What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told.

Summary:  We’re driven to war like sheep herded by dogs, both sheep and us manipulated by fear.  Today we’re driven to war by fear of what a nuke-armed Iran will do, as described by our ever-hawkish geopolitical experts.  How reliable are their forecasts?  Ninth in a series; at the end are links to the other chapters.


  1. Could Iran use nukes to increase its geopolitical influence?
  2. Iran could use nukes for defense
  3. The World Can Live With a Nuclear Iran
  4. Is Iran weak or strong?
  5. Is Iran irrational and anti-American?
  6. Other posts in this series
  7. For more information: articles discussing our attempts to stop Iran’s progress towards nukes
  8. Other posts about Iran’s nuke program

(1)  Could Iran use nukes to increase its geopolitical influence?

Paul Pillar examines the ways Iran could use nukes:  “Iran’s Nuclear Oats“, Paul R. Pillar (former National Intelligence Officer), The National Interest, 29 September 2011 — Excerpt:

The alarmism about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is unmatched by any comparably intense attention to exactly why such a possibility is supposedly so dire. Among the voluminous opinion pieces, panel discussions, campaign rhetoric, and miscellaneous outcries on facets of this subject, one could search in vain for any detailed analysis of just what difference the advent of an Iranian nuke would make. Most of the discourse on the topic simply seems to take as a given, not needing any analysis, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be so bad that to prevent it warrants considering even extreme measures

Recently Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy produced what appears to fill this gap. His monograph, titled “Nuclear Weapons and Iran’s Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios,” is, at least on the face of it, a serious effort to analyze the regional and global consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons. It is the most extensive consideration of this question I have seen from anyone who clearly believes that an Iranian nuke would be very bad. As such, Jain deserves credit for taking this stab at the subject. As a serious, extensive effort, his paper can be taken as demonstrating the limits of any case about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons.

… Jain does not fall back on the familiar but crude notion of Iranian leaders as a bunch of mad mullahs who are irrational, cannot be deterred, and cannot be trusted not to push the launch button for any crazy reason. Instead Jain takes the more sophisticated approach one more often hears in discussions of this subject among policy elites: that the real danger of an Iranian nuke is not that Tehran would launch a nuclear bolt out of the blue but instead that such capability would somehow lead to other forms of aggressive or dangerous Iranian behavior. The Iran he depicts is not an irrational actor but instead a very calculating one that pursues an assortment of regional and global objectives. And so most of Jain’s paper is a scenario-by-scenario rendition of all kinds of nastiness that Iran could conceivably perpetrate, either within its own region or farther field. The possibilities discussed run from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

All of these scenarios are put under the heading “Iran as a Nuclear Weapons State”. And each scenario has a subsection titled “Impact of a Nuclear Capability”. But here’s the main thing to notice: nowhere is there any explanation of exactly how and why a nuclear capability would make a difference in Iranian behavior. The most that Jain can offer is to assert several times that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability” it might do thus-and-so. We never get an explanation of exactly how such a shield should be expected to work. The scenarios are basically just a spinning out of an assortment of things one could imagine Iran doing, some of which have some relationship to things Iran is already doing and some of which are only flights of fancy. Nuclear weapons play hardly any role in these products of imagination.

In this respect Jain’s approach is again typical of most of the ringing of the Iranian nuclear alarm bell one hears in sophisticated policy advocacy. The idea is that armed with a nuke, Iran would somehow become more aggressive and troublesome because it would be feeling its oats. (Jain doesn’t use this phrase, but I have heard others arguing in the same direction use exactly those words.) The argument really is that vague.

If one is to get beyond arguments that are as mushy as oatmeal and to try to put together a more rigorous analysis, several things would be required to conclude that the advent of a nuclear weapon would change Iranian behavior. One is that there is something Tehran wants to do and sees it as in its interest to do but, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, is not doing now. Second, the reason Iran is not doing that behavior now is that someone else is holding over its head a threat of retribution or retaliation if it were to indulge in the behavior. Third, the other party would no longer wield such a threat if Iran had a nuclear weapon, and the reason it no longer would wield the threat is that it considers it credible that Iran would escalate to the nuclear level whatever matter is in dispute. I have thought hard to come up with plausible scenarios that meet these requirements and have been unable to do so. The last requirement, about credibility of escalation to the nuclear level, is especially hard to meet. I have not heard from anyone else any plausible scenarios that meet these requirements either.

