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How the United States Can Keep Iran from Getting the Bomb

How the United States Can Keep Iran from Getting the Bomb

America needs a more assertive policy toward Iran now in order to forestall a disaster later.

Michael Mandelbaum

Of the several items on President Biden’s policy agenda during his recent trip to the Middle East, which included relations between Israel and the Palestinians, human rights in Saudi Arabia, and the American desire for an increase in the output of Saudi oil, by far the most important was the ongoing Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

An Iranian nuclear arsenal would have a far greater impact on the region, on American interests, and indeed on the entire world than any of the other issues that the President discussed with the leaders with whom he met; and that effect would be profoundly, dangerously negative.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Moreover, of all the issues on his agenda the Iranian nuclear threat is the one that displays the widest gap between what the United States is doing and what it must do in order to defend American interests. A new and more vigorous policy is urgently needed.

Iran is already active in attempting to achieve a position of dominance in the Middle East, in trying to topple regimes friendly to the United States in the Persian Gulf, and in seeking to destroy the state of Israel. Armed with nuclear weapons it will only become more aggressive, making the Middle East an even more turbulent, violent, and perilous region.

An Iranian bomb is all too likely to trigger what is sometimes called a “proliferation cascade,” in which other Middle Eastern countries scramble to get nuclear weapons of their own to offset those of Iran. The cascade could spread beyond the Middle East­–to European countries threatened by Russia and East Asian countries menaced by China.

While the world managed to live with the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the stabilizing features of that standoff will not be present in a nuclearized Middle East. Whereas the Soviet-American rivalry pitted only two nuclear-armed states against each other, a post-nuclear-proliferation Middle East will have several such states, complicating the strategic calculations of all of them. Moreover, each of the two nuclear superpowers had the capacity for “assured destruction,” with arsenals large and resilient enough to inflict vast damage on its adversary even after absorbing a nuclear attack. This made any such attack, in effect, an act of suicide. Not surprisingly, neither side ever launched one. The nuclear peace during the Cold War rested on the condition of mutual assured destruction, denoted by the acronym “MAD.” The far smaller and more vulnerable nuclear stockpiles Middle Eastern countries will be able to build will not give them the capacity for the assured destruction of their adversary. That will mean that each country will legitimately fear that a neighbor will mount a surprise attack that could disarm it.

All the nuclear-armed states in the Middle East will therefore have a powerful incentive to put their nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert, in order to avoid being rendered helpless in this way. All this will sharply increase the chances that the first nuclear shot to be fired in anger since 1945­­–and if there is one there will probably be more– will take place in the Middle East, causing widespread death and destruction.

Even if the nuclear exchanges were confined to that region–and there can be no guarantee of this–they would likely do severe damage to countries elsewhere. They would almost surely interrupt the flow of oil on which much of the world depends. This would create a global economic shock greater than the one the war in Ukraine has caused, perhaps even a far wider, deeper and longer lasting economic downturn, with worse consequences for everyone, especially the poorest people on the planet, than the two extremely damaging oil shocks of the 1970s produced.

Despite the extraordinary dangers an Iranian bomb would pose, and despite the history of vigorous American responses to comparable events, it is distinctly possible that the United States will not respond forcefully to the Iranian acquisition of one. Iran may get nuclear weapons in a stealthy manner, so that by the time the world recognizes what has happened, the mullahs in Tehran will have a substantial and growing stockpile of these armaments, as North Korea now does. Or, by possessing them, Iran may seem to American policymakers too dangerous to confront. Nuclear weapons may give Iran immunity from attack, the prospect of which is surely one reason that the Iranian regime is pursing them with such persistence and at such great expense.

