Dima Adamsky

"The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran" (January/ February 2011) correctly notes that "the early stages of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear competition would be unstable," prompting the question of just how Israeli military strategists would react if and when Iran goes nuclear.

The insecurity generated by a nuclear Iran might dwarf previous peaks of existential fear in Israel. A nuclear Iran would likely undermine the foundations of Israeli self-confidence by crossing two "redlines" in the Israeli strategic psyche. First, the arsenal of a single country would pose an existential threat, conjuring memories of Nazi Germany. Focusing on Iran's ultimate destructive capability rather than its intentions, Israeli strategists might therefore view a nuclear Iran apocalyptically. Second, many Israelis might come to believe that the end of Israel's nuclear monopoly has terminated the country's ultimate insurance policy, fundamentally undermining Israel's general deterrence posture. These concerns, as Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, and Evan Montgomery assert, might lead Israeli strategists to reexamine nuclear policies and adjust their current deterrence models.


Three schools of thought might emerge within the Israeli defense establishment the day after Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. The first school would likely see a nuclear Iran as a cold-mindedly pragmatic country, which represents the ultimate strategic challenge. The second school would likely perceive a nuclear Iran as a reckless, irrational regime, which constitutes a fully materialized existential threat. The third -- and smallest -- school would likely see an opportunity for reconciliation through mutual disarmament.

The proponents of the first school -- those who subscribe to the Cold War notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) -- would reconcile themselves to the new strategic environment. For political and operational reasons, the MAD school would consider military action against Iran ineffective and impossible after Iran's nuclearization.

Assuming that Iranian leaders are radical but reasonable, MAD proponents would rely on Israel's ability to influence Iran's cost-benefit considerations. They would assume that nuclearization reduced Iran's sense of vulnerability, thus enabling more constructive dialogue and a higher degree of stability despite significant differences in strategic cultures and ideologies. They are likely to approximate the Iranian nuclear mentality to the Soviet one. Determined to construct a "balance of terror" model, the MAD school would favor termination of Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy. To them, revealing Israel's nuclear capabilities, outlining its nuclear posture, and communicating redlines and the prices for crossing them would to a certain extent bolster the credibility of Israeli deterrence.

The second school -- those subscribing to the hard-nosed doctrine of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin -- would not accept the new strategic environment, maintaining instead that there is still time to forcibly remove Iran from the nuclear club, in much the same way as Israel approached Iraq's nuclear program in 1981 and, reportedly, the Syrian reactor in 2007.

Many in this group would view Iranian leaders as reckless decision-makers, ready to commit collective martyrdom or transfer nuclear weapons to radical proxies, and therefore they would consider nuclear deterrence irrelevant. Others would argue that a stable MAD regime with Iran is impossible because Iranian decision-makers might misperceive Israel's strategic considerations. Appealing to the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, several of which were preceded by inaccurate Arab strategic estimates, the proponents of this view would emphasize the disproportionally higher price of miscalculation this time. Advocates of this school might question the value of terminating the policy of ambiguity, arguing that even a "bomb in the basement" preserves sufficient deterrent power, whereas disclosure might expose Israel to international pressure and stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.

In light of the world's unwillingness to intervene, members of the Begin school would argue that Israel is alone responsible for preventing another Holocaust. They would seek to strike Iran's rudimentary nuclear infrastructure before Iran could expand its arsenal, diversify its delivery systems, and develop a second-strike capability. They would view this as the last window of opportunity to exploit Iranian vulnerability while the balance of power remained in Israeli favor.

Their optimism regarding the possible Iranian retaliation would be based on the history of Israeli resilience in the face of Iraq's scud attacks in 1991, and Hamas' and Hezbollah's rocket strikes. Also, they would take solace in the widespread belief in the inaccuracy of Iran's missiles and would place their trust in Israel's Arrow and PAC-3 missile defense capabilities.

