Engaging IranEditor’s note: The following is a excerpt of Chapter 9, “Nuclear Thresholds” from the author’s book, Engaging Iran.

As the United States continues to move toward confrontation on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program by attempting to link potential cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan with the immediate cessation of nuclear enrichment, the irony is that America has thus systematically forced Iran into a corner, from which it is only likely to emerge armed with a nuclear warhead — turning what is considered by many a nightmare scenario into a reality.

In the Art of Warfare, Sun-Tzu advises: “In surrounding the enemy, leave him a way out; do not press an enemy that is cornered.”1 While arguably not the most advisable approach to waging total war, Sun-Tzu’s phrase does echo the ultimate negotiation technique — paint yourself into a corner and thus you have no option but to win. Legend contends that in his campaign of Mexico, conquistador Hernandez Cortes burned his ships upon reaching the shore, forcing his troops to forget the thought of ever returning home and thus remain fiercely loyal to their commander to the bitter end. It worked, as Cortes’ badly outnumbered forces (with the help of local peoples) defeated the Aztec Empire and solidified Spanish rule over the new colony.

Today, as Iran pushes deeper into nuclear territory, both the Islamic Republic and its declared arch nemesis, the United States, seem to have taken from the playbook of no return, essentially burning the ships behind them.

Leaving no room for ambiguity, President Bush has declared before the American people and the international community that Iran “shall not have the means, the knowledge to develop a nuclear weapon.”2 At the same time, Iraq fatigue has affected the president’s ability to maintain this position. At the end of 2006, only 40 percent of Americans believed that Iran could be stopped from getting nuclear weapons.3 In stark contrast, the nuclear issue inside Iran is nothing short of a call to patriotism — bridging gaps of political affiliation, age, and gender. Nuclear energy is a matter of national pride, making its abandonment a tricky issue for even the most accommodating of Iranian politicians. Needless to say, having two adversaries painting themselves into a corner makes diplomacy all the more tricky, and minimizes the likelihood of forging a peaceful settlement.

Officially, the debate in Iran carefully remains in the realm of nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes.” Because of Iran’s overwhelming domestic energy subsidies, it only exports around 40 percent of its oil. Domestic consumption is anything but frugal, as the cost of a liter of gasoline hovers around nine U.S. cents (or thirty-four U.S. cents per gallon).4 It is not a stretch to consider peaceful nuclear energy as a realistic goal of nuclear development, and the Iranian regime is quick to point to the hard numbers in justifying its program. But Iran’s troubled neighborhood has led many to believe that a parallel and equally compelling need for going nuclear is the attainment of weapons. After all, having a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the East, American troops present in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq and based along the Persian Gulf, facing the strategic rivalry of the GCC, and being within reach of a nuclear Israel, are all apparent incentives to go nuclear.5

Perhaps one of the most poignant and unintended lessons of the Iraq war for the international community has been that it is better to really have nuclear weapons, lest the United States attack. In Iran, it is considered a given that “the US invaded Iraq because it was weak, but sought a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s blatant proliferation because Pyongyang stood its ground.”6 North Korea, which could already have an arsenal of over a dozen nuclear weapons to complement its already sturdy ground forces in the Korean Peninsula, has reaped the benefits of deterrence, making any U.S. military endeavor highly unlikely. For Iran, the lessons of Iraq and North Korea — its supposed partners in the “axis of evil” — have not gone unnoticed.

But Iran knows that there are limitations to reversing the side effects of obtaining such doomsday armaments. As North Korea has proven, nuclear weapons can provide generous negotiating cards, but just as easily they can drag a country further into isolation and crippling sanctions.

