Middle East

Deconstructing Policy Responses to the Iranian Nuclear Program

By John Henzel

The U.S. and international community’s policy on Iran is a complicated puzzle. Many scholars, strategists, and politicians disagree on the appropriate approach to this delicate situation, suggesting policy choices as disparate as straight-up giving Iran the bomb and wiping the nation out with a nuclear first-strike. Walking through the common tactics being advanced to deal with the issue of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons demonstrates why only broad internationally coordinated diplomatic and economic pressures can produce a positive outcome while minimizing negative externalities.

Of foremost concern, is the question of if Iran should be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. The most persuasive arguments for allowing Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal propose that, not only are nuclear weapons an indelible sovereign right for nations that desire them, nuclear weapons structurally promote peace. The purported evidence is obvious; the era of nuclear weapons that evolved into the Cold War’s ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ ended serious conflict between nuclear powers. States with nuclear weapons must tread lightly with one another out of mutual fear, which paves over years of conflict to pacify the most intense rivalries. By this logic, Iran’s main strategic deficit, and the core of its bellicosity, is its lack of nuclear strength – and thus an effective deterrent – relative to its perceived adversaries, Israel and the United States. Once you solve this deficit, by allowing Tehran access to a nuclear deterrent, tensions will lessen.

However, this position is overly simplistic and ignores key differences between the cases presented. While it is plausible that an Israel/US-Iran peace could be forced through nuclear parity, in actuality, that parity will not exist overnight. In order to have a strong MAD-style nuclear deterrent, a state’s nuclear capability must be able to absorb or evade an opponent’s attack (such as with silos, SLBMs, etc) and deliver an attack of one’s own (requiring miniaturization of warheads, advanced missile design and targeting systems, and extensive personnel training). Iran would not have many of these requisite capabilities for an indefinite interim period that would be characterized by constant fear of first-strike – possibly leading to an Iranian first-strike to jump ahead of the perceived course of events. If Iran lacks the requisite capabilities to weather an Israeli or American strike, the logic of nuclear balance falls apart.

Furthermore, the ‘nuclear peace’ argument has not considered the effects external to the dyadic rivalry between Iran and Israel that will be seen in the region if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. The primary instigating factor for a state seeking nuclear weapons is when it faces a threat of nuclear weapons itself. If Iran gets the bomb, so too must Saudi Arabia, then Egypt, then Lebanon, and Syria, and so on. This cascade of security deficits could effectively break the NPT norm apart throughout the region and have spillover effects to other regions.

The final nail in the nuclear peace thesis is the impact of non-state actors and illicit proliferation rings. While realist theorists suggest that states will never provide the state’s ultimate source of military might to an uncontrollable third party, when states are isolated they seek out similarly isolated groups and states to compensate for their strategic deficits. It is probable that Iran would continue to be diplomatically isolated from the international community even after securing nuclear weapons, so its incentives to participate in proliferation rings would increase. While they may not directly supply third parties with full-fledged nuclear weapons, simple materials and technology in exchange for other goods could substantially support a third party’s nuclear terrorism endeavors. However, this thinking assumes there is a stable, rational, and non-corrupt regime – Tehran’s government officials may have far less scruples in handling its nuclear materials than in other nuclear states.

The answer is emphatic. Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons. But how can this be avoided? Historically, proliferation is a relatively easy feat for a dedicated nation-state. Ambitious strategists back a popular notion with some Israeli leadership, the airstrike. There are a myriad of reasons to think Israel would commit such an act with a narrowing window of opportunity for action (Netanyahu’s ‘red line’), not the least of which is the fact that they’ve done it before with positive results. But Israel cannot unilaterally strike Iran with a reasonable margin of success. Because Iran is farther away from Israel and its nuclear facilities are spread throughout the country, Israel would have to dedicate its entire Air Force to make even a single run at the facilities. America lacks the domestic political support for a joint offensive strike, and an Israeli invasion of Iran is unthinkable. The only remaining option of force would be a nuclear first-strike against Iran’s facilities, which would have chilling diplomatic effects on Israel, and shake the foundations of the NPT norm in the Middle East.

The only viable option left is a unified diplomatic effort from the full international community to bring Iran in line with the global non-proliferation norm. Using sanctions as leverage, the international community can force Iran into a corner economically, starving it of its oil revenue and strategic goods. While this has the possibility of entrenching Tehran’s reliance on illicit markets, Iran’s easier course of action would be to embrace international proliferation norms and be allowed back into international markets.


John Henzel is a second year Masters’ candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International relations. He is specializing in international security and foreign policy analysis.  


One thought on “Deconstructing Policy Responses to the Iranian Nuclear Program

  • “The only viable option left is a unified diplomatic effort….” You mean like several that have been tried in the last decade? How well did that work with the DPRK?


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