The doomsday clock is tick-tocking ever closer to midnight in the Persian Gulf and talk of an Israeli strike on Iran is reaching a fevered pitch. Western leaders are becoming agitated. German Chancellor Merkel felt it necessary to personally call Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to caution him against a unilateral strike. In a comment that can only be described as bizarre, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, complained that “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” What a great way of hanging America’s long-time ally out to dry.
Most analysts agree that it is probably already past the point at which a military operation short of regime change could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Many of these same analysts do not believe that sanctions will compel the Iranian regime to not take the final steps to entering the “nuclear club.” The only strategy that remains is nuclear deterrence. Some observers argue that the same deterrence strategy which was able to maintain the peace with the Soviet Union, a far more aggressive and powerful foe, could effectively put a cork in the bottle that would be the Iranian nuclear threat.
Those who argue for a deterrence strategy would be wise to consider the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s thinking on the subject of nuclear weapons. A study published last year that used all-source data including captured documents and interviews with former Iraqi leaders presents an alternative to the mirror-imaging approach applied by most Western analysts and decision makers, one which assumes that once having acquired nuclear weapons, the Iranian leadership will be satisfied with using them to ensure the regime’s survival (Norman Cigar, Saddam Hussein’s Nuclear Vision: An atomic Shield and Sword for Conquest, The Marine Corps University, Middle East Occasional Papers, June 2011). This study concluded that “rather than viewing nuclear weapons as a stabilizing factor through strategic deterrence, Iraqi thinking suggested a potentially destabilizing approach, given the intent to change the status quo and the balance of power in the region.” Gee, of what other nation located at the head of the Persian Gulf does this remind us? This analysis goes on to conclude that:
Iraqi thinking on deterrence entailed a far from benign ‘aggressive deterrence’ by providing a shield for a more assertive – and potentially very disruptive policy beyond Iraq’s borders. Iraq also perceived that nuclear weapons had a warfighting role, in addition to a deterrence role, with nuclear military doctrine developed even at the operational level. . . Moreover, the Iraqi regime’s threshold for use of such weapons seems to have been considerably lower than conventional wisdom posited (at least in regional conflicts).”
There are reasons to be concerned that Iran’s nuclear thinking has followed a similar intellectual and doctrinal course. If so, the U.S. will not be able to place much reliance on classic deterrence. For Israel, there can be no possibility of stable deterrence with a nuclear-armed adversary that not only publicly calls for Israel’s destruction but is also seeking to provoke asymmetric aggression against that country. Imagine Israel’s dilemma if it is required to act against Hezbollah when that terrorist organization is abler to operate under the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella.
Consideration of possible Iranian views on the role of nuclear weapons in its political and military strategies puts an entirely different spin on discussions of the utility of a preemptive strike. Simply put, there may well be no alternative to such a course of action, particularly for Israel. It does not matter that such an attack will probably not decisively disable the Iranian program. At a minimum, a preemptive attack would make clear to Iran that it will never be able to employ its nuclear arsenal – whenever it acquires one – as a tool of an aggressive foreign policy or military strategy.
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