Some analysts suggest that Iran has a different strategy. Gary Sick, formerly with the National Security Council and now Executive Director of the Gulf/2000 Project, puts it thus:

Iran is going to enrich uranium and have an infrastructure that will put it within reach — which could be several years — of having a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mean having a nuclear weapon already built, but may be enough from a negotiating perspective.7

This could allow Iran to avoid going back on its continuous public word not to arm itself with a weapon, and it is a step that would necessitate merely not acting on its capabilities, rather than retreating for them in order to strike a deal with the international community — a face-losing proposition. This view echoes the shah’s own reasoning for starting Iran’s nuclear program in the 1960s with the help of both the United States and the Soviet Union. The shah claimed he “didn’t want the bomb yet, but if anyone in the neighborhood has it, we must be ready to have it.”8

If proliferation is to continue at its current rate, however, it is critical to understand the true threat that a nuclear-armed Iran might pose. From the outset, important misconceptions must be abandoned. These revolve around the true application of nuclear weapons in the military theater, as well as the emphasis placed on recent virulent anti-Israeli and anti- Western remarks by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter is more easily addressed by simply reminding ourselves that the Iranian president has no control over the military, foreign affairs, or other coercive elements of his country. Had that been the case, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami might have been more successful in carrying through with his call for a “dialogue among civilizations,” a slogan picked up by the United Nations in 2001, but which nevertheless fell on deaf ears among the Iranian ruling elite. The military, as well as Iran’s nuclear program, is under the ultimate control of the supreme leader, the post once held by Khomeini, and now by Ali Khamenei, and not the president of the republic.

With Iran looking to acquire a nuclear arsenal, as China did more than forty years ago, it is important to ask oneself what the true (not imagined) consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran might be.

A constant fear associated with Iranian proliferation is the case of A. Q. Khan, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, who was accused by his own government of acting as a renegade actor in selling nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. During the mid-1990s, it is widely believed that Dr. Khan sold centrifuge designs to Iran. Centrifuges are fast-spinning machines used to compress (“enrich”) uranium 235, the element needed to produce nuclear fuel for energy or weapons.

Many experts have recently taken a strong position against Iranian proliferation, warning that dealing with Iran would be much like dealing with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the likes of A. Q. Khan. The problem with such arguments, however, lies in the perception of the IRGC — the outfit tasked with guarding much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure — as a ragtag army of brainwashed “true believers,” possibly willing to sell secrets to terrorist cells. And while certain offshoots of the IRGC, particularly those tasked with enforcing Islamic codes in the streets of Tehran, might fit this characterization, it is hardly a proper description of Iran’s most formidable fighting force, which coordinates various sophisticated research and development projects inside the country, and commands the most sophisticated naval air force in the Gulf.

To be sure, an Iran with a nuclear arsenal, given current political hostilities, would only be emboldened to continue on its current intransigent path. It is difficult to push around a country that cannot be conceivably affected by implicit military threats. Just as the United States can only hope to persuade Russia and China to see things its way through the use of economic and political incentives, Iran could never be expected to give up its political positions out of fear of military coercion, especially if its own interests lie in antithesis to the immediate needs of the United States.

This was not the case with Iraq when it did not have a nuclear deterrent in March of 2003. Iraq’s eleventh-hour agreement to allow unconditional inspections of its suspected weapons facilities came too late for Saddam Hussein’s government. Such a request would have never been granted by a state powerful enough to either defend itself with a nuclear weapon, or at the very least cause significant damage to the invading military or its allies.

But just as a nuclear Iran would be able to dissuade outside actors from intervening too closely in its affairs, other nuclear powers, most notably Israel, would continue to enjoy a deterrent capability vis-`a-vis Iran. As Waltz states, many warheads are not needed to effectively deter an enemy’s actions, since most states maintain most of their populations and industrial capacity within small geographic areas. This is especially true in Iran, whose capital Tehran houses around 20 percent of its population, along with much of its industrial capacity. In the case of Iran, it is irresponsible to paint its road to nuclear power as a direct threat to the existence of Israel, simply because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted Khomeini’s wish that Israel be “wiped off the map.” Anti-Semitic as this rhetoric may be, we should hope that policymakers would not suffer from cloudy judgment and throw the foundations of deterrence, on which the relative peace of the Cold War relied, out the window.

Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism

In assessing the costs and benefits of a more powerful Iran, U.S. policymakers must keep in mind that Israel’s and America’s nuclear deterrent is strong enough to repel any hostile military endeavor by the country. The question, really, is not whether Iran would seek to obliterate Israel — that could never happen — but whether America feels comfortable not having the ability to compel Iran to specific action. The discussion surrounding Iran’s future possession of nuclear weapons should center on the assumption that such weapons are of a defensive nature, not a tool for conquest or senseless obliteration. Unfortunately, the television news media often fails to portray this important topic in a mature manner, usually reaching for the lowest common denominator — Iran as an irrational nation-state, ready to blow up anything that comes in its way.9

Given Iranian ties to terrorism, some have suggested that Iran could potentially provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, or even help them develop their own. This is a difficult notion to accept, not only from a strictly realist perspective, but also from a basic understanding of Iran’s political structure. Judith S. Yaphe and Colonel Charles D. Lutes of the National Defense University explain how most “experts agree that the Iranian government is unlikely to share its new nuclear weapons technology with terrorist groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah.” They cite the level of operational sophistication in the IRGC, which is at the head of such programs.10

Arguments that seek to break down concepts of nuclear deterrence are based on one or more of the following key concepts: the delegation of authority, the preemptive use of weapons as a “decapitation” tool, and the emotional impulses of war. The first is the A. Q. Khan example, which points to the suspected inability of certain countries to keep control over their nuclear capabilities. But Pakistan is dramatically different from Iran, especially in the area of national unity. For one, Pakistan does not enjoy the natural, long-standing borders that Iran does. And while Pakistan was partitioned from India for religious reasons, Iran as a nation existed well before the advent of Islam. Today, Pakistan enjoys significant collusion with a variety of external actors, not the least of which are Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalists, who have opened madrasas (or religious seminaries) and continue to spread their Saudi brand of Islam in the country. The Taliban continue to mount operations in Afghanistan, using Pakistan as their headquarters. A. Q. Khan himself has been associated with Taliban sympathizers.

In Iran, however, nationalism is of utmost importance, even to the most religious individuals. A nuclear warhead there would be an “Iranian weapon,” not a “Muslim” one.

The concept of using nuclear weapons preemptively to decapitate an enemy; that is, to be used in the war theater before anyone can retaliate, ignores the very notion of collective security. Should Israel be provided with a more unambiguous security guarantee by the United States, no country could merely seek to “decapitate” its command and control systems without expecting an American nuclear reprisal. Even without the guarantee, however, America’s two most important assets in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, enjoy the benefits of sitting on Islam’s holiest grounds (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are the three most sacred cities in the faith) — hardly attractive targets of nuclear annihilation for any potential rogue fundamentalist.

The last element — the emotional one — is much more difficult to deal with, in that it relies on images of the enemy as a barbaric, irrational being that is consumed with hatred and is willing to engage in national suicide only to inflict loss of life on another country. This argument becomes problematic if we remember Iran’s long, national narrative. Iran’s institutional memory reaches far beyond the advent of Islam, and this is not lost to even the most radical of Islamists. Supranational movements, embodied in the fight of Dar al-Islam (the “House of Islam”) versus Dar al-Harb (the “House of War”) are at the very least mere academic exercises in the history of Islamic theology, and at most, part of a fascination among al-Qaeda sympathizers and not the work of nation-states.

Those who have pointed to Iran’s “exportation of its revolution,” have correctly referred to geopolitical exercises to extend Iran’s influence beyond its borders, and not the manifestation of a religiously pure or selfless missionary endeavor. Suicide bombing is a concept by which organizations utilize individuals as weapons. Suicide attackers (including World War II Kamikaze pilots) have not historically been part of any one particular religion, as the most authoritative studies on the concept suggest.11

Needless to say, suicide operations carried out by individuals on behalf of an organization do not point to a suicidal organization. Hamas, the PIJ, and Hezbollah are not organizations bent on self-sacrifice. Quite the opposite, they are bent on furthering their influence and power by employing low-level recruits to carry out suicide bombings. States too, seek their own survival, and when the opportunity presents itself, they can seek to acquire more power as an aim to maximize their survivability. And while Iran has by extension (through its support of terrorist groups) backed numerous suicide operations, Iran as a nation-state is far from suicidal. At the end of the day, nuclear deterrence works when dealing with nation-states. There have been plenty of chances for nations to engage in massive suicide campaigns, and none have been taken, even by the most verbally outlandish of Islamic regimes: Iran.

