Can Iran Be Deterred from Going Nuclear?

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”.

One approach that has been absent from U.S. nuclear policy towards Iran is “deterrence by punishment”. “Deterrence by punishment” is the more well-known type of deterrence. It consists of one state deterring another from taking an action by credibly promising retaliation that is more severe than any possible gains that could be accrued from taking the action. Perhaps the best known example of “deterrence by punishment” is the Mutually Assured Destruction relationship between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

With regard to the Iran example, the United States would seek to deter Iranian leaders from seeking nuclear weapons by promising to respond in ways that would far outstrip any gains Iran can accrue from going nuclear. For example, the United States could threaten to: 1) provide Israel with nuclear submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); 2) forward deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the Middle East; 3) form an anti-Iran NATO-like alliance with Arab nations; 4) seek to undermine Shia control of Iraq and Syria, 5) support the Taliban in its effort to regain control over Afghanistan; 6) directly intervene militarily against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and/or roll up its operations abroad; 7) more aggressively root out Iranian intelligence networks throughout the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Europe; 8) dramatically ramp up support to anti-Iran militant groups in Pakistan and elsewhere; and 9) drastically increase America’s military presence in the Middle East.

This is only a partial list of possible retaliatory actions the United States could take in response to an Iranian bomb, and not all these measures would necessarily be needed or advisable. Regardless of the specific threats used, the goal of a “deterrence by punishment” policy would be to convince Iranian leaders that they would be worse off with nuclear weapons. In other words, it would attempt to convince Iranian leaders remaining nonnuclear is in their interest.

It’s not difficult to ascertain why the U.S. has largely eschewed a “deterrence by punishment” approach. Successive U.S. presidents have promised that America will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Outlining how the United States would respond to a nuclear Iran would seemingly contradict this policy by suggesting that Iran might be allowed to build the bomb.

This is a reasonable concern that must be taken into account in adopting a “deterrence by punishment” policy. However, it is not as formidable of a barrier to adopting the policy as it may first appear. Indeed, it’s fairly easy to imagine how U.S. leaders could actually strengthen their current position by conveying a “deterrence by punishment” policy.

This could be achieved by a senior U.S. leader up to and potentially including the president giving a prominent speech(es) that begins by acknowledging the high costs involved in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. The speech would then pivot to arguing that the administration is nonetheless committed to bearing these costs because the alternative of a nuclear-armed Iran would be far more costly for the United States. The speech would then outline all the steps the United States would have to take if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. It could conclude by emphasizing that as costly as America’s response would be, the steps outlined would be absolutely necessary.

Astute readers may recognize that the administration already takes a nearly similar position in emphasizing their commitment to use any and all options to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The only difference is the administration usually explains why it must prevent a nuclear-armed Iran by listing all the adverse consequences a nuclear-armed Iran would have on the region, such as: sparking a nuclear arms race, potentially leading to a nuclear war by miscalculation, reducing America’s freedom of action in the Middle East, emboldening Iran and its allies like Hezbollah, shoring up the Iranian regime and causing a spike in oil prices.

These are all good reasons why America should prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. At the same time, most of these are also reasons why Iranian leaders would benefit from a nuclear arsenal. Given that most of the American people and nearly all its elites are in favor of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it would be more sensible for the administration to outline how Iran stands to lose from seeking a nuclear capability.

Indeed, deterring Iranian leaders from seeking the bomb could be essential to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. The U.S. intelligence community currently believes Iran is technically capable of building a nuclear arsenal but that its leaders have not made the decision to do so. Therefore, even as it seeks to reduce its capabilities, the top priority for the United States and its allies should be convincing Tehran that it is not in its interest to pursue a nuclear capability. The three elements of America’s current policy are poorly suited for this task.