The third school -- a distinct minority -- would challenge prevailing views in the Israeli security establishment and among the public by calling for Israeli nuclear disarmament. These nuclear abolitionists would suggest dismantling Israel's nuclear capabilities as part of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, which would presumably enable regional cooperation and the construction of an anti-Iranian security architecture. However, in order to verify their basic assumptions following Iran's nuclearization, many abolitionists might first gravitate toward the MAD school, which they would perceive as an intermediate stage on the path toward their final goal.

For political and operational reasons, the Israeli security establishment would likely be reluctant to strike Iran without U.S. support. The three schools would disagree on whether a nuclear Iran or a deteriorating relationship with the United States would pose a greater threat to Israel's security. The Begin school would likely argue that when its existence is at stake, Israel does not need permission from anyone to determine its own fate. The MAD group would likely oppose an attack, in light of Washington's reservations. After all, an Israeli strike might cause Iranian retaliation against U.S. regional targets, increase anti-Americanism worldwide, drag the United States into an undesired military confrontation, disturb the oil market and shipping lanes, and eventually sour the special relationship between Israel and the United States, thus ultimately eroding Israel's deterrence posture.

Many in the Israeli defense establishment would perceive Iran's nuclearization as evidence of the United States' diminishing ability to resolve global and regional security issues. In keeping with its basic instinct to remain under reliable great-power protection, Israel might abandon its exclusive reliance on the United States and focus more on strategic hedging. Although its preference for U.S. support would remain, Israel might be less inclined to follow directives from Washington.

MAD advocates might respond by seeking to situate Israel within the U.S. defense perimeter by means of a formal commitment, a bilateral security treaty, NATO membership, or the deployment of U.S. troops in Israel. Under such circumstances, an Iranian strike on Israel would automatically constitute an attack against the United States.

The key issue for Israel would be the length and nature of U.S. extended deterrence. Even if Washington or NATO expressed interest in a formal defense pact, it is not clear how such security guarantees would be extended to conventional attacks on Israel by Iran or its proxies. And if the United States were to extend its defense guarantees to other states in the region by means of sophisticated arms transfers, Israel might feel that its qualitative military edge was threatened.


If Israeli decision-makers accept the view that those with their hands on the nuclear triggers in Tehran are reasonable, they will then focus on the following challenges: Iranian proxies acting under a nuclear umbrella, conventional conflict with Iran, and conventional attacks against Israeli strategic targets.

Even if Iran is unlikely to transfer nuclear weapons to its proxies, Iran's nuclearization would still oblige Israel to revise its strategic theory and practice. Israel would expect greater strategic aggressiveness from its adversaries, both with and without encouragement from Iran. Despite downplaying the risk of nuclear transfer, Israel is likely to expect Iranian proxies to act as if they are protected by Tehran's nuclear umbrella. Moreover, Tehran's allies might take the Iranian umbrella for granted and assume that it will constrain Israeli retaliation. These emboldened Iranian proxies would feel greater freedom of action and would be inclined to escalate minor conflicts.

In a scenario in which Iran communicated its readiness to intervene on behalf of its clients, Israeli strategists would likely assume that Tehran would not risk a nuclear confrontation to assist an embattled Hamas, Hezbollah, or Syria. Nevertheless, uncertainty about the Iranian nuclear posture is likely to force Israel to act with caution and restrict its actions when fighting Iranian allies.

The increasing range and accuracy of missiles held by Iranian proxies introduce a new kind of threat: disarming conventional strikes on Israel's military installations, strategic infrastructure, and the Dimona nuclear reactor in particular. Given the sophistication of Hamas' and Hezbollah's ballistic arsenals, these scenarios are already conceivable today. Such strikes would add a counterforce mode to the predominantly countervalue warfare waged against Israel in recent years.