For these reasons, American and global interests would be far better served by preventing Iran from getting the bomb than by trying to cope with an already nuclear-equipped Islamic Republic. It is an urgent priority for the United States, that is, to deter Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Deterrence is a familiar concept in international relations. It means prevention by threat. When one party believes that it would suffer unacceptable damage if it were to take a particular step, it is unlikely to take that step. Its belief­–the credibility of the threat–is crucial. The United States has the naval and air forces necessary to cripple the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and to do so without putting any American troops on the ground in that country. What is lacking–dangerously and perhaps ultimately fatally–is American credibility.

The United States lacks credibility in resisting Iran’s march to nuclear weapons despite the fact that successive American presidents, including President Biden during his Middle Eastern trip, have repeatedly declared that Iran will not be permitted to get the bomb. It lacks credibility despite the fact that one president, Jimmy Carter, promulgated, in 1980, a doctrine that bears his name and another, George H.W. Bush, waged a war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, both for the purpose of preventing what an Iranian nuclear capability would go far toward achieving: the domination of the Middle East and its oil by a country hostile to the United States and its allies.

By what they have done and failed to do, however, the last three American presidents have broadcast to the rulers in Tehran and to the world the message that they will not enforce their promise to keep Iran non-nuclear. Barack Obama abandoned, without a public debate, the long-standing American position that Iran should not be able to acquire the means to enrich uranium–the most difficult step in the bomb-making process. He then signed a deal with Iran–the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)–ostensibly designed to keep it from becoming a nuclear-weapon state but in fact riddled with loopholes, the largest of which were expiration dates for many of its provisions, after which Iran could legally proceed toward the bomb.

The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and bolstered American credibility in 2020 by killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the man ultimately responsible for deadly attacks on Americans; but that administration had previously undercut its credibility when, after an Iranian-sponsored attack on a Saudi oil facility at Abiqaiq in September 2019, it disavowed any obligation to respond. The Biden administration has emphasized its own unwillingness to enforce the American non-proliferation pledge concerning Iran by seeking, with what has seemed increasing desperation, to revive the JCPOA.

A three-part program to bolster deterrence is needed. The first part is rhetorical. It entails saying more often and more emphatically that Iran will not be permitted to get the bomb because the United States will do what is necessary–including using force–to stop it.

Words alone, however, will not suffice. To reinforce them, the armed forces of the United States should conduct military exercises that are clearly understood as dress rehearsals for attacks on Iranian nuclear-weapons facilities. Another, complementary way to increase the chances of deterring an Iranian nuclear breakout is to furnish Israel, the country most determined to stop it, with military equipment–bunker-busting bombs capable of destroying nuclear facilities buried deep underground, for example­–that are useful for this purpose.

Even dress rehearsals of this kind are unlikely to prove sufficiently persuasive to the mullahs. What are needed, in addition, are actual military operations against Iran in response to provocations such as attacks on American military personal in Iraq or on friends of the United States–Saudi Arabia being an obvious example. If the United States conducts measured attacks on Iranian targets in retaliation for lesser acts of aggression, that will reinforce its threat to conduct major attacks to stop the most aggressive and dangerous provocation of all, its nuclear weapons program.

This logic, as Robert Satloff, the Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has noted, follows that of the “broken windows” theory of policing articulated in 1982 by the political scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that by responding vigorously to misdemeanors and lesser crimes in a neighborhood, the police can forestall a slide into a wave of more serious offenses there. (Broken windows are signs of the kind of vandalism that it is important to curb.) The application of this principle has enjoyed some success in American cities. Similarly, in foreign policy, at least in this case, responding swiftly and forcefully to minor provocations is the best way to deter major ones.

To this prescription it may be objected that carrying it out would plunge the United States into a war with Iran. The objection is incorrect: the United States is already at war with Iran, by the Islamic Republic’s choice and through its aggressive policies. What American interests now require is for the United States to fight back, in a way that can prevent far more destructive conflicts in the near future.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of the new book The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, which was published in June.

Images: Ayatollah Ali Khameni (; Castle Romeo nuclear test (National Nuclear Security Administration)

Middle EastTechnologyU.S. Foreign Policy