Applying this kind of rigor to Jain’s scenarios reveals how inapplicable a change in Iran’s nuclear status would be to any of them. … The crude and sophisticated versions of the alarm-ringing are not all that different, because the sophisticated version ultimately depends on the credibility of Iranian leaders, under certain circumstances, actually pushing that launch button. Jain concedes that “the US might succeed in deterring Iran’s use of nuclear weapons, as well as direct military aggression against its allies” but contends that the intimidation, subversion, and other behaviors he discusses “could pose a greater challenge.” The fatal flaw in the argument is that if the use of nuclear weapons is not credible because it is deterred, than the mere possession of such a weapon is strategically incapable of shielding other behavior.

Also see:  “Nuclear Iran not necessarily existential threat to Israel“, Haaretz, 29 December 2011 — Excerpt:

What is the significance of the term existential threat?” the ambassadors quoted {Mossad chief Tamir Pardo} as asking. “Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That’s not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely.”

(2)  Iran could use nukes for defense

Nukes are the ultimate defensive weapon.  This fact highlights the irrationality of US policy towards Iran.  Possession of nukes gives Iran one certain advantage:  protection from US all but the most covert attacks.  It certainly reduces to near zero the odds of US invasion, either directly (as done to Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan) or by proxy (eg, Libya, the latest in a long list).

Our aggressive policy towards Iran has as its chief goal preventing Iran from acquiring nukes.  Our aggressive policy towards Iran also provides a strong reason for Iran to acquire nukes.

(3)  The World Can Live With a Nuclear Iran

(a) The World Can Live With a Nuclear Iran“, Martin van Creveld, op-ed in The Forward, 24 September 2004 — Excerpt:

Though rich in oil, Iran is a third-world country with a population of 80 million and a per capita income of $2,440. By the best available figures, those of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, its annual defense budget stands at about $6.3 billion — a little more than half of Israel’s and a little less than 2% of America’s.  Iran, in fact, spends a smaller percentage of its resources on defense than any of its neighbors except the United Arab Emirates.

… Should the United States strike at Iran — and let’s be clear here, we are talking about a strike by cruise missiles and manned aircraft, not about an invasion for which Washington does not have the troops — then Tehran will have almost no way to hit back. … the Islamic Republic has few options. Iran’s ground and naval forces are irrelevant to the problem at hand.

… Iran’s other options are either to stir up trouble in the Gulf or to launch terrorist attacks in the West. Trouble in the Gulf will cause the price of oil to skyrocket, but it will not save Iran from being heavily bombed. This threat, moreover, is something the American navy and its allies in the Gulf should be able to handle. Why else would Washington keep two or three carrier task forces with more than 25,000 personnel in the region?

Terrorist attacks are certainly possible. However, their strategic impact will be close to zero. After all, the September 11 attacks — the largest such attack of all time — did not diminish the capability of the American armed forces by one iota.

A coordinated worldwide terrorist campaign, as distinct from individual pinpricks, is easier to talk about than to organize; too many things can go wrong. Back in 1991, there were fears that Saddam was about to launch such a campaign. In the end, not a single attack materialized.

In case Bush does decide to attack Iran, it is questionable whether Iran’s large, well-dispersed and well-camouflaged nuclear program can really be knocked out. This is all the more doubtful because, in contrast to the Israeli attacks on Iraq back in 1981 and on Syria three weeks ago, the element of surprise will be lacking. And even if it can be done, whether doing so will serve a useful purpose is also questionable.

Since 1945 hardly one year has gone by in which some voices — mainly American ones concerned about preserving Washington’s monopoly over nuclear weapons to the greatest extent possible — did not decry the terrible consequences that would follow if additional countries went nuclear. So far, not one of those warnings has come true. To the contrary: in every place where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale wars between their owners have disappeared.

(b)  “Overblown”, Frank Procida (Council on Foreign Relations), Foreign Affairs, 9 June 2009 — “The debate in Washington about Iran’s nuclear program has lost all sense of proportion. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat, but largely to the regime in Tehran.”  Excerpt:

It would be irresponsible to be apathetic about the ramifications of a nuclear Iran. However, twentieth-century history, the character and limitations of nuclear weapons, and the Iranian regime’s behavior should temper concerns that an Iranian bomb undoubtedly would, in the words of Admiral Mullen, have “tragic and drastic” consequences.

Since the advent of the nuclear age, scientists, activists, academics, and politicians have feared that the spread of atomic weapons would prove unstoppable. The rhetoric one hears today regarding the probable reaction of Middle Eastern countries to a nuclear Iran echoes concerns put forth by experts when the Soviet Union, China, and even France got the bomb. Yet the worst-case scenarios rarely came to pass — Germany and Japan, for instance, remained nonnuclear despite expectations — and there is no reason to suspect that the Middle East will buck this historical trend.