Deterring Iran and its proxies from strikes on Dimona, or from other conventional counterforce strikes, would become a pressing concern. Even if revealed, Israel's ultimate deterrent might be marginal in preventing these attacks. The traditional Israeli logic of holding patrons accountable for their proxies' actions, applied for decades in Lebanon, would be much more problematic and dangerous if applied to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Developing a nuclear deterrence posture for nonexistential threats would run counter to Israel's long-standing view of the "bomb in the basement" as a last resort, to be used only when the country's survival is threatened. Alternatively, if Israel chooses to maintain this traditional position, then it will be forced to develop a new and credible deterrence posture based on its conventional capabilities.
Presumably, following Iran's nuclearization, other regional actors would seek to develop their own nuclear capabilities. This development might generate a counterintuitive meeting of interests between Iran and Israel. First, both Iran and Israel would be equally interested in preserving the regional exclusivity of the nuclear club. Second, both countries would be interested in avoiding internationally imposed nuclear disarmament. Finally, Iran and Israel would be equally concerned about the radicalization of regional Sunni regimes possessing nuclear or advanced ballistic capabilities.

Establishment of a communications channel between Iran and Israel, similar to that introduced by Moscow and Washington following the Berlin and Cuban crises, would be indispensable for developing a stable deterrence relationship and preventing deterioration due to miscalculations.

Uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of Iran's nuclearization could increase the level of caution among both Iranian and Israeli leaders, but it could also have the opposite effect -- leading to even greater danger. As Edelman, Krepinevich, and Montgomery note, the standoff, whether with or without a communications channel, would be inherently unstable since both parties would be predisposed to launching a first strike: Iran would be tempted to "use them or lose them" by striking first and Israel would be determined to exploit its edge while it still had one. This dynamic would remain until Tehran acquired a second-strike capability. Moreover, during conventional conflicts, potential miscalculations might occur not only because reckless proxies could drag Iran into a direct clash but also because Iran and Israel would be in the midst of a nuclear learning period; intentional and unintentional nuclear signals might be misunderstood, and Iranian and Israeli inexperience, impulsiveness, and illiteracy when it comes to each other's strategic cultures could come into play.


In order for Israel to live with a nuclear Iran, its strategic mentality would have to adjust and its leaders would have to grapple with several cognitive dissonances. First and foremost, the Israeli government would have to wrestle with the image of Iran that it has constructed. For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to popular fears by cultivating the specter of a second Holocaust in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is equated with Hitler and the United States is equated with Neville Chamberlain's United Kingdom. The Iranian leadership has consistently been presented as fanatical and irrational.

If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Israeli government will likely seek to assure its population that Israel possesses effective countermeasures and that a stable MAD regime is feasible. However, to make this explanation convincing, the Israeli establishment will have to spell out that Iran is a rational strategic player that can be deterred. Such a message would be confusing and disorienting for Israelis because it contradicts everything that the Israeli government has been preaching to itself, its citizens, and the world for decades.

Second, if the MAD school prevails and the balance of terror between Iran and Israel works, then Israel will enjoy a stable deterrence regime. However, Israeli strategists will be forced to adapt to a new reality that runs against their very nature. Israel has long seen military superiority as the cornerstone of its security and its deterrence posture. Now, Israel's security and deterrence would be directly linked to living under the constant threat of total annihilation and mutual vulnerability.

Third, given the regional redistribution of power, Israel's military action would be relatively restricted and diplomatic channels might take on greater importance, upending the Israeli tradition of marginalizing diplomacy when it comes to matters of national security.

Fourth, Israel might have to project a new image of itself as a careful and composed actor rather than the "crazy when furious" reputation that the Israel Defense Forces have cultivated. In a nuclear standoff, this traditional image would not necessarily contribute to a stable deterrence regime.

Finally, Israeli strategists faced with a nuclear Iran are likely to inherit several old assumptions: that Tehran believes that Israel possesses a credible nuclear deterrent, that Tehran takes for granted the U.S. strategic commitment to Israel, that Tehran would expect Israeli nuclear retaliation only in response to an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, and that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure would not lead to Iranian retaliation with nuclear weapons, if any such weapons remained operational following an Israeli strike.

If these strategic beliefs are left untested and prove to be false, they could lead to catastrophic miscalculations on the part of Israeli decision-makers.

DIMA ADAMSKY is an Assistant Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the author of The Culture of Military Innovation. The scenarios discussed here are speculative and do not represent the views of any official in the Israeli government.


