Weighing a Possible War on Iran

As neocons mount a last-ditch offensive to stop Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary partly because he isn’t hawkish enough on Iran the war drums are beating again across Official Washington, drowning out any thoughtful cost-benefit analysis, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the most oft-repeated, widely accepted and habitually unquestioned beliefs about the Iranian nuclear issue is that if Iran got a nuclear weapon then Tehran would, merely by possessing such a weapon, even if it never detonated one, throw its weight around in the region in ways that it wouldn’t or couldn’t do without a nuke.

A nuclear-armed Iran, according to the belief, would coerce and influence neighbors in untold ways we are not seeing now from a non-nuclear-armed Iran. This belief is shared by a wide variety of people who disagree on other aspects of Iran and its nuclear program.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visiting the holy city of Qom in January 2013. (Iranian government photo)

It is held by many people who are firmly committed to using diplomacy to resolve differences with Iran, as well as by people who are itching to launch a war against it. It is held by many people who reject the notion that Iranian leaders are mad mullahs who would nuke Tel Aviv at the first opportunity, as well as by people who peddle some version of that notion.

It is remarkable how a belief that has come to play such a major part in discussion about an issue as prominent as the Iranian nuclear issue has been so automatically accepted and so infrequently examined or questioned. Probably the most prominent questioning of it was in a short piece last year in Foreign Affairs by Kenneth Waltz.

But Waltz, despite his long-established reputation as an eminent political scientist, has been preemptively pigeon-holed on this issue as an outlier. He had long ago argued, without specific reference to Iran, that the spread of nuclear weapons has been more of a stabilizing than a de-stabilizing force.

His piece on Iran is titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” So, sort of like George Ball in his devil’s advocate role regarding the Vietnam War, Waltz with his argument on Iran has been treated as someone to be politely acknowledged but safely dismissed.

A few others have questioned the belief about Iranian nuclear coercion, bucking its entrenched status in the conventional wisdom. I did so a year ago, pointing out how the belief simply does not hold water when well-honed doctrine from the Cold War about nuclear weapons and influence is applied to it. Stephen Walt has also shot down the belief, reviewing how the history of nuclear weapons and attempts at coercion simply does not support it.

And yet the image of Iranian nuclear extortion continues to prevail, probably in large part because for most people it seems to make intuitive sense that ownership of something as awesome as a nuclear weapon ought to have a significant effect on the owner’s international relations.

Those still stuck in the intuitive mode ought to consider the findings of a study reported in the current issue of International Organization by Todd Sechser of the University of Virginia and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M. Their study is partly a rigorous quantitative version of what Walt did, as an examination of the historical record of attempts at coercion.

They used a comprehensive database covering both nuclear and non-nuclear would-be coercers and spanning the entire nuclear age and more. Their finding: possession of nuclear weapons does not help in coercing other states. This is true whether or not explicit threats to use the weapons are made (they seldom are).

Sechser and Fuhrmann accompany their quantitative results with the key analytical points that explain those results. Nuclear weapons are great for deterring a catastrophic action, one that would extinguish one’s regime. But they are not very useful in imposing one’s will regarding other matters.

They are less useful for that latter purpose mostly for reasons examined many years ago by Thomas Schelling when he contrasted deterrence with, his newly coined word, compellence. It is very difficult to threaten credibly the use of nuclear weapons to coerce change to a situation that the threatener has already been living with. And the very awesomeness of nuclear weapons means great costs to anyone who uses them, even if the use does not start a full-scale nuclear war.

Given the stakes involved in the Iranian nuclear matter, with talk still out there about the “military option”, it is irresponsible for so many people who talk about the subject to be relying on intuition rather than on analysis and the historical record.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post¬†at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


3 comments for “Weighing a Possible War on Iran

  1. gregorylkruse
    February 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Knowing no more about the Iran situation than what I’ve read and thought about it, still I venture to say that I don’t think this is about a nuclear weapon at all. Those closer to the situation than me who don’t have a dull Iranian axe insist that Iran really isn’t trying to produce a bomb. If that is true, what is causing alarm and deadly purpose in those who do possess such an axe? The only thing I can think of is nuclear power generation. Virtually safe and efficient nuclear power (supplemented by other renewables) is the way of the future, and Iran wants to be a leader (along with China) in nuclear plant design and construction. Iran is free to experiment with nuclear power in ways not possible in the US and Europe where they are either divesting themselves from it or stuck with aging, obsolete, and inefficent plants. The sanctions and threats may be meant to slow this research enough to give western corporations time to devise a counter-strategy. Anyone who thinks the global corporations won’t risk war with Iran to get what they want must have already forgotten about Iraq and Libya.

    • F. G. Sanford
      February 16, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Yours is a thoughtful and plausible analysis based on a logical interpretation of the motives that might inspire nations with rational foreign policy objectives. But real historical perspectives bode for other interpretations. Take for example Moronica, which campaigned for and successfully initiated war against Slobovia. Their great fear was war on two fronts. If Pottsylvania were to ally itself with the Slobovians, they might be defeated before they could exterminate their indigenous Elbonian population. As the inevitable defeat became harder and harder to deny, they stepped up their efforts to exterminate Elbonians at home. They actually sacrificed the war effort in order to insure that the extermination, if nothing else, would ultimately succeed. They even deluded themselves that the world would one day be grateful for their efforts. Elbonians were regarded as a subhuman blight on humanity, which contributed to the apathy surrounding efforts to liberate them. Today, the Elbonians have created alliances with Slobovia and Moronica, and they are successfully using tension with Lower Miseria to draw attention away from their campaign to exterminate the Vulgarians. Lower Miseria, while itself a scientifically and technologically advanced society, is culturally sympathetic to the Vulgarians. The Vulgarians are an agrarian population indigenous to Elbonia but with strong religious and historical ties to Lower Miseria. Meanwhile, the Elbonians have conscripted ancestral Vulgarian land and given it to Elbonian immigrants from Pottsylvania. The Pottsylvanians are glad to get rid of the Elbonians, as they have historically been a source of domestic tension. Elbonia’s alliance with Moronica’s former enemies has allowed it to continue this process of marginalization, ethnic cleansing and ultimate genocide of the Vulgarians. Ironically, the Elbonians have adopted the same strategy the Moronicans used against them in the past. Ultimately, The Upper Miserians, the Lower Miserians, the Vulgarians and the Slobovians will realize they have more interests in common with the Vulgarians. Pottsylvania is sympathetic to the Vulgarian plight, but has so far remained neutral. That, I’m afraid, won’t last forever. War with Lower Miseria, contrary to their expectations, could spell the end of Elbonia as a regional force. I suspect that the world would not grieve their demise. Henry Kissinger seems to have recently expressed a similar opinion.

  2. rosemerry
    February 16, 2013 at 3:29 am

    The attitude to Iran is illogical, biased in advance, self-serving and assuming against any evidence that Iran is lying (it constantly reiterates NOT wanting to produce a nuke) and belligerent. The USA and the “international community”, being adept at both belligerence and lying, will not accept that a nation can have different behaviours.
    EVEN IF Iran should have a nuke or two as deterrence (like the 5000 or more in the USA and the hundreds illegally held by Israel, both of which threaten and in the case of USA, actually have used nukes), polls have shown that overwhelmingly, the region does NOT fear the prospect, which would balance the threat from Israel which, with its US ally, is the source of most fear.

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