and certain terrorist attacks, Jerusalem must consider whether it is worse for Arab countries to help the U.S. deter Iran, or for those same countries to lose faith in American resolve and perhaps opt to appease Iran.

Finally, if the White House believes Iran is indeed on the brink of obtaining a nuclear warhead, the Obama administration should send an explicit, public message to Tehran: if a nuclear attack takes place anywhere in the Middle East, Iran will be presumed responsible and will face overwhelming military retaliation. Taking the moral high ground in this regional cold war by not striking first, combined with a clear statement of an intention to strike back against any Iranian attack, is the wisest course for the U.S. and its allies to pursue.

The writer is a masters candidate in global affairs at Rutgers University-Newark.

Photo courtesy of openDemocracy via Flickr.


Michael I appreciate your advice to the world only if Iran was a communist State where pragmatism overcomes Religion of Certainty.

In any relationship one is able to get some idea of possible outcomes based on foundation text - what is the basic construct of Other with communism? What is the basic construct of Other with Islam? - see foundation chapter THE COW

Although the mutation of either can be different some things remain the same and outcomes influenced more by what is shared than is not.

You will find Michael the construct of Other in Islam is exactly the same as the construct in Mein Kampf regards Other. With the added stamp of a God.

Now I want you to consider recently there was a finding happiness is not the same for every culture - so you should not believe what works for the interaction between one culture will work with another - particularly despite stark differences on the surface the Russians cultural background and therefore ethics were relatively the same as the US.

Also there has been some work in Switzerland regards different cultures reactions against Other - if you are interested in a beneficial line of study for the benefit of humanity?

Testing the theory Foundation Text kills and subjugates Other to the degree Other and particularly women are qualified will be a good way to go and test whether or not in fact your advice is worth Humanity following.

I would be quick about it as I have a feeling the head of the snake will be lopped off by the US and Other - my view is after Iran strike Israel preemptively as promised.

Its in the Foundation Text ........... Change it or Change Nothing.

Why assume any Iranian nuclear device would be an offensive tool? An Iranian bomb is better explained as the ultimate deterrent aimed at preventing regime change. It would also enhance the regime's troubled prestige at home since Iran's nuclear program is a nationalist project as well as a scientific-military one. Promising to punish Iran if a nuclear bomb is used in the region is not much of a threat since Iran would have no incentive to use one--unless they were attacked first.

And as for "formal defense ties" with members of the GCC, this route is unlikely because the domestic politics of the sheikhdoms prevent it. While the regimes want American security guarantees, explicit ties are out of the question because they reflect poorly on the ruling families. Remember that the regimes are not eager to admit their security failures, their de facto reliance on the US, or Iranian superiority in this case. By signing explicit deals with the US, regimes would concede the fact that they need the US to protect them. A better solution would be a vague nuclear umbrella that leaves Tehran guessing. Washington would state plainly that Israel and other--unnamed--Arab allies enjoy an American nuclear umbrella and that, if Iran were to initiate hostilities, Tehran would expose itself to the full spectrum of America's retaliatory options. This leave Iran wondering which country is off limits and what provocations invite a massive response.

Just some thoughts. Overall a good piece by Michael. Containment is the appropriate response.

Matthew M. Reed

By far the safest option would be to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the middle east region.. including israel, india and pakistan, with these countries signing the NPT and opening up their nuclear facilities to inspection. Removing all nuclear weapons from the region removes the need for any country to develop capabilities.

I will just comment on your final point, which is rather worrying
'if a nuclear attack takes place anywhere in the Middle East, Iran will be presumed responsible and will face overwhelming military retaliation'

This seems a little extreme considering israel most likely has several hundred nuclear weapons, vastly more than tehran could possibly produce even in ten years. The assumption seems to be that iran is much more likely to use a nuclear weapon than israel. The historical record of conflict in the region shows that israel has been involved in far more conflicts than iran.. often taking 'pre-emptive action' (i.e. initiating the violence). What information is this assumption of iranian afgression based on?

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