Karim Sadjadpour and Diane De Gramont

Decades after his seminal "X" essay was published in these pages in 1947, the acclaimed U.S. diplomat George Kennan continued to lament the fact that his call for political containment of the Soviet Union had been interpreted primarily as a military strategy. "I found it easy to convince [my higher-ups] that this was a very dangerous group of men," he recalled in 1996. "But I couldn't persuade them that their aspirations were political. . . . And not military. They were not like Hitler."

Today, U.S. policymakers are engaged in a similar debate about the nature of the dangers emanating from Iran, a theocracy that dabbles in millenarianism, Holocaust denial, and uranium enrichment. Faced with such a threat, it is worth reconsidering the wisdom of Kennan's original philosophy of containment. In a 1987 Foreign Affairs essay, he wrote, "when I used the word 'containment' . . ., what I had in mind was not at all the averting of the sort of military threat people talk about today." Rather, he saw Moscow as "an ideological-political threat." For Kennan, containment meant the United States needed to improve its understanding of the Soviet Union and its ability to combat Soviet propaganda through savvy diplomacy and political operations, not force of arms.


Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, and Evan Montgomery offer a strategy for deterring Iran that focuses heavily on military containment but ignores the internal and regional dynamics that have fostered Iran's rise. Given that Tehran's ascent in the Middle East is due chiefly to its political influence and support for client militias, not its military prowess, their strategy addresses only half the equation. The other, arguably more important half is a multifaceted political containment strategy that aims to dilute Tehran's influence abroad and strengthen moderate forces within Iran.

Although its precise intentions remain unclear, Iran is by all accounts at least a few years away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. Before that day comes, Edelman, Krepinevich, and Montgomery warn, the United States should not feel sanguine about the prospects of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. An "increasingly aggressive" Tehran, the authors argue, would likely intimidate its neighbors into accommodation, diminish U.S. influence and prestige in the Middle East, and cause a dangerous nuclear proliferation domino effect. To address this threat, they propose reverting to a three-pronged strategy that has more or less been the hallmark of U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979: diplomacy and sanctions, clandestine action, and an increased U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

The first two strategies are already being applied, with greater than anticipated success. The Obama administration's unreciprocated attempts at engagement have exposed Tehran's intransigence, accentuated Iran's deep internal divides, and created an unprecedented degree of international cooperation to counter its nuclear program. Although the combination of robust international sanctions and high-tech sabotage has not curtailed Iran's nuclear ambitions, it has delayed their realization.

The analysis provided by Edelman and his co-authors suggests that the third strategy -- beefing up U.S. deterrence capacity in the Persian Gulf -- is unlikely to be effective. They explain that Cold War-style military deterrence will probably not work with Iran because the balance of power in the region is less stable, Arab governments are unlikely to welcome more U.S. troops, and the United States' commitment to protecting the Middle East is weaker than its Cold War commitment to Europe.

Despite these reservations, they propose sending in more submarines, weapons, and bombers and worry that the United States has insufficient nuclear weapons and missile defenses to defend its allies against Iran and other threats. Considering Iran's overwhelming military inferiority, such concerns appear misguided.

The recently ratified New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, still allows the United States to maintain an arsenal of over 1,500 nuclear weapons -- "enough nuclear warheads," noted U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), "to blow any attacker to kingdom come." Furthermore, Iran's military budget is less than two percent of the United States' and less than a quarter of that of its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. In 2009, General David Petraeus, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command, matter-of-factly claimed that even the United Arab Emirates' much smaller air force could swiftly "take out the entire Iranian Air Force," given the former's superior U.S.-made aircraft.

Recent experience also suggests that enhancing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is unlikely to rein in Iran. Not long ago, Tehran faced over 180,000 U.S. combat troops on its borders, two U.S. aircraft carriers looming in the Persian Gulf, and consistent threats of military action from senior officials in the George W. Bush administration. And it was during this period that Iran was at its most defiant and made its greatest nuclear strides.

