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Dealing with a Nuclear Iran: Applying Historical Lessons in Deterrence

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Air War College Air University Maxwell AFB United States

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Can the world live with a nuclear armed Iran The root of the question is whether or not Iran can be deterred. This paper examines the elements required to successfully apply deterrence theory, analyzes those elements in historical context and then applies them to a future deterrent strategy against Iran. The author explains why Irans current leaders can be deterred from overtly using nuclear weapons but, there is little chance of deterring them from proliferating nuclear material or technology. Although rhetoric from leaders in Iran has frequently called for the destruction of Israel, in fact Iran has behaved as a rational nation. A strategy for deterring Iran from overtly using a nuclear weapon would be fairly straightforward. The combined elements of denial, second strike capability and a clearly communicated promise of assured annihilation would be adequate.However, the US and the rest of the world have not been very successful at nuclear counter-proliferation. Recent examples include the transfer of nuclear material and technology by North Korea and Pakistan to nations the US has labeled state sponsors of terrorism. These and other examples have largely gone unpunished resulting in a lack of credibility in the worlds efforts at deterring nuclear proliferation. The lack of a credible deterrent for proliferation, an ever growing list of nations acquiring nuclear material and the potential for an untraceable delivery of a nuclear or radiological weapon combine to present a dangerous situation. A state could devise a scenario in which the benefits of a nuclear strike against the west might be gained with little chance for catastrophic retaliation. This paper concludes with recommendations on how to eliminate anonymity and prevent any nation from considering the possibility of such a scenario.

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