… This, then, begs the question: If Iran does not plan on using a nuclear weapon, if the regime would never give a bomb to a terrorist group, and if a nuclear capability would not provide Iran cover to pursue its interests more aggressively, why are the mullahs challenging the West and enduring sanctions in order to acquire one? … Certain hard-line elements within Iran may view a small weapons capability necessary to prevent Washington from considering any operation designed to topple the regime.

That said, it is not entirely clear that the regime is seeking an actual weapon. Enriching uranium to fuel nuclear power plants that do not yet exist might not make sense economically or otherwise, but that has never stopped seemingly rational countries from making similar decisions in the past.

Moreover, Iran might be content to stop short of producing an actual weapon and settle for a latent capability. The regime may believe the ability to produce fissile material alone is enough of a deterrent, making the pain and cost of producing an actual bomb unnecessary. As noted above, U.S. policymakers have shown no hesitation in giving the impression that a nuclear Iran would change the region irrevocably. It is certainly not lost on Iran that Washington talks as if it already has been deterred by a country that has done nothing more than enrich a small amount of uranium and launch missiles that could hit the United States only after catching a 4,000-mile-per-hour tailwind.

(4)  Is Iran weak or strong?

Both.  Great resources poorly managed.  Powerful external enemies.  Internally divided.

(5)  Is Iran irrational and anti-American?

For a rebuttal to this widely believed theory see “The Iranian Challenge“ in 19 November 2007 issue of The Nation, by Trita Parsi (Wikipedia entry).  He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. (Yale, 2007), and president of the National Iranian American Council).  This article describes 6 myths about Iran.

2. Iran is irrational and cannot be deterred.

Not true. Iran’s foreign policy behavior is highly problematic for the US, but a careful study of Iran’s actions — not just its rhetoric — reveals systematic, pragmatic and cautious maneuvering toward a set goal: decontainment and the re-emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent power in the Middle East. Iran often conceals its real objectives behind layers of ideological rhetoric, with the aim of confusing potential enemies and making its policies more attractive to the Muslim nations it seeks to lead. At times it even simulates irrationality as an instrument of deterrence, the calculation being that enemies will be more reluctant to attack Iran if Tehran’s response can’t be predicted and won’t follow a straight cost-benefit analysis. (Richard Nixon used the same strategy during the cold war, in what he called the “madman theory”; he sought to deter the Soviets by making them think he was slightly mad and unpredictable.)

In reality, the United States — and Israel — have a long history of deterring Iran. During the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel signaled Tehran’s leaders that it would retaliate against Iran if Hezbollah struck Tel Aviv with long-distance missiles. Tehran got the message. Despite many promises by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to hit Israel if the Jewish state continued the bombardment of Lebanon, Iran prevented Hezbollah from using its long-range missiles. Deterrence worked, and an uncontrollable escalation of the war was avoided.

3. Iran is inherently anti-American.

Not quite. To Iran anti-Americanism is a means, not an end. Iran believes that its size and power position it to play a major role in regional affairs. This aspiration, however, clashes with America’s aim of isolating and containing Iran. As long as public opinion in the Middle East remains largely critical of the United States, and as long as Washington continues to seek a regional order based on excluding Iran, Iran will likely play on anti-Americanism to make Washington’s policy of exclusion as costly as possible and to rally existing anti-American sentiment around Iranian objectives. But if the strategic environment in the region changes — with a different relationship between Tehran and Washington as a result — the utility of anti-Americanism will fade away.

Also see:  Stratfor thinks about the unthinkable: a U.S.-Iranian deal, 6 March 2010

(6)  Other posts in this series:

  1. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran, including aid to terrorists
  2. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  3. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010 — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984
  4. About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
  5. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012 — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition
  6. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012 — US intelligence officials are clear:  not as much as the news media implies
  7. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012 — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media
  8. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  9. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012
  10. Status report on the already-hot conflict with Iran – and the looming war, 12 January 2012
  11. Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012 — Insights about today from Cold War strategist Colin Grey
  12. What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war, 16 January 2012
  13. Has Iran won a round vs. the US-Israel?, 17 January 2012
  14. Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?, 19 January 2012

(7)  For more information: articles discussing our attempts to stop Iran’s progress towards nukes

  1. Deep Background“, Philip Giraldi, The American Conservative, 1 August 2005 — “In Case of Emergency, Nuke Iran”
  2. The Iranian Nuclear Program, Sanctions, and the Lessons of Iraq“, Bernard Finel at his blog, 28 September 2009
  3. Don’t Fear Iranian Nukes“, Anthony Gregory, The Beacon (of The Independent Institute), 11 January 2012

(8)  Other posts about Iran’s nuke program

For the full list see the FM Reference Page Iran – will the US or Israel attack Iran?