As the authors themselves point out, the most likely danger from Iran is not a direct conventional or nuclear strike against its neighbors but rather its support for terrorism and subversion. Through its client militias and ideological sympathizers abroad, Iran can undermine governments with vastly superior armies, as evidenced by the United States' experience in Iraq. Iran's popular appeal in the Middle East is greatest in times of tumult, political disaffection, and economic marginalization, which Iranian leaders unfailingly attribute to U.S. and Israeli policies in the region.

The festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, and the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon have created receptive audiences for Iran's ideology. These events, which have often been accompanied by increases in oil prices, have given Tehran prime opportunities to win political influence by providing petrodollar largess and reconstruction assistance to downtrodden communities.


What is lacking in the Middle East is not an influx of high-tech weaponry but more effective measures to diminish Iran's appeal and financial potency. Kennan's lesson that the Cold War was more a political than a military battle is instructive. Despite their many differences, the Soviet Union and contemporary Iran display some similar traits. Like the Soviet Union was, Iran is a deeply dysfunctional authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. As was the case with the men who once ruled Moscow, the legitimacy of Iran's leaders hinges in part on their opposition to the United States. Although Iran's global power and influence are nowhere near those of the Soviet Union in its heyday, Tehran sees itself as engaged in a fierce competition with the United States for the future of the Middle East -- in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.

At the beginning of the Cold War, Kennan believed that the greatest danger facing Europe was not the Red Army but rather the postwar economic and social deterioration, which created fertile ground for domestic communists. In response, he helped create the Marshall Plan.

Despite the profound differences in culture and context, a somewhat analogous situation can be found in today's Middle East, where economic marginalization, political alienation, and social malaise help fuel religious radicalism and enhance the appeal of both the Iranian regime and its clients. Although its precise implementation would differ from that of the original Marshall Plan, a Marshall Plan for the Middle East would be built on the same philosophy: the goal would be to more effectively contend with Iran's supply of ideological radicalism by attempting to mitigate popular demand for it. The most obvious policy prescriptions for weakening Iran and diluting its regional appeal -- an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and a sharp reduction in oil prices -- are long-standing challenges. Attempts to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tension and U.S. reliance on fossil fuels would undermine Iran's political standing in the Middle East in a way that military aid to autocratic Arab leaders cannot.

As was the case with the Soviet Union, the Iranian regime's international profile is rising just as the country's internal decay appears to be accelerating. The contested 2009 presidential election and subsequent large-scale protests revealed Iran's deep-seated popular discontent and internal divisions. Although Washington's ability to facilitate political reform in Iran is limited, there are important measures the U.S. government can take to constrain Tehran's ability to repress and censor its population and help Iranian moderates help themselves. Such measures should include dramatically improving the quality and reception of the Voice of America's Persian News Network (which is estimated to reach over 20 million Iranians), combating the regime's ability to control and block communications, and implementing further targeted sanctions -- such as travel bans and asset freezes -- against human rights abusers.

Although supporting domestic reform is a difficult and delicate game, there could arguably be no greater guarantor of U.S. security in the Middle East than a representative Iranian government that put national interests ahead of ideological ones. As Henry Kissinger has argued, if Iran were to follow its own national interests, "there are few nations in the world with whom the United States has more common interests and less reason to quarrel."

This vision of political containment does not suggest that the United States should shun dialogue with Iran while it attempts to limit its influence. Talking to Iranian leaders will not resolve the real, serious differences between the two governments or convert Tehran into a U.S. ally. But given Iran's influence on major U.S. foreign policy challenges -- namely, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian peace, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation -- ongoing channels of communication could help mitigate the risk of escalation and conflagrations.

The goal should be not to contain Iran ad infinitum but to limit its destructive influences while facilitating its transition to a nation that can begin to realize its potential to serve as a constructive force in the world. In the process, just as Kennan cautioned about the Soviet Union, the United States "should remain at all times cool and collected," until the Iranian regime is forced to change under the weight of its own contradictions and economic malaise. "For no mystical, messianic movement," Kennan wrote in 1947, ". . . can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs."

