Who shoots first?
There’s something about Iranian foreign and defense policy that lends itself to intractable debate. After a variety of stimulating conversations with bloggers such as Jon Rue and Galrahn, I’ve decided to spare everyone online either the annoyance of trying to follow the sprawling conversations, or inundating the uninterested with an endless series of tweets.
One of the first things I would like to point out is that Iran has no plausible incentive to launch a nuclear first strike on Israel, contrary to some recent claims. In fact, not even fear of an Israeli nuclear first strike gives Iran an incentive to launch a nuclear weapon first. Now, there will doubtless be people who claim that I am relying on a false and outmoded model of rational actors which does not apply to Iran. Instead, I am assuming Iran is no more or less irrational than most other nuclear powers have been about the use of their own weapon.
First off, Iran has no incentive to launch a nuclear weapon first because it cannot disarm an Israeli second strike. While it only takes one nuclear bomb to seriously harm the population and infrastructure of Israel, it would take significantly more to ensure that Israel did not have a survivable second strike in the form of its air force, its ballistic missiles, or its submarines loaded with nuclear surface-launched cruise missiles. It would also take an extreme degree of precision targeting and a rapid acting ASW capability in the Mediterranean, which is virtually impossible for the Iranian military. A successful first strike must be a counterforce strike to disarm the enemy capability to retaliate. This is much, much, much easier said than done, and in the case of the Iran-Israel dyad, more than likely impossible.
Ah, but might Iran miscalculate because it is afraid of an Israeli first strike? Well, if it is cognizant of an Israeli nuclear capability, then it would have to be aware that it does not have enough bombs to win a nuclear war through launching a first strike. What about the case where Iran wants to deter a conventional attack from the Israeli air force? Might it use it bomb before it is destroyed? This model is rather bizarre, because it assumes that Iran is more afraid of an Israeli Air Force bunker buster than it is of a Jericho III with a nuclear warhead. This is not a question of rationality, it is a question of consistency. Explaining why Iran would launch a nuclear attack because of fear of an Israeli first strike, conventional or nuclear, requires explaining why the Iranians think Israel would not respond with its own nuclear weaponry.
It also requires explaining the Iranian decision to escalate a conventional Israeli attack on Iranian territory into a nuclear war. The purpose of a nuclear bomb is not to deter all conventional attacks, nor are they particularly effective at doing so. Countries generally only rattle their nuclear weapons over conventional incursions if they believe them to be part of a serious and sustained threat to their national interests. The tolerance for conventional defeat can be quite high, as Israel demonstrated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which is probably the closest that a conventional war has come to triggering a nuclear exchange.
In the case of Iran, however, there’s little evidence that Iran seems particularly afraid of the Israeli Air Force – and they do not need to be. After all, Israel cannot, without using nuclear weapons, prove an existential threat to the Iranian regime or the Iranian state in general. The IAF would have a hard enough time toppling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. There is no evidence that even sustained bombing lasting for months would break the will of the Iranian people or regime. Israel’s army cannot geographically invade Iran and threaten it that way, nor do its troops or Iran’s share a common border in a 3rd party country, as the US and USSR did in Germany. In other words, without dropping the bomb, Iran has nothing to fear from the Israelis without them escalating to a nuclear level, which is exactly why Iran’s foreign policy has been so revisionist in the first place – it can get away with it.
Ah, but surely those proxies could lead to a nuclear conflict? There’s nothing to indicate that so far. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a good example of a proxy conflict that nearly resulted in nuclear war, but it’s also instructive as to why we don’t have nearly as much to fear. For one thing, why exactly would Iran be willing to back Hezbollah up with nuclear force if it was not willing to back them up with conventional presence? Yes, Iran provides massive amounts of support to Hezbollah and would not want to see its client lost. That said, countries generally are not willing to risk their own nuclear annihilation for clients it does not even bother having official military deployments to protect. The US and USSR had a panoply of proxies they supported with merely special forces and funding, but none of them merited a nuclear bomb in their most dire moments.
Cuba had significant conventional support from the Soviet Union, indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred because the missiles themselves were in Cuba! Cuba had to receive formal support because it was the only way the USSR could establish a credible missile threat to the US homeland (ICBMs were in their infancy), and therefore a US threat to Cuba was not just a threat to a client, but a direct threat to a major deployment of strategic-level nuclear forces. Hezbollah is not nearly as important to Iran, and if it was we would have seen, as the Soviet Union did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a mobilization of conventional assets in theater to support their ally in the invent of a crippling foreign invasion. In fact, the record, with 2006 included, has no examples of Iranian willingness to commit even conventional forces to Hezbollah. We do not need to assume Iran is rational, merely roughly as ‘irrational’ as it has been in the past.
So what’s the likely purpose of Iranian nuclear weapons? Deterring existential threats to the Iranian regime, most notably an Israeli nuclear bomb or a US invasion. A nuclear weapon will not make Iran more aggressive, it will merely reinforce the status quo. When North Korea got a nuclear weapon, it did not automatically make the state more aggressive – the sinking of the Cheonan was behavior remarkably consistent with the country’s pre-nuclear policies, in which it made assassination attempts against Korean government officials, bombed airlines, seized a US vessel, shot down US aircraft, and hacked unarmed men in the DMZ to death with axes. Iran has an aggressive irregular warfare capability now and it will continue to exercise it. All it takes off the table were two options that were never very good ideas in the first place – Israel nuking Iran and America (or some other coalition) actually invading it to conduct regime change.
There is nothing in Iranian history to suggest that Iran would ignore the threat of an Israeli nuclear strike, or that it would be willing to “lose” a nuclear war. The Iranian willingness to use children for mine clearing or mistreat its people are vivid but hardly compelling proof of the regime being willing to martyr itself. Stalin and Mao sacrificed their people at a scale that dwarfs Iran’s and a ruthlessness to match, if not exceed them. In fact, Mao spoke openly of winning a nuclear war because China could afford to lose hundreds of millions of people. He even took steps that Iran has not, such as encouraging the building of tunnels and stockpiling of grain to survive a nuclear war with the USSR. Yes, every nuclear dyad is different. Yet of all the nuclear dyads, we’ve never seen a country in a position like Iran’s contemplate a first strike, even when they thought they could endure against enemy nuclear retaliation or outright win a nuclear war.
It’s worth noting that I’ve taken some time in coming around to these opinions. Robert Farley has done a lot of the work in convincing me, and while my piece here has been narrowly concerned with the issue of Tehran ordering a first strike, he has an even more provocative argument about Iran’s nuclear program as a reinforcement of the regional status quo, rather than a revolutionary upheaval. Tom Barnett has another excellent post detailing many of the takeaways surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, and although I am not so convinced of the regime’s fragility, many of his other points are very important. In a way, the overreaction to the Iranian nuclear program is also a pretty predictable event. Certainly there was much undue fear over other states acquiring nuclear arms – yet few of these states have ever been seriously tempted to make a first strike – even if it fears an Israeli one.