A Nuclear Iran: The Case for Action

By Clay Varney

Clay Varney is an intern at the Center for Security Policy and a Master’s candidate in International Security at the University of Denver.

Since August 9, 1945 no nuclear weapon has been deployed in warfare. Despite the tensions and volatile events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Blockade, which might have precipitated such a use, the catastrophe of a subsequent nuclear attack has not occurred. Though it was widely assumed that an eventual nuclear exchange between the US and USSR was likely, cooler heads on both sides acted to ratchet down crises that might have escalated to a dangerous degree. At the outset of the Cold War, there was no clear reason to believe another attack would not have been the case. This of course begs the question, if so many states now possess nuclear weapons, why have they not been employed?

There are two primary reasons for this absence. First, as the United States and the Soviet Union developed increasing numbers of advanced nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) emerged. MAD, according to one definition, arose when “the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had grown so large and sophisticated that neither country could entirely destroy the other’s retaliatory force by launching first, even with a surprise attack. Starting a nuclear war was therefore tantamount to committing suicide.”1 Secondly, a complementary concept surfaced that reinforced the reluctance toward the first-use of nuclear weapons. Known as the nuclear taboo, this concept can be defined as: “A normative prohibition on nuclear use…although not (yet) a fully robust norm, has stigmatized nuclear weapons as unacceptable weapons of mass destruction. Without this normative stigma, there might have been more ‘use.’”2 In light of these corresponding forces, decision makers in various governments have been unwilling to employ nuclear weapons against other nations.

A New Kind of Threat

Unfortunately, a new, much more dangerous generation of nuclear weapons proliferators has emerged. North Korea recently tested a crude nuclear device, adding yet another member to that previously exclusive club of nuclear weapon states. Although North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is far from comforting due to the seemingly unstable nature of the country’s leadership, a far greater threat looms on the horizon. The Islamic Republic of Iran is making substantial progress towards the development of a nuclear capability.  Assuming that this effort is not merely for peaceful purposes, as the clerical government claims, the consequences may be grave for the countries of the Middle East and for the United States itself.  Though the regime of Kim Jong-Il remains a significant threat, policymakers should be far more concerned with Iran.  North Korea can be deterred. Iran, however, is different.

As a result of particular internal characteristics unique to Iran, its possession of nuclear weapons may be far more problematic than that of any other state to have previously joined the nuclear club. Because of these characteristics, Iran may not be swayed by the two concepts.discussed previously: mutually assured destruction and the nuclear taboo. These internal characteristics, based upon the beliefs and practices of Shia Islam – specifically the Twelver branch predominant in Iran on which the regime garners its legitimacy – and on an intense antipathy towards Israel and Jews in general, provides a counterweight to the forces of MAD, the nuclear taboo, and other conventional forms of deterrence.

The argument presented here was first articulated by Bernard Lewis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “August 22: Does Iran gave something in store?,” published on August 8, 2006.3 The piece notes that Iran is unlike any other state with nuclear weapons in that its leadership holds an “apocalyptic worldview” which has a major impact on its decision making. In that article, Lewis speculated that in light of Iran’s declaration to give the United States a “final answer” about its nuclear development by August 22, Iran might have something major planned. He reasoned that this date, which coincided with an important date on the Islamic calendar, as it was the occasion of Muhammad’s Night Journey to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem, might be an occasion when the Iranian leadership decides to instigate the end times with a nuclear attack on Israel.