KARIM SADJADPOUR is an Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was previously based in Tehran with the International Crisis Group. DIANE DE GRAMONT is a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Shahram Chubin

Despite the slowdown of the Iranian nuclear program, the United States is no closer to avoiding the fateful and unattractive choice between bombing Iran and an Iranian bomb. Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, and Evan Montgomery have usefully analyzed the dangers of both outcomes. Attacking Iran risks further proliferation, an Israeli strike, and wider regional hostilities. Containment and deterrence may not be as easy as they appear, given Iran's growing missile program and its potential to test the limits of deterrence. Extending deterrence to U.S. allies in the region would also be problematic, since the U.S. Congress may not support it and U.S. allies may not feel fully reassured. The authors therefore call for a greater military presence in the region, which could be used for coercive diplomacy or, if need be, an eventual military strike.

If strategy is the alignment of means and ends, and if the situation outlined by the authors is indeed as dire as they suggest, then surely a renewed effort at diplomacy is called for. The United States has not done as much as it could to avoid the awful choice between accepting a nuclear Iran or bombing the country.

The aim of U.S. diplomacy should be to reconcile Iran's nuclear ambitions with international concerns about proliferation and address the broader issues raised by Iran's regional behavior. The nuclear issue is a symptom of Iran's general antagonism with the West and its alienation from the international community. Since much of this is self-imposed, efforts at engagement have been met by suspicion and rejection in Tehran. Yet given the stakes, a serious, good-faith effort at reviving the moribund diplomatic track is necessary. At worst, a failed initiative would serve to demonstrate that the international community went the extra mile in pursuit of a peaceful accommodation.

At present, the international community does not know whether Iran seeks a latent nuclear capability or actual weapons, how Iran would behave with a nuclear capability short of operational weapons, how much popular support the regime enjoys for its confrontational policies, or how it defines what it considers to be its core rights, including "regime survival" and "legitimate security interests."

Washington does know that under pressure, the regime is pragmatic and sensitive to relative power balances, that it has trouble making major strategic decisions without pressure, and that an increasingly divided Iran will find it more difficult to sell and implement major foreign policy initiatives. U.S. policymakers also know that the regime tends to overplay its hand, fixate on tactical victories, and misjudge the diplomatic terrain.

Current U.S. policy is based on three assumptions: that sanctions will lead to a reversal of Iran's policy on uranium enrichment, that the cessation of enrichment must be a precondition for other negotiations, and that small confidence-building steps, such as the exchange of fissile material (for the Tehran Research Reactor), will buy time and lead to eventual movement in other areas. None of these assumptions is sustainable.

Iran has invested too much in its nuclear program to renounce enrichment altogether or suspend it indefinitely. A limited suspension in the context of an overall settlement, however, might be feasible. In that context, reconciling some Iranian enrichment with inspections to reassure the international community that Iran's program is peaceful might be possible. The aim would be to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible. But to be durable, such a settlement would require not only technical measures but also an agreement addressing the motives driving the program. The current Western step-by-step approach is mistaken because it ignores the need for a broad political settlement.

A grand bargain would be consistent with Iran's priorities in most international negotiations. Iran generally regards limited agreements as traps. It sees attempts to reach agreements on specific areas as dangerous and regards compromise as a sign of weakness that only invites further pressure, leading down a slippery slope toward regime extinction. It is difficult to induce Iran to make concessions unless it sees where these will lead and how a strong position in one area (such as the leverage it has in Afghanistan or Iraq) can translate into leverage or payoffs in another (such as the lifting of sanctions or the attainment of limited enrichment rights). What is needed is not necessarily more inducements but rather a road map that shows how the issues are linked and could be tackled sequentially in pursuit of a grand bargain.

Attempting such a difficult exercise requires accepting the prospect of some enrichment in Iran, which would mean that U.S. hard-liners would have to accept a deal. Meanwhile, U.S. allies, particularly Israel, would have to be reassured by the terms of any deal that it would not lead to clandestine enrichment. This will require leadership of a high order.


