Can Iran Be Deterred from Going Nuclear?

"By convincing Iranian leaders that their own interests dictate remaining nonnuclear, they will be deterred from seeking a nuclear weapon."

Since Iran’s nuclear program was publicly revealed in 2002, the United States has devoted considerable resources to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Although the United States has used a multifaceted strategy to achieve this goal, one potentially effective approach—“deterrence by punishment”—has been entirely ignored. This is a mistake as a “deterrence by punishment” policy could be crucial for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.

Perhaps the primary method the United States has used to prevent an Iranian bomb is coercion in the form of sanctions. Over the last decade plus, the United States has imposed both unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran for failing to comply with UN demands regarding the scope of its nuclear program. In imposing these sanctions, the United States has threatened to further tighten and expand them should Iran’s noncompliance continue. At the same time, the sanctions have been added with the implicit or explicit promise that they will be lifted should Iran’s nuclear behavior change.

Throughout most of the Bush administration, coercive sanctions comprised almost the entirety of America’s nonproliferation strategy toward Iran. The Obama administration has doubled down on this approach by significantly ramping up U.S. sanctions and convincing the UN Security Council and European Union to do likewise.

These stronger multilateral sanctions were made possible by the Obama administration adding another component to U.S. nuclear policy towards Iran: positive inducements. Making good on a campaign pledge, immediately upon taking office, President Obama mounted an unprecedented charm offensive toward Iran that included reaching out directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and expressing a willingness to engage in negotiations without preconditions.

To a large degree, this diplomatic outreach to Iran was an extension of America’s coercion policy. To begin with, negotiations aim to facilitate the process by which U.S. sanctions will be lifted in return for nuclear concessions from Iran. Additionally, making a genuine effort to resolve the nuclear crisis enabled President Obama to win international support for tougher sanctions when Tehran failed to reciprocate his administration’s fuel swap proposal in late 2009.

Still, the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran has contained some positive inducements. For example, President Obama promised that Iran would be welcomed back into the international community if concerns over its nuclear program were resolved. Although vague, this suggested that America would end or significantly scale back its longstanding efforts to isolate Iran regionally and internationally. Obama’s promise to welcome Iran back into the international community also indicated a possible willingness to pursue a general bilateral rapprochement with Iran. In addition, nearly from the beginning of its first term, the Obama administration has signaled that it will be willing to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment as part of a final deal.

Along with coercion through sanctions and positive inducements, America’s nonproliferation policy towards Iran has included a “deterrence by denial” component. “Deterrence by denial” attempts to deter an action by convincing the state that the action would not succeed.

The United States has long maintained a “deterrence by denial” policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. For example, during the Clinton administration, the United States put significant pressure on China and Russia to convince them to stop providing nuclear assistance to Iran. This worked in the case of China—which was by far Iran’s most important source of nuclear assistance—but had only limited success with Russia. The Bush administration also sought to limit Iran’s access to sensitive nuclear technologies to deny it the ability to build nuclear weapons. This included busting the AQ Khan proliferation network.

The United States has also used sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program as a means of “deterrence by denial.” Most notably, it co-developed the Stuxnet computer virus that destroyed Iranian centrifuges for years before being discovered. It’s likely that the Obama administration has used or is currently using other cyberweapons against Iran’s nuclear program that haven’t been made public. There have been similar sabotage measures against Iran’s nuclear program—including the assassination of senior nuclear physicists—although America’s culpability in these actions is widely doubted.

Finally, the United States has pursued a “deterrence by denial” strategy against Iran’s nuclear program by threatening to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear program. Although President Bush pledged that the United States would never allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, his presumed willingness to use force to accomplish this goal allowed him to largely avoid having to explicitly threaten it. By contrast, domestic and allied concerns over his willingness to order airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities have forced Obama to explicitly threaten to use military force on a more frequent basis. Regardless, using airstrikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities is a clear example of “deterrence by denial”.