The Arms Race Scenario

One of the more troubling prospects that could arise from Iran’s nuclear program would be an arms race in arguably the most volatile region in the world. While Middle Eastern nations have previously called for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ), Iran’s continued push for weapons have prompted alarm by weary neighbors. These red flags have come in the form of press releases and leaked reports. In December of 2006, the GCC announced it was considering a nuclear program of its own for “peaceful purposes.” Not a month later, a report was leaked to The Sunday Times of London, disclosing alleged plans by the Israeli government to attack Iran’s web of suspected nuclear sites using “bunker busting” bombs — low-yield tactical nuclear weapons that are better equipped than conventional munitions to destroy underground facilities. But both Israel and the Saudi-led GCC are in the unenviable position of seeing America bogged down in Iraq with limited political capital, while seeing their own position vis-`a-vis Iran eroding with every claim of uranium enrichment.

There is a real sense that these countries are trying to get the United States to notice their security concerns once again.

However, when it comes to an arms race, Barry R. Posen, a global security expert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explains that an arms race would not be an automatic effect of Iranian proliferation, since the domestic scientific, engineering, and industrial base necessary to build a self-sustaining nuclear program would take Saudi Arabia, for one, several years. In the interim, the Saudis would need nuclear security guarantees from the United States or Europe, which would in turn apply intense pressure on Riyadh not to develop its own arms.12 Given technological constraints and the impact of sanctions, it is believed that Iran would be capable of producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in 2015, a time period that is long enough to make diplomacy work, but also too short to alleviate the concerns of Iran’s rivals. It is also possible that Iran could accelerate the process of enrichment, achieving a weapon much sooner.

The Makings of a New Strategy

In gauging the interests of the United States in the short term, the nuclear proliferation of Iran seems to be a clear nonstarter. With Iran still maintaining a policy of outright anti-Americanism, openly taunting America’s ally Israel and forcing other regional actors to potentially contemplate proliferation on their own, the United States must be prepared to deal with the current challenge with poise. But looking at the long term, and given Iran’s trajectory of independence and likely future role as a natural American ally, any and all approaches to the current nuclear issue must maintain a balanced view between present conditions and grand strategy. This is indeed a dilemma that America faces: allowing Iran to proliferate will make the president’s position seem impotent in the eyes of U.S. allies. Japan, which for long had embraced its post- World War II, U.S.-drafted constitution that calls for a defense-only military, has begun to revisit America’s commitment to its protection and has even started considering the development of a homegrown nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s 2006 underground test of a nuclear weapon, coupled with numerous hair-raising spectacles of military showmanship by the communist nation, which included the launching of missiles over Japan, naturally are of concern to the small and populous island nation. But Iran’s development of a bomb could point to a hands-off policy by the United States toward nuclear proliferation, rather than merely an aberration in the North Korean example. As Japan considers its own entrance into the nuclear club, one must ask whether the security umbrella of America, which provided comfort to its allies during the long and bitter Cold War, can be trusted to maintain security in a post-Cold War security environment.

At the same time that America must care about its erosion of credibility, it must look ahead to a time in which a nuclear-armed Iran might be best poised to provide the necessary stability sought by the United States in the Middle East. By pushing too hard on Iran, and most certainly by launching air strikes against a country that is significantly more pro-American and democratic than most other allies in the region (with the notable exception of Israel), America would be losing its most important hand if it is to adopt a new grand strategy. This grand strategy, which will allow the United States the necessary breathing room and tactical mobility in a post-Iraq war world, should not be discarded with ease. Certainly not at the behest of allies, be they Saudi Arabia or even America’s best friend in the region, Israel. America must make this difficult decision, and brace for this dilemma on its own terms and for its own sake. In the end, one must be convinced that a stronger United States, holding the strategic upper hand at the turn of the twenty-first century, will benefit Israel, Saudi Arabia, and all other allies.

For America to successfully bring its allies on board, and for these countries to believe in America’s commitment to their security, guarantees must be provided. For one, Israel should receive a clear, public, and unwavering commitment to its protection from any nuclear attack, similar to proclamations made on behalf of Europe during the Cold War. “A nuclear attack on Israel will be considered a nuclear attack on the United States,” is not a phrase attributed to any U.S. president. It should be now.