Seen from Tehran, the world today does not look as rosy as it did a few years ago. The United States has taken steps to offset and dilute any strategic benefits that Iran might gain from a nuclear capability. Crossing the nuclear threshold would create a more united Gulf Cooperation Council while solidifying and possibly increasing the U.S. military presence in the region. The status motivations for a nuclear capability seem questionable in light of North Korea's unenviable condition and its fellow failing nuclear state, Pakistan. The Iranian nuclear program itself is facing difficulties as a result of its patchwork sourcing, the tightening embargo on technology, and cyberattacks. Crossing the weaponization threshold would require a massive stock of indigenous fissile material, which in turn would spell the end of any future nuclear energy program, whereas stopping short of that threshold could still confer many of the assumed benefits of crossing it.

In the event of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, most of its potential avenues of retaliation would be either counterproductive (such as attacks on the Gulf states or the Strait of Hormuz) or difficult to carry out repeatedly (such as attacks by proxies). Meanwhile, Iran itself is in transition. The regime has swapped a degree of popular legitimacy for reliance on a more limited base and intensified repression. All political issues now revolve around succession struggles, namely, who will replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Iranian government understandably feels vulnerable domestically due to generational and demographic changes and schisms among the elite. Under these circumstances, Iran's revolutionary model of strategic defiance may have begun to lose its appeal in the region. In Iran itself, bombastic rhetoric has largely been discredited in the eyes of citizens who prefer a government that can perform and deliver -- in short, Chinese-style performance-based legitimacy.

Iran is no longer riding a regional or domestic wave. This makes bold, confident, and politically courageous U.S. diplomacy even more necessary. To be sure, there are risks that Iran could use negotiations to string along the international community, seek to divide the United States and Europe with counterproposals, and deflect further sanctions. But a U.S. initiative could counter these Iranian moves. A generous offer that meets Iran's minimum demand -- for some enrichment -- would reassure the international community and transfer the responsibility for any failure to the Iranian regime itself. This would put an end to the narrative of a vengeful, arrogant U.S.-led coalition dictating terms as a substitute for forcing a regime change and put responsibility for the prolonged crisis and its consequences where it belongs, thereby signaling to the Iranian people that the nuclear dispute is about not Iran's rights but the regime's insistence on keeping control at home by ensuring continual crises abroad.

SHAHRAM CHUBIN is a Senior Associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Dima Adamsky's commentary reinforces many of the concerns that we raised in our article. Adamsky argues that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would likely divide Israeli leaders into two main opposing camps, with some advocating a preventive attack before Iran could develop an assured second-strike capability and others concluding that a stable nuclear balance will emerge over time. No matter which point of view triumphs, however, the implications for Israeli security and U.S. policy will be significant.

The dangers of a preventive war against a nuclear-armed adversary are obvious. Despite Israel's overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority, the possibility of Iran successfully retaliating with one or more nuclear weapons would remain. This could have a devastating impact on a small nation, such as Israel. Those Israelis who have faith in mutual assured destruction would seem to be more sober-minded. Adamsky believes that members of this group would advocate declaring Israel's nuclear arsenal to bolster its deterrent credibility, even though Israel's status as a nuclear weapons state is widely assumed already.

As we noted in our article, an Israeli declaration could be dangerous and make containing Iran much more difficult. Other nations in the region might recoil from cooperating publicly with the United States because it tolerates Israel's nuclear arsenal yet opposes further proliferation in the region. Similarly, secret cooperation between Israel and its neighbors may become more difficult despite their shared interest in limiting Iran's power and influence. Although these issues exist today, they would become far more significant if Israel publicized its nuclear arsenal. An Israeli declaration could also put added pressure on other nations in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

Ultimately, if Tehran does cross the nuclear threshold and Israel chooses to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, one of the principal objectives of U.S. policy should be convincing Israel to maintain its policy of nuclear opacity for as long as possible. The benefit of a slightly more credible Israeli deterrent would not outweigh the added difficulties the United States would confront in seeking to limit a nuclear Iran's influence, preserve regional stability, and prevent additional proliferation.