  1. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State , 10 December 2007
  2. ISIS: “Can Military Strikes Destroy Iran’s Gas Centrifuge Program? Probably Not.”, 8 August 2008
  3. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  4. Follow-up on America’s latest wetting our pants episode: Iran’s secret atomic facility, 13 November 2009

13 thoughts on “What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told.”

  1. Is Iran desperate in their latest move in sentensing that American to death for spying or do they want a confrontation?

  2. There is a huge difference in having heavy first generation nuclear warheads and having standoff delivery systems Its quite likely Iran will soon have the former. Its unlikely they have the latter with any kind of throw weight.

    The Soviets developed extremely powerful boosters because they found it very difficult to create compact and lightweight warheads. I dont think Iran is that far advanced (yet).

    Thus, in the near future, Iran’s future nuclear capability is likely to be a threat to its neighbors and near neighbors. It will put them in parity with Pakistan, India, perhaps China.

    I think the biggest effect will be fingerpointing in the US during the 2012 campaign season.

    1. “Iran’s future nuclear capability is likely to be a threat to its neighbors and near neighbors. It will put them in parity with Pakistan, India, perhaps China.

      You use “parity” in a unique way.* If Iran is able to eventually construct a few gun-type fission bombs, that will leave them far, far from being a threat to China or Israel. All that a country with 2 or 3 fission bombs can do is defend against being invaded, or be utterly wiped out if they looked like they were about to use those weapons offensively.

      (* by which I mean “wrong”)

  3. refreshing article, for a change. keep up the real facts and try to make those Americans who lack a certain intellect understand that they better worry about their diet and spending habits..

  4. What would happen?

    If you go by the India Pakistan and Egyptian Syrian Israeli situations probably a reduction in the chance for a major war. “Threatening” it’s neighbors isn’t in the cards. ” Open up border post #7 for date exports or we’ll nuke you”. Please.

    I don’t believe the Iranians, baring a major invasion of Iran, would nuke anyone. Nukes do make staging an invasion a dicey operation. Without them the chance of defeating the initial US assault is limited. Ask Saddam.

    Removing the threat of major conventional US/ Israeli attacks on Iran would be a good thing. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate defensive weapon and lead to stability and peace.

  5. In and of itself, sabre rattling is an attractive business strategy for Iran. It explains a lot IMO. A low oil price is a wipe out for the bloated Iranian bureaucracy. Better to hop around in a gorilla suit making an ass of yourself if that’s what it takes to keep oil prices up. I’ve done stranger things for far less money.

    1. “Better to hop around in a gorilla suit making an ass of yourself ”

      What a weird perspective, which looks like willfully blind jingoism. The US and Israel have been threatening to bomb Iran for several years, have assassinated four of their scientists, set bombs at several of their institutions, sabatoged their industry, done the world’s first cyberattack, and instituted sanctions to cripple their economy. And you call their responses “hopping around in a gorilla suit.”

      I suggest that your read the UN charter, some history about wars, study the history of US – Iran relations 191-53m and engage in some self-reflection.

  6. Congress did pass sanctions on Iran and Obama signed it 12/31, so it’s not like the USA has no role in this. Ron Paul, (unelectable, racist, blah blah — insert standard disclaimer crap here) did say that the sanctions were an act of war against Iran. I think he was right.

    Juan Cole mentioned this:

    “It will not be remembered by most Americans that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations imposed a boycott on the sale of Iranian petroleum in 1951-1953, at the end of which Eisenhower sent in the CIA to overthrow the elected Iranian government.”

    If they are truly unable to stop their stop their non-existent nuclear weapons program, then all they can do is anticipate a war. I’m sure they are freaking out to some extent. Is it so suprising that they are training to prepare for the coming war?
    FM Note: for more about this episode of history, in many ways similar to today, see the Wikipedia entry about the 1953 Iranian coup d’état.

  7. Since the empoyees of Lockhead Martin are not sheep , it is biologically likely that some other US citizens are not sheep either . Who can they vote for to stop the Iran trainwreck ?

    Here in England ,I heard snatches of a candidate’s speech on my radio . One Country!! Presumably he is not a Socialist , so maybe planning to annex Canada ? That adventure would make it tricky to find the resources to attack Iran .

    1. “Who can they vote for to stop the Iran trainwreck?”

      You have cause and effect backwards. Politicans follow public opinion. If the US public opposed our hostility to Iran, then politicans would follow suit. But years of intensive propaganda, to which we have become guillible, has produced a public which is largely complacent — and a large minority eager for war.

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