A fundamental topic that Eisenstadt and Knights do not address, beyond a curt dismissal in a footnote, is what difference an Iranian nuclear weapon would make—to Iranian behavior, to peace and stability in the Middle East, or to anything else. As I and some others have observed, what has passed for an argument that an Iranian nuke would be a horrible eventuality (something that most often is just taken for granted) consists chiefly of litanies of things that a nuclear-armed Iran “could” do—in other words, worst-case speculation. This contrasts with the tendency of some of the same purveyors of such speculation to present best-case pictures of the consequences of going to war against Iran. Eisenstadt and Knights try to turn the tables on such observations by titling their paper “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis” and asserting at the outset that “many independent analysts offer what can only be described as worst-case assessments” of the consequences of an attack and that “these analysts almost invariably offer best-case assessments for a policy of deterrence and containment,” with a footnote citation to works by Bruce Riedel and myself. Readers can judge for themselves, but in the article of mine they reference I explicitly distinguished between the worst possible consequences of going to war and the most likely consequences. I wrote that “no one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be,” paralleling Eisenstadt and Knights's apt comment that “prudence dictates modesty when attempting to predict the behavior of states embroiled in armed conflict, where uncertainty and the law of unintended consequences rule.” What I had to say about likely Iranian responses was quite consistent with much of what Eisenstadt and Knight present, although I discussed further the broader political and economic repercussions that they gloss over.
What I wrote in the same cited article about the consequences, or nonconsequences, of an Iranian nuke eschewed the “could” mode of discourse that worst-casers and best-casers are so fond of using and instead examined the strategic realities and calculations that Tehran would actually face. The analysis in this respect was similar to the better and more careful aspects of Eisenstadt and Knights's presentation about the choices that Tehran would face in a post-attack environment. The authors would need to engage that analysis before being justified in dismissing it, but they never do.
A major aspect of why an Iranian nuke would not be a destabilizing game-changer—or to borrow WINEP's phrase, “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is deterrence. In this regard, it is interesting to note how much reliance Eisenstadt and Knights place on deterrence in their arguments about why Tehran's responses to an armed attack would be moderated. Indeed, they list “deterring Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests” after an attack on Iran as their number-one policy priority. In doing so, they contribute to the glaringly inconsistent treatment of deterrence in discourse about Iran. Deterrence of Iran with a nuclear weapon frequently gets described as far too thin a reed to lean on when facing ideologically crazed mullahs, but after the Iranians become targets of armed attack, they somehow become such calm and cautious decision makers that deterrence can be relied on greatly. Vast historical experience indicates that to the extent that decision making behavior may be this inconsistent, the inconsistency would be in the opposite direction; being on the receiving end of an armed attack is the very circumstance most likely to lead calmness and restraint to evaporate.
Scholars and commentators are entitled to select their topics and define the scope of those topics as they wish. I have had the frustration, in writing on other subjects, of facing criticism along the lines of “but you didn't talk about such-and-such,” when the only appropriate response was, “that's not the topic I was addressing.” I try to select and define topics, however, in a way that fills gaps and helps to correct imbalances and distortions in existing discourse. Eisenstadt and Knights have some useful things to say about the Iranians' options and likely thinking if they ever get attacked by Israel or the United States. More attention to the consequences of such an attack is certainly needed. But in their selection of what to emphasize and what to dismiss or ignore, they have exacerbated rather than lessened the distortions in current discourse about Iran.