A second important issue Adamsky raises is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would increase the threat that Israel faced from Iranian proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, either because Tehran would provide increased assistance and encouragement to these groups or because they would become more reckless once they had a nuclear-armed patron. A premeditated attack by Iran against Israel is not the only scenario that could lead to a nuclear exchange, or even the most plausible one. Instead, a limited conflict in southern Lebanon or the Gaza Strip might spiral out of control. Iranian proxies could escalate their attacks against Israel, assuming that it would be deterred by its fear of a nuclear Iran. Israel could then defy their expectations and conduct major reprisals to demonstrate its resolve, prompting Iran to make nuclear threats in defense of its clients. The results would be unpredictable and potentially disastrous. Although debates over Iran's nuclear program often turn on the issue of Iranian "rationality," it is important to remember that there are many different paths to conflict, and the dynamics of Iranian-Israeli relations could be prone to miscalculation and escalation.

Karim Sadjadpour and Diane de Gramont take issue with our analysis, arguing that Iran is not susceptible to coercive military pressure. In fact, they contend, Iran "made its greatest nuclear strides" during the George W. Bush administration, when that pressure was at its peak -- a debatable conclusion given that the December 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate judged with "high confidence" that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Invoking George Kennan, they argue instead that Iran can be countered most effectively through political, rather than military, containment.

Sadjadpour and de Gramont are certainly correct to note that Iran exploits local grievances to advance its interests. Nevertheless, their description of political containment is extremely problematic. First, they argue that because the populations of many Arab nations suffer from "economic marginalization, political alienation, and social malaise," the United States should pursue "a Marshall Plan for the Middle East." Second, they believe the United States should also resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to remove an important source of propaganda for Tehran while seeking to reduce oil prices, encouraging domestic reform in Iran, and empowering moderate Iranian leaders.

None of these measures is plausible now or in the foreseeable future, and none directly addresses the challenges posed by Iran's nuclear program. For example, when the Marshall Plan was conceived in 1947, postwar Europe was suffering from a shortage of basic supplies and the U.S. dollars to purchase them, problems the United States could help resolve. Today, solving the various problems that Sadjadpour and de Gramont identify would not require foodstuffs, raw materials, and money. Instead, it would require Middle Eastern regimes to fundamentally alter their economic, political, and social policies. Although resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a laudable goal, the United States has struggled to do so for more than three decades, and a final-status agreement remains elusive. Moreover, lower oil prices might limit the resources available to Iran, but it is hardly clear why U.S. allies in the region would be willing to see their chief source of revenue disappear. An Iranian regime that is less hostile to the United States, its neighbors, and its own population is also desirable, yet the current regime has proved quite durable. Additional economic sanctions or better-quality programs on the Voice of America hardly seem likely to precipitate major changes within Iran.

Finally, Shahram Chubin argues that Washington should pursue "a broad political settlement" with Tehran rather than deal solely with the nuclear issue. Although he does not specify the precise contours of this bargain, it would leave Iran with some uranium-enrichment capability -- an outcome that is unlikely to be accepted by the United States and a number of nations in the region, given Iran's history of deception with regard to its enrichment activities.

Chubin's prescription is not as ambitious as that of Sadjadpour and de Gramont. Nevertheless, it suffers from the same flaw: Chubin proposes solving one large problem, namely, the challenge of Iran's nuclear program, by first solving a series of even bigger problems, in this case the underlying grievances between the United States and Iran. Although Tehran may indeed be suspicious of limited agreements, it is unclear how both sides can make the leap from the current impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions to "a grand bargain" that would also address a host of other issues and overcome decades of mistrust and hostility. In fact, the understandable difficulties of reaching a comprehensive accord would give Tehran an excellent opportunity to use negotiations as a stalling tactic, a possibility Chubin acknowledges.

In the end, the responses to our article highlight the unfortunate fact that there are no good alternatives when it comes to halting Iran's nuclear program. This may help explain why Cold War-style containment has emerged as the default option for the United States; because it worked against the Soviet Union, many simply assume that it will work against Iran. Before jumping to that conclusion, however, it is important to understand the many obstacles this strategy would have to overcome in order to succeed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now