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 begins by stacking the deck in describing the Iranian objectives that presumably would underlie any use to which the Iranians would put a nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a “pragmatic regime” driven primarily by “a desire to protect and deter outside attack” would be far different, he says, from their possession by an “ideological regime,” which is the label he pins on Iran. This is consistent with much of the alarmist rhetoric, which depicts the Iranian regime as somehow fundamentally different from most governments in how it thinks and operates and what it aspires to. But what exactly defines an “ideological regime” and distinguishes it from a “pragmatic regime”? There is plenty of ideology floating around, some of which has significant implications for foreign policy and international security, and the more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the regime in Tehran isn't so different after all. This example ought to be too obvious to need pointing out, but we recently had a government right here in Washington that got so influenced by an ideology (in this case, the neoconservative kind) that it launched a major offensive war of choice thousands of miles away, at much cost and misery to the United States. Is this what Jain means by an “ideological regime”?
Jain allows that “some analysts” see the Iranian regime, like many other regimes, concerned with its own survival and with deterring and preventing hostile actions from those who have given it good reason to be perceived as threats—in this case, Israel or the United States. Then he dismisses this view in a single sentence as “inconsistent not only with Iranian activities on the ground but with the longstanding public statements of its own leaders.” But he never actually addresses the record of Iranian activities on the ground. That record in fact shows a lot of pragmatism and even caution. Jain does go on to quote at length the public statements of Iranian leaders—to depict an Iran driven by revolutionary and aggressive objectives—but does not weigh any of this rhetoric against the fundamental interests of defense and survival. He also does not distinguish between what is merely rhetoric or political blather for domestic or international purposes and what represents genuine, active objectives of the Islamic Republic.
None of this, however, is what is most significant about Jain's paper and what it demonstrates about the limits of argumentation about an Iranian nuclear weapon supposedly being a dire threat. 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. To take one example in which he endeavors to mention nuclear weapons beyond the general “shield” notion, he talks about Hizballah and Hamas possibly becoming more emboldened because Iran might extend a nuclear umbrella to these groups. So in the face of Israel's overwhelming nuclear superiority, Iranian decision-makers would be willing to risk Tehran to save Gaza? Could Tehran expect anyone to believe that? Another of Jain's scenarios, which is to create in league with Venezuela a latter-day version of the Cuban missile crisis, stretches credibility even more.
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 United States 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.
A presentation such as Jain's, given all the extensive scenario-building involving a wide variety of things that most of us can agree we would not like to see Iran do, coupled with the window-dressing about “impact of a nuclear capability,” can create the impression that a lot of awful stuff could really happen as a result of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But take a second look—bearing in mind that the issue is not how many unpleasant things we can conceive of Iran doing, but rather what difference a nuclear capability would make in its ability or inclination to do those things—and there isn't really any substance there.