Preventing an Iranian bomb: the case against threatening military action


As the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program moves into its implementation phase, many are watching with a careful eye to see if and how it will succeed. Western skeptics are undoubtedly waiting to say, “I told you so” if Iran gets caught red handed developing a nuclear weapon capability. Others may be worried about the future, ten years from now when some of the constraints imposed by the deal expire, and how we will contain Iranian ambitions at that point. Iran has maintained a fine balance of possible latent capability, which has given them leverage with Western negotiation partners so far, but Iran knows the risks of going for a nuclear weapon, such as: international backlash, isolation, economic sanctions, pariah state status, and possible military action.

In the November/December 2015 edition of Foreign Affairs, Michael Mandelbaum’s article, “How to Prevent an Iranian Bomb: the Case for Deterrence” argues for an unambiguous U.S. deterrence policy to declare the intention of conducting military attacks against Iran if they were tempted to cheat under the terms of the agreement or work towards a nuclear weapon after it is concluded. Whilst this may appear superficially attractive to an American perspective, this would, however, only serve a purpose of antagonizing the Islamic Republic into further temptation and undermine the possibilities for this non-proliferation agreement to succeed. It would also be seen almost universally across the rest of the world as an illegal act by an aggressive administration, to explicitly threaten military action on the basis of a U.S. judgement of cheating.

Mandelbaum wrote, “Deterring Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by promising to prevent it with military action, if necessary, is justified, feasible and indeed crucial to protect vital U.S. interests.” Going further to say, “Cold War deterrence was aimed at preventing the use of the adversary’s arsenal, including nuclear weapons, while in the case of Iran, deterrence would be designed to prevent the acquisition of those weapons.” Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by threat of force is actually coercion or compellence, not deterrence. But whatever we call it is beyond the point; while these have been pervasive policies of the superpowers in the nuclear age, coercion from nuclear armed states has a debatable track record in affecting behavior. Sescher and Fuhrmann’s 2013 study of 200 militarized threats found that, "states possessing nuclear weapons are not more likely to make successful compellent threats, even in high-stakes crises. While nuclear weapons may provide leverage in a deterrent context, these effects do not extend to compellent threats.” Sescher and Fuhrmann argued further that nuclear weapons are too destructive a weapon to use for seizure or targeting valued possessions (think: Iran’s nuclear facilities), and the cost of using a nuclear weapon to coerce would be too high (these are, surprisingly, the same as Iran’s risks of secretly producing a nuclear weapon: international backlash, isolation, economic sanctions, pariah state status, possible military action).

Mandelbaum wasn’t specifically arguing for the use of a nuclear threat to coerce Iran from the bomb. That would not only be a disproportionate threat but also unaligned with current U.S. policy which states: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” So as long as Iran remains compliant under NPT obligations, and follows the rules of the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, they will not be threatened by nuclear weapons from the U.S.

No, Mandelbaum argued for a clear and credible threat and policy of military action (implied conventional) in order to deter. This threat is something Obama has always kept on the table, even if only to appease a domestic audience, and something the Iranians are well aware of already. It is this credible threat, combined with economic relief and the desire from many Iranians to open relations with Western partners, that assisted in encouraging Iranians to the negotiating table and probably helped all parties reach this deal.

For the U.S. to put a more explicit threat of military action into writing would further antagonize the Islamic Republic, especially those already discontented Iranians. Americans should be aware that this nuclear deal was not just hotly contested in the United States; Iran had its own domestic battles to fight. While some Western critics of the deal firmly believe that Iran will attempt to cheat it’s way to a nuclear bomb in spite of the agreement, antagonizing them with threat of military attack on top of the parameters is a definite way to get them to that point. This behavior is prevalent in all of our lives; the effect of someone nagging or intimidating us to do something makes us do--or at least want to do--the exact opposite. But it would also antagonize the rest of the international community that has been essential to getting this deal in the first place. An overbearing and excessive attitude from the United States would lose friends and potentially isolate the U.S.

One thing I do agree with is Mandelbaum’s implication that the role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is changing. “Cold War deterrence” to threaten adversaries with a second strike capability may be an important policy that some states feel the need to retain, but there is little other use for a nuclear weapon. They are too clumsy, destructive, irresponsible, and expensive to use against contemporary global threats like proliferation, terrorism, climate change, cyber attacks. It is important to continue to ask broader questions about the role of nuclear weapons and the responsibility that nuclear armed states have in the 21st century to formulate policies that prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and work towards the disarmament of existing arsenals.

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