This kind of unequivocal security guarantee would allow Israel some space to reconsider its fear of Iranian nukes, while it would not amount to direct confrontation with Iran, leaving ample room for negotiations. Making further statements that Iran will not be allowed under any circumstances to develop nuclear fuel is not only counterproductive from a negotiating perspective — as it allows little face-saving maneuvering on the other side — but it also reeks of empty promises, similar to those uttered before North Korea detonated a weapon in its arsenal. More of those unkept promises will only lead to a further deterioration of America’s prestige and will serve to weaken alliances.

When dealing with Saudi Arabia, the guarantee cannot be made public, since this would not likely help the Kingdom, whose population is already scathingly anti-American. Saudi Arabia is a friend so long as the Saudi monarchy is in place, and there is no guarantee that this reality will last forever. Should Wahhabis become stronger, Saudi Arabia could conceivably become an enemy of the United States. The real question is whether America should gamble on a friend ruling over a population of enemies, as is the case with the Saudis, or an enemy ruling over a population of friends, as we find in Iran.

The method by which America can walk the tightrope of Iran’s nuclear program may prove to be the gateway for a new Middle East, one more in line with the dreams that President Bush, and most Americans, honestly held for Iraq.


  1. Sun-Tzu, The Art of Warfare: The First English Translation Incorporating the Recently Discovered Yinch’ueh-shan Texts, Translated, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Roger T. Ames (New York: Balantine Books, 1993), p. 132
  2. Quoted in “Iran Must Not Be Allowed to Develop Nuclear Weapons -Bush- UPDATE,” AFX News (via Forbes), March 1, 2006.
  3. “Iran’s Nuclear Threat,” Rasmussen Reports (September 15, 2006). The telephone survey polled 1,000 American adults, and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points, with a 95% confidence interval.
  4. International Monetary Fund, IMF Country Report No. 06/154, “Islamic Republic of Iran: 2005 Article IV Consultation — Staff Report; Staff Statement; Public Information Notice on the Executive Board Discussion; and Statement by the Executive Director for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” April 2006, p13. Oil consumption is “inelastic” — that is, its demand is not easily managed through price manipulation and therefore increasing the price would not necessarily stave off demand. This is yet another argument in favor of energy diversification. See “Iranian People’s Behavior in Gasoline Consumption,” Iranian Trade Association. Available online at: www.iraniantrade.org
  5. There were several press reports in January 2006 surrounding the alleged sale of fake nuclear “blueprints” to the Iranians, whose credibility has come to be questioned. Notwithstanding, there are ample reasons to believe that Iran would consider such weapons to be in its strategic interest. See The Guardian, “George Bush insists that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons . . ., ” January 5, 2006.
  6. Mahan Abedin, “Iranian Public Opinion and the Nuclear Stand-Off,” Mideast Monitor, 1(2) April/May 2006.
  7. Interview with the author, December 18, 2006.
  8. Scott Sagan, “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006, p55.
  9. Ahmadinejad’s political support is not unconditional. Following a December 2006 defeat of his supporters at the voting booth, reformists were gaining ground. See “In Iran Kritik an Ahmadineschad,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, December 29, 2006.
  10. Judith S. Yaphe and Charles D. Lutes, “Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” McNair Paper 69, Institute for National Strategic Studies (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2005), p41.
  11. Robert A. Pape of Chicago University carried out a comprehensive study of all suicide terrorist bombings that have been documented. His findings suggest that suicide terror is not merely a Muslim concept and that the majority of operations have involved the secular Marxists Tamil Tigers of Buddhist Sri Lanka. See Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005); The answer to whether states seek to maximize their power (Mearsheimer) or merely their survival (Waltz) is in the eye of the beholder. See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001) and Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979).
  12. Barry R. Posen, “We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran,” Op-Ed, The New York Times, February 27, 2006. On the length of time it might take for Iran to build a bomb, see “Iran Is Judged 10 Years from Nuclear Bomb,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2005. On Israel’s alleged plan, see “Revealed: Israel Plans Nuclear Strike on Iran,” The Sunday Times, January 7, 2007. On the GCC, see “Arab States Study Shared Nuclear Program,” Associated Press, December 10, 2006.

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